SARASOTA COUNTY, Fla. (WWSB) -- Plans to build an industrial recycling facility near the celery fields has sparked protests in recent weeks. An investigation by ABC7 News reveals the applicant on the project has donated $17,400 to four of Sarasota's sitting county commissioners.
"There is no more available land. What we have is what we have to work with," said Robert Wright, Conservation Chair for Sarasota's Audubon Society. "There's nowhere else to go if we don't hang onto this."
Wright describes the celery fields off Palmer Blvd as an island of untouched land in the middle of urbanization. He worries it could now be at risk because of two separate projects under consideration by Sarasota county commissioners.
One proposal for a 60,000 square foot restaurant depot is now tabled. Earlier this week, the developer withdrew it's request.
The other is for an industrial recycling facility. The applicant for the project is developer James Gabbert of TST Ventures, LLC.
Wright says the project could remove the buffer between the celery fields and the buildings already in the area.
"All of that material being piled up so close there to the celery fields can really create problems in this area," said Wright.
It's a concern shared by nearby residents, who worry the proposal could disturb wildlife and depreciate home values.
"It's not just the people who live in this area, it's not just the 15 communities and the schools and the churches and stuff that are out here," said Carolyn Cockney, who lives a mile away from the celery fields. "All of Sarasota loves this park and all of Sarasota wants to see this park protected."
In recent weeks, residents have held protests at the site and filled commission meetings on the proposals.
"We came to this area to have the incredible way of life in Sarasota--to have all this natural beauty around us and to live the Sarasota dream that everybody wants to live," said Cockney. "If you're here early in the morning you'll see people practicing crossfit and doing yoga. People bring their dogs here to train and to ride their their bikes. There are tons of birders here and I think that's something our commissioners are overlooking."
A scroll through each commissioner's campaign contributions on the website of the supervisor of elections reveals an interesting connection. 87 donations all made from the address 1250 Hidden Harbor Way. Each contribution comes from a different business operated from the address including DeSoto Recycling and Disposal, Flying Fox Leasing, Gabbert Investment group and many more.
According to voter records the property is owned by James Gabbert, who also owns the company applying to build the industrial recycling plant by the clery fields.
In total, commissioners received 87 contributions linked to Gabbert, amounting to $17,400.
In a phone interview Gabbert said he's allowed to make contributions like anyone else.
"I've been a long term contributor to republican and good-business candidates," said Gabbert. "I put my name on it. It's lawful."
The one commissioner who did not receive any contributions from the address is Nancy Detert. She was the only commissioner to respond to our requests for comment.
"People always look to campaign contributions for some kind of correlation," wrote Detert in an email. "But I haven't seen that."
A representative for the homeowners association at the nearby Enclave neighborhood, Carols Correa, worries commissioners may factor those contributions into their decision making.
"From a standpoint of a citizen I feel that's an insult to our intelligence and our decency," said Correa. " There really hasn't been a whole lot of understanding as to what are the concerns of the citizens in this area. They just completely went around that."
Correa says he and his neighbors are not against development, but hopes their opinions and concerns will be factored in.
"We understand that development happens," said Correa. "But there's a certain way to do it with common sense. There's a certain way that we rely on the county to manage that and I don't think they're doing their job right now."
Wright of the Audubon Society shares the sentiment. He hopes the county will consider a more compatible use of the land.
"Let's have a meeting and sit down and talk about this and decide what the best use of these lands is for the people of Sarasota County."