SARASOTA -- Manasota 88, an environmental advocacy nonprofit, has sued Sarasota County for approving a rezoning petition for the University Station project, which impacts 4.5 acres of wetlands and 1.7 acres of pine flatwoods.
The University Station project at University Parkway and Honore Avenue will include a 40,000-square-foot Whole Foods grocery store, a 6,000-square-foot Wawa gas station and convenience store and almost 12,000 additional square feet of restaurant and retail space.
The lawsuit complaint, submitted on Feb. 25, alleges Rezoning Petition No. 15-14 does not align with Chapter 2 in Sarasota County's Comprehensive Plan. Chapter 2 "provides the basis to maintain and improve environmental quality in Sarasota County."
The rezoning petition, filed by privately held commercial real estate firm SJ Collins Enterprises, asked to rezone 8.24 acres in the southwest quadrant of the University Parkway and Honore Avenue to allow for construction of the University Station project.
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The Sarasota County Commission approved the petition at its Jan. 26 meeting. The Sarasota County Planning Commission recommended approval for the petition while, according to the complaint, "the staff of Sarasota County's Environmental Protection Division made a finding that the current subject rezoning petition 15-14 was inconsistent with elements of Chapter 2."
To mitigate the impacted wetlands, SJ Collins Enterprises will purchase 35 acres of land adjacent to the Manatee River. According to the petition, the mitigation land is in the same watershed area as the 4.5-acre preserve in question although it is outside of Sarasota County.
“After lengthy presentations to both the planning commission andcounty commission detailing the positive economic impact andextensive mitigation efforts to offset environmental impact, bothboards supported this project," said Candice McElyea, a spokesperson for SJ Collins. "These decisions are best decided byour planning and county commissions and not in the court system.Fighting this frivolous complaint through the court will be a wasteof taxpayer dollars and resources when both boards clearly andoverwhelmingly supported this project and with enormous communityand neighborhood support.”
Sarasota residents Andy Mele (listed as Andre Mele in the complaint) and Geraldine Swormstedt are also listed as plaintiffs, as well as Larry Grossman.
Mele said the lands offered for mitigation aren't at risk of being developed because they are surrounded by Manatee County's Rye Preserve.
Mele likens the 4.5-acre wetland at the corner of University Parkway and Honore Avenue to a renaissance cathedral.
"It's kind of a sacred place," Mele said. "You have to work to get in there because nature builds its own fences around precious places, but once you're in there it's a breathtaking place. The traffic sounds are completely muted." Mele, who has a master's degree in environmental science from Bard College, works with two local environmental groups not involved in the lawsuit. He said he has noticed a pattern in the Sarasota County Commission (land-use) decisions in recent years.
"This county commission is making it a policy to violate their own comprehensive plan," Mele said. "They're stepping outside the rule of law to legislate their own law from the dais at the county administrative building. This is the third example of this kind of thing and we decided to draw the line here."
Sarasota County officials are unable to comment on pending litigation, according to county spokesman Jason Bartolone.
According to Sarasota County documents, the county commissioners received more than a dozen
emails from Sarasota County residents supporting the project.
Neither Wawa nor Whole Foods representatives could be reached for comment by end of day Monday.
Janelle O'Dea, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow her on Twitter @jayohday.