What began as a mere presentation by County Staff yesterday ended as a huge win for people of all generations who will enjoy the Celery Fields for years to come.
In a unanimous vote, Commissioners moved to place a “Conservation Easement” on 3 of the 4 Quads parcels at the corner of Apex Road & Palmer Boulevard—land that had previously been shown as belonging to the recreational area (unofficially a park) known as the Celery Fields in County publications.
The “Conservation Easement” will be placed on the northeast, southeast, and—critically—the southwest parcel, which had previously been under contract for sale to local developer and politician, Jim Gabbert, who planned to build a dump. That plan was the subject of public outcry in 2017 which ultimately led to the plan being denied by Commissioners.
Various groups in and around Sarasota County have been highly vocal since Mr. Gabbert’s plan became publicly known in January, 2017. Until then, the fact that the “Quads” parcels had been placed on the County’s so-called “Surplus Lands” list—which effectively placed them for sale—had been little understood by members of the community.
In May, 2019, hundreds gathered for a public workshop held by County Planners to discuss a study of the Critical Area Plan—a kind-of master plan controlling future land use—affecting the Quads parcels.
Last Saturday, more than 100 people gathered to protest the potential future sale and industrialization of the properties at Apex & Palmer. Many of those individuals were unable to attend yesterday’s County Commission meeting, but key organizers were in attendance along with a number of other concerned citizens.
County Planner Steve Kirk’s presentation highlighted certain components of the study which had been conducted by County staffers at the request of the Commission, and ultimately recommended that the Critical Area Plan be amended to limit the types of uses and zones which would be allowed on the Quads parcels in the future.
Rather than act directly on all of the recommendations contained in the staff report, Commissioner Al Maio pushed for the placement of a Conservation Easement, which he argued would do more to preserve the affected parcels than a number of other more complex maneuvers.
A key factor in the discussion was a proposal presented jointly by the Sarasota Audubon Society and the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast. The two organizations offered to raise money and steward a project to upgrade the southeastern Quads parcel with features that would create public interest and attract visitors while also preserving the natural character of the property and—most importantly—minimally impact the birds and other wildlife that frequent the Celery Fields.
During the discussion of Mr. Maio’s motion, Commissioners expressed their legislative intent to preserve the open space and natural character of the area, and ultimately surprised many of those in attendance with a unanimous vote in favor of the motion, which also included tasking County Staff with finalizing certain other recommendations contained in their report.
It remains unclear how this decision will affect the future use of the northwest Quads parcel. Earlier this year, the County broke ground on a new fire station there to replace a temporary facility which has been located there for a number of years now.
It’s also unclear what, if any, potential legal loopholes may ultimately exist given that the Commission has not yet chosen to amend the Critical Area Plan to determine future acceptable uses of the Quads. It was Mr. Maio’s contention that the Conservation Easement packed more of a punch than other methods, but it will be interesting to see how this situation develops over time.
For now, though, the many people who have worked tirelessly to protect the Celery Fields have cause to celebrate!