Changes to county's 2050 plan meet resistance

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SARASOTA COUNTY, Fla. -- Those concerned about urban sprawl and tax hikes in Sarasota County are growing worried as requirements for builders east of Interstate 75 could soon be lessened.

Thursday night's planning commission meeting saw more than 100 people protesting potential changes to the county's “2050” plan.

The plan has been in place for a little more than a decade. It regulates how large tracts of land, mostly east of I-75, can be developed -- like who pays for the infrastructure.

Those rules appear to be changing.

"Everybody ought to be concerned. Everybody ought to be outraged." Dan Lobeck heads a group called Control Growth Now. He says proposed changes approved by the planning board will gut the county's 2050 plan. "The county commissioners don't want the public to know this, but they are about to open the entire eastern county to massive urban sprawl."

"We are not gutting 2050. We are not eliminating fiscal neutrality," says county commissioner Joe Barbetta.

Fiscal neutrality is basically making sure the impacts of growth pays for itself, which includes using impact fees and expanding the tax base for things like roads, water and sewer.

Barbetta says the current plan, which he wants changed, doesn't give enough credit to developers. "It's the workforce of the people living in the home; they spend money in the community -- the sales tax, the multiplier effect, the contributions to charity. None of those things were factored in fiscal neutrality."

Currently, developers must prove during phases they're meeting fiscal neutrality. Barbetta says it's cumbersome and stymying growth, saying only one project has gotten off the ground. "The banks and the financial institutions were telling us it was unworkable."

The current plan also says if a new large project is to begin, another can't come along for 15 years.

Lobeck says that too is now under fire. "Right now the 2050 plan says eastern growth should develop a little at a time over decades. This would repeal all of the constraints on timing."

Barbetta says it would leave more up to what the market can bear. "They have to show the need for it. No developer is going to build something that is going to sit there vacant. Economically they will have to show the demand."

Critics like the Council of Neighborhood Associations, say the changes will also reduce the amount of green space required in developments, resulting in a bigger impact on the environment.

Barbetta says 1/3 of the county is already in public hands, pointing out that the county has the second lowest tax rate in the state, and quality of life is great with $160 million in reserves. "We are not allowing rampant growth. We have only grown 1.6% per year for the past 10 years. That's 16%. Compared to the rest of the counties in the state that is extremely low."

Lobeck says there is a reason the county is in such good shape -- and it's called the 2050 plan the way it is now. "If our growth has been less than in some other counties, which has been good for our quality of life, that is because of the controls on growth that the county commission is about to repeal at the demand of the developers."