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Pat Neal’s “Village” Gets Zero Push-back

Written by on Saturday, April 20, 2024

Despite staff concerns, a board stacked with industry insiders OK’d his 6,500-home plans.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Apr. 19, 2024

Host: Pat Neal wants to build what he calls a “village” on the land until now known as the 3H Ranch in east Sarasota County, off Clark Road. If he gets his way, the politically influential developer would build a little more than what convention defines as a village: up to 6,500 homes on 2,700 acres of what is cattle grazing land today, plus hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail and offices. There was a meeting yesterday, and our news team has the details.

Johannes Werner: It would mean another big chunk of agriculture disappearing, and tens of thousands of newcomers moving to the area. But a Sarasota Country Planning Commission meeting yesterday used just one-third of their time, discussing Neal’s mega project at the tail-end of a five-hour evening session. Without substantial discussion, the volunteer board, made up almost entirely of real estate and construction industry professionals voted unanimously – with three members absent – to recommend that the county commission approve both Neal’s requested rezone of thousands of acres from rural to residential, as well as his proposed plan.

That, even though county planners had raised concerns.

Just a few years ago, that process would have looked very different, says local activist Tom Matrullo. Matrullo is a founding member of a local smart-development group called SCAN, which stands for Sarasota Citizen Action Network. Disclosure: He also serves as a board member of WSLR + Fogartyville.

Tom Matrullo: The project of Neal’s is super complex, super ambitious. It’s one of the largest proposed developments, and it’s all under his control. This would be what they used to call in development a regional impact or DRI. Back in the day when Florida actually had regulatory structures for planning developments, this would have gone through a very exacting review. At the regional level, the regional planning council, the planners, professional planners would have gone through this thing very carefully and found all the issues, all the concerns.

JW: Instead, the mega proposal is now going through a local process called “Development of Critical Concern”. Neal’s planners say it’s “extremely rigorous, detailed and comprehensive”.

Pat Neal’s development plans

The 3H land is subject to the 2050 Plan, which allows for development in the county’s rural east, if it uses mixed-use village clusters separated by greenways. Neal is not asking for an amendment to the county’s comprehensive plan, as the Lakewood Ranch developers did recently for their 5,000-acre Southeast expansion. One of his planners, Katie LaBarr, says they will follow the clusters-plus-greenways rules.

Katie LaBarr: We believe that 3H Ranch is a shining example of the implementation of 2050 regulations. This development will include all of the elements of a strong community.  There will be a diversity of housing options, outdoor recreation and open space, as well as opportunities for commerce. The application that is presented to you is consistent with the Comprehensive Plan and Unified Development Code, and we respectfully request your recommendation of approval to the Board of County Commissioners.

JW: Indeed, 3H Ranch is not your traditional cul-de-sac suburb, it includes retail and offices, space for an elementary school, and it all comes with bicycle and multi-use trails. One-third of the land will be open space, according to Neal’s planners, and include wildlife corridors.

That said, Neal wants the county to grant him a rezone, and he wants a series of exemptions. Most prominently, he wants the required minimum of 50% open space be reduced to one-third of his land. The maps presented yesterday do not show any large piece of contiguous natural land that could be interpreted as “greenways”, other than a piece at the southern limits of the land. Nor did the map show anything that could seemingly serve as a “wildlife corridor”.

Pat Neal

The Neal planners argue that their 33% provide equal ecological benefits, but the staffers disagree. County planners expressed concern that Neal’s plans have not met all requirements to reduce green space. The county planners also raised specific concerns about Neal’s request to reduce greenways and buffers.

During rebuttal, Pat Neal himself intervened, explaining building height, positing that enough roadways are planned to take care of an overcrowded Ibis Street, and he announced he will hold three meetings with concerned neighbors. He said he was prepared to “fight for his right” to build without a 500-foot buffer. And one of his lawyers argued that the development will actually “add prairie”.

Two commission members asked three questions, none of them referring to the staffers’ concerns. And then, it went to the vote. The commissioner who made the motion said he “loves” the concept and that “Mr. Neal will make this a better place”. He added that the grazing land was pretty much dead nature anyway. Without discussion, the commissioners voted 6-0.

We’ll give Tom Matrullo the last word:

TM: … by the county planners themselves, indicating that there were questions and unresolved issues with this project. And what the planning commission could have done was offer certain stipulations saying, “Before this can go further, this has to be resolved.” 

But they did none of that. They simply caved in. 

By the way, let me just say this for the record: a DRI plan of this complexity deserves a full blown meeting all to itself; The poor people, not only the people in the audience, but the people on the board waiting until 8:30 at night, a meeting that began at 5:00 PM. And it only started addressing the Pat Neal project at 8:30, when everybody was pretty much worn out already. This could be why the board basically caved in at the end. They said, okay, they approved it unanimously. Of course, three people weren’t there. So one third of that board wasn’t even present, but this is an amateur hour. These people are not … they’re volunteers. They are not planners. They’re appointed by the board, they’re industry insiders, and this whole charade really needs to be changed substantially so that it actually makes some sense.

JW: The next meeting of the Sarasota Citizen Action Committee (SCAN) will be this Wednesday 6 pm, at the Jacaranda Library in Venice.

Reporting for WSLR News, this has been Johannes Werner.



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