On May 6, 2008, Sarasota County electors will cast votes in a special election featuring two referenda. The first issue involves a charter amendment that would require unanimous county commission approval for future comprehensive plan amendments affecting lands outside the so-called “urban service boundary.” The second proposal, which is not connected to the first, would authorize the issuance of bonds to fund infrastructure surtax projects. The goal of this article is to explain the first of those referendum.
Florida law requires cities and counties to adopt, and periodically update, a comprehensive plan to manage their growth. These plans include maps which determine the future use of lands, e.g, residential, commercial, etc. In Sarasota County, the map also includes a future urban service area boundary (“USB”) which divides rural and urban lands. Inside the boundary are the areas, primarily west and south of I-75, where higher densities or intensities will be allowed, and where urban infrastructure, such as central utilities, already exist or are planned for the future. With a few exceptions, only rural and semi-rural densities and intensities are permitted outside the USB.
From the Manatee County line south, the USB generally follows the I-75 corridor, then bulges out to the east to encompass some neighborhoods between Palmer Boulevard and Clark Road, then turns back west and continues south along the interstate corridor until it reaches River Road, east of Venice. However, there are areas south of the interstate, between Englewood and North Port, which lie outside the USB.
Though restrictive, the USB has not proven to be an absolute bar to the approval of urban densities and intensities outside the USB. Several years ago, the county commission attacked the problem of urban sprawl by creating a special map “overlay” called Sarasota 2050, which permits development of mixed-use communities called “villages,” “settlements” and “hamlets” outside the USB in exchange for the setting aside of large “greenways,” coupled with a requirement that any development be “fiscally neutral”— meaning they must pay the full costs of all public facilities and services that are necessary to support them. Two years ago, Commissioners created a second overlay on a parcel lying just outside the USB within which urban densities will be allowed as long as 50% of the units constitute affordable housing.
Slow Versus Steady Growth
Recently, residents who favor slower growth formed a group called “Citizens for Sensible Growth” (CSG) which sponsored two successful charter amendments in 2007. One restricts the future annexation of rural lands by North Port and Venice; the other requires a super-majority vote of commissioners to amend the comprehensive plan to increase allowable land use density or intensity.
Flush from that success, CSG then gathered enough signatures to place a third referendum on the ballot in 2008, one that would require any comprehensive plan amendment increasing the existing USB to be approved by the voters. As this proposal seemed to be gaining traction, leaders in the business community formed their own organization called “Citizens for Quality of Life of Sarasota” (CQL) and began mobilizing to oppose the CSG referendum. As the two groups stared “eye ball to eye ball,” both of them blinked, so to speak, and resolved to seek common ground. Their meetings gave birth to a compromise charter proposal referred to as the “Consensus Amendment.” The groups agreed that the earlier CSG proposal would be put on hold so that both organizations could get behind the substitute Consensus Amendment which will appear on a May 6 ballot.
Features of Consensus Amendment
There are several features of the Consensus Amendment that may appeal to residents who favor slower growth. First, it requires a unanimous county commission vote for comprehensive plan amendments which (1) expand the existing USB; (2) create new overlays with higher density/intensity outside the USB; or (3) expand existing overlays outside the USB. Second, it requires fiscal neutrality for any of the foregoing amendments. Third, it requires a referendum election to eliminate the USB. The latter feature is significant since state law does not even require counties to have a USB. Consequently, county commissioners presently have the legal right to eliminate it at will—which, of course, would render moot any restriction on increasing it, as urged by CSG’s earlier charter proposal.
By the same token, there are features of the Consensus Amendment that may appeal to residents who favor steady growth–primarily those in the business community. First, it allows for adjustment to the USB without expensive and time-consuming referendum elections—which, of course, would be required if the initial CSG charter amendment were to get on the ballot and pass. Second, it clarifies that future amendments to the existing Sarasota 2050 will require neither a voter referendum nor a unanimous vote of the county commission. Lastly, it exempts two comprehensive plan amendments in the Englewood area that have been tentatively approved by the commission.
Those who have a philosophical objection to the new super-majority vote requirement passed by voters last November maybe even more troubled by the notion of a unanimous vote requirement. On the other hand, the effort required to garner a unanimous vote of commissioners to expand the USB seems far less onerous than having to launch a political campaign to secure voter approval–which is what the earlier CSG proposal called for.
As a byproduct of their discussions on the Consensus Amendment, representatives of CSG and CQL have signed a “Civic Covenant,” agreeing not to initiate or endorse any new charter amendments dealing with land use matters for a period of six years. That should give voters a chance to catch their breath.