Manatee County's blueprint for future growth holds promise

January 24, 2013 

Several years ago, Manatee County government embarked on a project to develop a vision for future growth -- a blueprint to guide land use and infrastructure planning well into the future. With last week's release of a 196-page report titled "2012-2035: How Will We Grow? A Conversation with the Community," county officials have presented commissioners with a challenge to adopt one of three alternatives. A decision is expected in June.

Until then, county planners will continue to seek input from citizens and stakeholder groups -- this time with a detailed report in hand. For the past two years, the county has been engaging civic, business and community organizations in the conversation.

Wisely, this has been a very deliberative and public process, directed by John Osborne, the county's top planning and zoning official. The dense report presents a solid foundation for its contentions. The second part of this strategic planning exercise addresses "How Will We Pay?"

The growth outline drills down into societal trends to support several conclusions about development and land-use policies as well as infrastructure planning -- and all their costs and impacts. The overarching goal is to avoid another boom and bust real estate market like the one that existed over the past decade, this by implementing a more economical and holistic growth policy.

One of the keys is maximizing the return on investment into infrastructure. Another is the impact on various county services, from libraries and parks to utilities and transportation.

But the report also anticipates future lifestyle changes as the idea of the traditional single-family home becomes less desirable as younger generations favor greener, walkable communities with easy access to transportation as an alternative to automobiles and suburban life.

The report pans the first of the three growth options, "Staying the Course" under the current comprehensive plan and land development code with minor adjustments. But this would continue low-rise, low-density development -- reinforcing urban sprawl with poor odds of a return on infrastructure investment now and in the future.

This, the report states, "is not a recipe for a community that wants to attract better employment opportunities, businesses, and a younger and more educated workforce." Furthermore, the report suggests the county alter land development regulations to embrace more sites for the opposite of the status quo -- greater building heights and density.

The report also warns that Manatee County is becoming more and more like Central Florida -- "overbuilt with suburban residential communities that require residents to drive everywhere to work, shop, study and play." That is exactly what younger generations are moving away from.

Higher densities would create opportunities for economic development in established sections of the county and revitalize existing neighborhoods, a progressive public policy that cities around the nation are adopting as a way to improve government efficiency and a community's quality of life. This fits into the second growth option, "Southwest County Focus" with urban in-fill and redevelopment mostly south of the Manatee River and west of Interstate 75.

Conversely, the highest densities -- think New York -- can be overly expensive to serve. The report cites medium density with a mix of uses near or within residential neighborhoods as having positive impacts on both the quality of life and infrastructure costs. Think Main Street in Lakewood Ranch and its mixed-use development with a comingling of retail, commercial, residential and recreational.

The third option, "Activity Centers," focuses growth in four specific zones: Parrish, Port Manatee, the U.S. 41 corridor south of Bradenton's city limits and Lakewood Ranch. Here again, regulatory barriers to allow higher densities and more intense development would need to be removed.

Like the second alternative, this would create new employment and commercial opportunities near residential neighborhoods in a more urban design, thus reducing reliance on the automobile. Projects within activity center boundaries would receive government incentives.

Overall, the report advocates medium densities and regulatory changes that allow for a greater variety of development possibilities. The third option "provides more consistency with market realities and some of the momentum observed during the boom years." Most important, this alternative spreads the wealth, so to speak, to four vital unincorporated parts of the county.

Current growth policies ignore evolving lifestyle trends away from the suburbs and sprawl. A focus on South County alone does not serve the broader population. But the four activity centers would allow urban villages to blossom around the county.

Let the community conversation continue. The full report can be accessed at www.mymanatee.org.

Coming Friday: A look at "How Will We Pay?"

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