On January 30th, the Sarasota County Board held a hearing to basically loosen up it’s award-winning land use plan called 2050 (Chapter Nine of the Comp Plan). Now seen as an “unworkable” new urbanist plan, the County interviewed developers to get ideas on how to make it “workable.”
The 2050 plan was adopted in 2004 with six different sections on how to handle redevelopment, greenways and greenfield development. Any casual observer, though, would swear there was only one: what to do with development outside the Urban Service Boundary (USB).
On paper, the goal was (and still is) laudable. Currently, land use east of the line (roughly Interstate 75) is centered on agricultural and ranch uses, with allowances for ranchettes on 5-10 acre plots served by well and septic. By now, it’s become clear that this is mostly worst-case density: too small to farm but too big to mow. What matters more, however, are ranchette residents’ urban preferences that bubble up: fast emergency response times, easy access to the city and airport, and a low tolerance for things like the smells and “devil-may-care” porch and yard décor prevalent in the country.
2050 is not that different from how Arlington VA incentivizes preferred growth, though at the opposite end of the urban transect. Landowners and developers are free to develop under their zoning. But, if they want to pursue more lucrative land uses, then there are strings. For 2050, the plan requires New Urbanist plans featuring interconnected, walkable neighborhoods with a variety of housing types, parks and other gathering spots.
Alas, say the developers, this does not work. Since 2050’s passage, only two projects have been built, and Lakewood Ranch(which was the model) is only successful in the arena of drive-to development. Instead, developers would rather build something dependent on golf carts due to the “population age group in Sarasota.” The land plans would also let them classify lakes as mandated open space and rework developer payments (aka “fiscal neutrality”). The County Commission agreed to a 90-day window for broader public input.
Joe Barbetta, the most knowledgable Commissioner on urban design, noted “You can’t airlift an urban community and put it eight or nine miles out east” (as covered in the February 1 edition of the Sarasota News Herald). Bingo – but….
- The County blundered when it requested interviews with developersto point out flaws in 2050. Of course you need insight from developers, but the list includes mostly greenfield developers (or more to the point developers with mostly single use greenfield skills). Sarasota County's big problem is that there are so few locals with the skills needed to carry out the type of redevelopment that delivers less traffic, more economic development, and great urban design. Part of that lies in 2050’s biggest flaw: developers shot down the middle stage of planning saying that it was too much unpredictability and process. But it is this scale of planning that delivers.
- In 2011, the County Board dismantled the land use planfor the nearby Benderson project and eliminated 437 units of affordable housing "because the market had changed." Fast forward 18 months and now housing costs are escalating even as more retail and service economy jobs are added. One might argue the need for affordable housing never actually went away. This should be a big lesson: sometimes the short term "no" is for a bigger long term "yes."
- On December 12, the County actually made big changesto the landscape east of I-75, notably moving an interchange. Given sprawl’s reliance on interchanges and interstates, changing 2050 can’t just be tweaks to select policies.
- The whole conversation on fiscal neutrality is painful. Sprawl is rarely fiscally neutral (see this rant on impact fees here).
- Those funny kids who follow Glenn Beck’s quest to dismantle United Nations voluntary sustainability initiative called Agenda 21are also all over this (at least in Facebook comments). They want to get rid of 2050’s communistic, United Nations/Al Gore-sponsored central plan to cram people into apartments. But funny thing happened last week: Beck himself launched his new town, Independence, which will feature sustainable energy, local food, support for local business and attractive gathering places. Watch his video here – a must see.
Then there’s the design of Lakewood Ranch, which is also known about town as “Fakewood Ranch.” It is a sprawling landscape that was to have a Main Street as its centerpiece. Instead, the boutique shops, separated from almost everything, struggle while residents drive to the University Parkway/I-75 interchange strip malls for everyday needs. Lakewood Ranch is not failing because new urbanism is a failure; it’s failing because it is not new urbanism. It’s sprawl.
The battle has been set: keep 2050 as is, or loosen it. But that’s a false choice. The question is: If not 2050, then what will work to advance the timeless goals of the community: environmental protection, affordable housing, a diversified economy, limits on sprawl for water resources and habitat, and good transportation? Given the new interchange location, the need to develop the County’s assets at the landfill, the region’s fantastic agricultural sector and tight budgets for years to come, this is not a text amendment. It’s a whole new plan for east of I-75. It’s the sector plan that was missing from 2050 all along.
This saga is likely unwinding around the country as desperate localities are willing to forgo long term plans to get something - anything. It's how I got started at the tail end of the last recession in the mid-1990's when Home Depot wanted a store at an Arlington Metro station and neighbors galvanized around good urban planning. Imagine what a short term "yes" would have done.