SARASOTA -- After being in effect for more than 11 years, the Sarasota County Commission agreed Wednesday to look at changes to the Sarasota 2050 development plan for the eastern rural part of the county.
The commission gave the go-ahead for a series of public hearings to gather citizens' input.
Several developers and owners of large tracts of property east of Interstate 75 have met with county planners to express their concerns with various parts of the plan.
Allen Parsons, long-range planner for the county, told the commission that the meetings resulted in a list of changes the developers and landowners are seeking, including specific types of housing, restrictive open space and buffer rules, regulations on the location of commercial businesses, limitations on housing density, the difficulty to make changes, and the concept of fiscal neutrality.
The issues of concern for the developers can be distilled into three areas, Parsons said: marketability, predictability, and flexibility.
He said the planning department would hold a number of community meetings in several locations to hear what the public thinks of making changes to the 2050 plan.
The commission voted unanimously to have the department move ahead with the community meetings and to draw up proposed ordinance and plan changes for them to discuss.
After the meeting, Todd Pokrywa, vice president of planning of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, said the commissioners are doing the right thing in revisiting the plan that was adopted in 2001
"I think they recognized that the plan, as it is written, does not work," Pokrywa said.
He said there needed to be more flexibility because the process of planning housing developments is fluid.
Pokrywa offered as an example, "SMR was granted an approved rezone and Development of Regional Impact referred to as the Villages of Lakewood Ranch South," he wrote in an e-mail.
"While SMR has a plan that was approved in 2010, we cannot proceed because of the uncertainty associated with the conditions of project's ordinance that do not allow us to respond to changing market conditions and stipulations that require additional approvals by the Commission and monitoring of fiscal neutrality and transportation concurrency."
Pokrywa said these requirements, especially the fiscal neutrality issue, make it difficult to make long-range plans and hard to obtain investor financing for the project.
Fiscal neutrality, as defined in the 2050 plan document, requires new development "to pay the full costs of all public facilities and services that are required to support the development."
Manatee County-based Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, or SMR, are the developers of Lakewood Ranch.
Representatives of Neal Communities, another Manatee County-based company building the Grand Palm development in the Sarasota 2050 Resource Management Area, met with Sarasota County planners, but could not be reached for comment.
But not everyone at the meeting thought the commissioners should make changes to the plan.
Dan Lobeck, of the group Control Growth Now, told the commissioners that the plan needed time to work and although it was adopted in principle in 2001, the operating codes were not passed until 2004 and then the county had to work through a lawsuit.
So by the time the plan came online, the housing bubble had burst and there was very little development happening anywhere, Lobeck said.
"The plan was carefully crafted over several years," he said after the meeting, "with input from the developers and they were OK with it."
Lobeck said the developers want the changes to "increase their profits by not paying their own way, and also by eliminating the environmental protections, and by eliminating the density requirement."
Lourdes Ramirez, president of Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations, also warned the commissioners that if they removed the fiscal neutrality requirement, county residents will have to pay more taxes.
"Their arguments do not add up," Ramirez said. "If the developer can't make this business model work then they should look into doing something else."