SARASOTA -- The Sarasota County Commission approved moving forward Wednesday in developing a fiscal neutrality component as part of the Sarasota 2050 plan for future growth -- despite the majority of more than 50 speakers voicing opinions against the change.
After a marathon session, which included nearly five hours of public comment, the commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of adding the fiscal neutrality amendment with only Commissioner Nora Patterson voting against it.
Beginning in November, the county will work to develop what commission members called a transparent method for calculating fiscal neutrality at the beginning of the project.
"I view this as making it better," said vice chairwoman Christine Robinson. "It's not just letting go of the monitoring reports. It's about making it a better product in the front end so you know what you are getting to get. Otherwise you have to come back before the commission."
Patterson, whose term expires in November, she said she could not support the change without seeing the proposed methodology.
"It is with some reluctance that I vote against it," Patterson said.
Fiscal neutrality means any proposed new infrastructure will not raise Sarasota County taxes.
With the approval, phased monitoring requirements were eliminated. The whole project now must be deemed fiscally neutral before work begins.
"We are not eliminating fiscal neutrality," said Allen Parsons, Sarasota County long-range planning manager. "The requirement for fiscal neutrality remains. ... The intent is just to have a better focus upfront rather than an expectation that it would be caught later."
With the emphasis now on the whole development plan being fiscally neutral rather than on a per-phase basis, Parsons said all cost overruns could be caught at the beginning of the project rather than expect they would be caught in monitoring.
If a developer proposes to
significantly deviate from an established fiscal neutrality plan, it is the developer's responsibility to come to the commission for approval, Parsons said.
Parsons said "an amount of variability would be built into the fiscal neutrality plan" so the county could look at the possibility of a development not going according to the initial plan and whether it would still achieve fiscal neutrality.
The county has already engaged a consultant to help develop the plan, which will take three months to draft a report on methodology, Parsons said. The report will go before the Sarasota County Planning Commission and county commissioners in a public hearing within the next six months.
The commissioners also approved three other final recommendations for 2050 plan phase three issues, including affordable housing, reduction or elimination of the minimum of one village center and the elimination of the 15-year waiting period between subsequent village developments.
With the changes, Commissioner Joe Barbetta said he is more optimistic about the 2050 plan.
"With these changes, I do think it has a pretty good shot at working," he said.
During almost five hours of public comment, developers, taxpayers and activists debated the issue.
Sarasota County Commission candidate Ray Porter, a Democrat, said the plan's amendments were designed to protect the "few and the powerful."
"Most of these impacts will be detrimental," he said. "These types of developments never pay for themselves long term. New urbanism standards in the 2050 (plan) that were well thought out are being removed. We don't need another boom or bust in Sarasota County."
Developer Pat Neal of Neal Communities of Southwest Florida expressed concern about the changes in regard to his Grand Palm development project phase one, which the commissioners already approved under the old fiscal neutrality component of the plan.
"We are now at the risk of not being fiscally neutral especially if you change your methodology," Neal said.
On the other hand, Lucy Gallo, a managing principal of the Development Planning & Financing Group Inc. of Tampa, said modifying the fiscal neutrality requirements is "an ideal situation for integrating accountability into the process."
"The rules are going to be clearly defined for all parties in advance," Gallo said.
"I can guarantee you that I will be suggesting this approach to other municipalities that I work with across the country."
At the end of the meeting, Commissioner Carolyn Mason thanked the public for input throughout the process.
"We don't always agree with you but your input is important and it is appreciated," Mason said.
Claire Aronson, University Parkway/Sarasota reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024 or at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.