Host: It’s unprecedented – in a mini-summit of sorts, the grassroots activists who have been mobilizing against big hotels on Siesta Key, against the Lakewood Ranch expansion in Old Miakka, against construction encroaching on the Celery Fields, and against the Siesta Promenade project converged in one room in Sarasota. The idea: Take joint action. The November elections this year, and the fact that two Sarasota County commission seats are up for grabs came up repeatedly. Ramon Lopez listened and watched from the first row.
Ramon Lopez: Sarasota County community leaders joined forces Wednesday night at the Gulf Gate Library to form a united front in their separate battles with wealthy real estate developers. They figure there’s strength in numbers for those with a common goal.
The civic activists and environmentalists who attended the initial meeting are all opposed to overdevelopment. They
included the leadership battling mega hotels on Siesta Key, and large-scale housing developments at Old Miakka and the Celery Fields. About 50 people filled the small library meeting room, representing around 25 neighborhoods and civil organizations.
The event was set up to bring together civil leaders to discuss concerns over housing and hotel developments in Sarasota County. They said there was a lot in common to share at the first Strategic Neighborhood Connections meeting.
Tom Matrullo, a former Herald-Tribune reporter who covered large-scale real estate developments in the area, laid out why the meeting was called.
Tom Matrullo: If you’ve been watching growth in Sarasota the past 12 years or so, you’re seeing the explosion of large-scale projects blessed by our elected officials. With this expansive growth, some of our county’s most distinctive places are now facing threats from powerful developers. And this gets us to the how and why of this meeting. On the barrier island of Siesta Key, Benderson Corporation wishes to build mega hotels. At the Celery Fields, D. R. Horton is seeking to build 171 homes right next to the bird nesting area, and in the northeast of the county, the people of Old Miakka, a rural community in continuous existence since before Sarasota was a county, are looking at Lakewood Ranch, which is planning to pave a large part of their landscape out of existence. Usually, each of our neighborhoods tends to worry about its issues in isolation, as it were the only one in the world that had a problem. The reality is, we all have the same problem. Our public good has become subservient to private interests. The prospect of losing any one of these three iconic areas is a countywide gut punch. The prospect of losing all three connected areas, the place we live in is unrecognizable. If each threatened community stands alone in dealing with Sarasota as developer-captured board, its odds are not strong. Might our communities’ network moderate or even hold this juggernaut? The possibility of a strategic network, sharing information and gumption, is what brought us here tonight.
Disclosure: Matrullo is also a board member of WSLR.
RL: Lourdes Ramirez, Robert Wright, Jean Dubi and Susan Schoettle are leading the fight against over development on Siesta Key, the Celery Fields and Old Miakka, respectively. They provided updates on where their specific legal fights currently stand. Dubi, president of the Sarasota Audubon Society, said her pleas regarding Celery Fields have fallen on deaf ears.
Jean Dubi: So we’re trying to bombard the county commission with our voice, with not only our voice but the community voice, our friends’ voice and so forth. We’ve also met with the developer, D.R. Horton, and with Kimberly Hall, the engineers, we had a meeting with them and told them why we didn’t want this to happen. And of course, they started they’re trying to sweeten the deal. It was an amicable meeting. But at the end of the meeting, we said we still don’t want 171 homes. So that’s opposition.
RL: Sarah Kaufman, who is leading the fight against Benderson Development’s 28-acre Siesta Promenade mixed-use project at the corner of US 41 and Stickney Point Road, offered some pointers on how to fight city hall.
Sarah Kaufman: You ask to see every filing, you ask to see every refiling. The last time Benderson went before the county commission, where they had refiled, there were four errors in the filing. I kept asking for them — it was a new planner, and it’s not as hard as it sounds — he was a new planner, and I kept finding errors. So I was going over every one with a fine-tooth comb. ‘What do you mean? There they got the wrong setback, they left off the buffer, they can’t have 100 feet here, they can only have 50 feet here’, and I’m fighting the errors. … They lie, they lie, they lie [laughter]. I would swear on a stack of bibles that they lie. I have been told lies on the phone, to my face. Do not believe your developer, especially if it’s Benderson.
RL: Robert Wright, the Conservation Chair for the Audubon Society, offered his thoughts on the event.
Robert Wright: Everybody here seems to have a handle on why the hell we’re here. I worked for Sarasota County for about 15 years, as the environmental specialist in charge of the neighborhood environmental stewardship program. I retired in 2016. My job at that time was to work with existing communities on how to make them more environmentally friendly, and all the things that we’re talking about. But over the years, things have changed. Staff, as you’ve heard so far —I can guarantee you I worked with a lot of those folks who are still here — they are on your side. They will do their best. But you got to remember: They’re caught between a rock and a hard place. If they openly say things that could stop a project, very likely they’re going to be looking for a new job. So you have to remember, don’t press them. Press the county commission, because that’s where the changes need to be made.
RL: The next Neighborhood Connections meeting is scheduled for Feb. 21. The invited speaker is Jon Thaxton, Gulf Coast
Foundation’s Senior Vice President of Community Leadership and a former Sarasota County Commissioner.
Some of the same people will be on a panel by the Sarasota League of Women Voters next Wednesday, Jan. 24, 6 pm, also at the Gulf Gate Library.
This is Ramon Lopez for WSLR News.
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