At Thursday’s land use meeting, commissioners voted 6-1 to submit amendment plan and text changes to the state that would mark the first step in converting 5,000 acres of Parrish farmland into a future town the size of Palmetto. The lack of caution and concern about such a severe departure from long-held growth goals and practices is worrying on several levels.
The Gamble Creek Village project would convert the land currently designated for a thousand housing units into 7,200 housing units – about three kilometers east of the boundary of the future development area. As a master-planned municipality, the developers would most likely use CDDs to pay for internal roads and infrastructure, including a non-county-owned or operated sewage treatment plant.
A few years ago I was introduced to the project by the applicants and their attorney, Mark Barneby. Admittedly, I found it very appealing on the surface, in terms of design and concept. The development is bundled, it aims to be a walkable, self-contained community with a lot of preserved green space, which is intended to act as an external buffer for the surrounding rural communities. But as always, the devil is in the details.
When I got home and started rummaging through the presentation materials, I realized they needed a permit to go essentially more than seven times the density the land was zoned for, which is problematic before They think it’s east of the FDAB. Barneby’s main counter that he relied on during his presentation on Thursday is that with the one house per 5 acre zone east of the FDAB, there is not only the potential for “expansion,” but 1,000 septic tanks and all the possible problems that come with them.
However, claiming that the project will essentially prevent 1,000 septic tanks is not an intellectually honest argument as there is no market evidence of a demand for anywhere near 1,000 such homes in this area or even west of it. No developer is likely to show interest in developing such a project, and the notion that more than a handful of individuals might think about it each year seems equally unlikely.
Alternatively, nothing stands in the way of the county approving a zoning plan that consolidates the thousand homes the land is entitled to in a sprawling settlement that essentially envisages the same type of project on a smaller scale.
There are other factors to consider as well. Barneby said the motion was purposely written in such a specific language that this area – the largest contiguous lot of vacant land in Manatee County – is the only one that can qualify for the changes unless someone is in Able to somehow put a similarly large piece together and move it somewhere else.
However, this is actually part of the problem as there is a serious ethical question as to whether the district commission should essentially bless an individual landowner with a decision that increases the value of their land holdings by at least size.
That way the land would be worth many times its current value and it is pretty clear that the landowners have no intention of developing the land themselves. It’ll be flipped quickly and developers like Neal Communities, Centex, Lennar, and others will move in.
The next big red flag is private utilities. Non-public sewage treatment plants, especially in Florida, don’t have a great track record, and at some point it’s all but certain that the county will get stuck with its operations and maintenance. It’s just hard to get them right because they inherently need to scale with growth. You can’t really ask that the system that will ultimately be needed be built in advance as it would fail if there weren’t enough inputs to support it.
It is also a question of what happens to the land between the FDAB and the project, which would now have a much better argument in terms of compatibility, should the developers who own a lot of it tend to require changes to what you also have can be sure will happen.
In a way, having a vote for advancing this project is almost the same as having a vote for postponing the FDAB, as that is likely to happen. In fact, this seems like the more practical way of addressing this development, essentially by asking the board of directors, as the Lakewood Ranch developers recently did, to shift the line of development eastward. If that is a tougher argument what it would be, the Commissioners should really give serious thought to essentially getting this done through these amendments.
The only problem was that most of them seemed to think about little more than how neat the concept is. Commissioner Misty Servia (R-Dist 4) was the only exception. I often disagree with Serbia when it comes to land development issues. As a former county and private sector planner, her ethos of sustainable growth and reconciliation is very different from mine, which I often find frustrating because not only is she by far the best-educated board member in matters of land development, but in my opinion she is too the most intelligent and consistently sensible commissioner on the board.
So if Servia is the only Commissioner asking difficult questions about a possible development, I tend to listen carefully, because if someone like Servia cannot make friends with a project, there are probably very good reasons. On Thursday, not only did she address all of the concerns I had before, but she also added a few I hadn’t thought of, including how difficult it was for similar developments to actually attract the kind of mixed-use commercial and Retail development promised, especially in the early stages when building from scratch for population size.
Servia asked if there had been any market research and the answer was that such things were being considered after a Consent was given as they cost money and are controversial if the applicant cannot get the changes. But if you tell the county essentially all of that have have been done, are more or less wrong, that growth from west to east is not the right reason for our future and that the community will be successful and its long-term management is effective enough to keep private utilities viable, it seems more to be require as was offered, especially when district planners – who tend to be everything but Anti-growth – recommended that the board reject the request. In their report, the county staff point out that this is inconsistent with state laws, particularly FS 163.3162, which deals with agricultural land and practices. Florida laws are highly respected for agricultural land and, in combating urban sprawl, mandate that such rural developments at significant distances from existing urban areas should not encourage, permit, or identify significant amounts of urban development, excluding undeveloped (non-ag -zoned) land that is available and suitable for development. “The planning term for this is leapfrog development, which, as Servia pointed out Thursday, is exactly what it appears to be.
Servia said she would see at least a bond or significant line of credit to show that the applicant was “heavily involved” with utilities, an aspect none of the other commissioners questioned, given the fact that, Again, there is a near certainty that the property will be mirrored when and when final approvals for the changes are received.
Some commissioners went back to the old ones, We are currently voting on submitting it to the state for comments, it has yet to come back to us for the final vote Line, but as Servia rightly pointed out, these things don’t tend to move backwards once they get the first big green light. Nor is it that the state, gutted like a fish on development oversight, has offered much insight into such comments in the recent past. This will be a decision by Manatee County, and so far it looks to me like the board of directors is ready to go into a much more thoughtful and curious reflection in a flash.
Dennis “Mitch” Maley is the Bradenton Times editor and columnist and host of our weekly podcast. With over two decades of journalism experience, he has been reporting on the Manatee County government since 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University and later served as a captain in the US Army. click here for his biography. His 4th novel, Burn Black Wall Street Burn, was recently published and is available here.