Turning Florida’s rural lands into urban sprawl is a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare

Sarasota County officials are willing to break their carefully crafted comp plan for a big-bucks developer

September 8, 2022 7:00 am

Claudia Marvin demonstrates her opposition to a plan to develop the rural area of Old Miakka in Sarasota County. Credit: Becky Ayech

Florida is home to a lot of imperiled species that are badly in need of protection. That includes the panther, of course, and the Key deer, the manatee, the gopher tortoise, and a whole lot more.

To this very long list I’d add one more: our remaining rural residents.

These are the folks who live far from Florida’s madding crowd, grow at least some of their own food, keep some livestock, and know all their neighbors even though they may not live close enough to wave. Their roads are canopy roads, their backyards big pastures, their future a question mark.

Lately, it seems Florida’s big-money developers, aided by politicians from the governor on down, have put a target on every rural spot that’s left on the map of Florida. From the Panhandle to the Keys, they want to change everything that’s now slow-paced and softly green to match the cookie-cutter concrete sprawl found everywhere else.

It’s a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare, just like Romeo and Juliet.

Much of the rush to de-ruralize Florida involves building new roads. Rural residents had to fight back when the governor and Legislature approved that trio of awful toll roads known as M-CORES.

They’ve had to fight again when the one survivor of the M-CORES repeal, the Northern Turnpike Extension, took aim at them again. (If all the world’s a stage, then this fight’s on an intermission.)

There was an earlier battle over the so-called Coastal Connector that threatened to steamroll through Marion County’s horse farms. The equestrians there looked at the plans to pave their pastures and said “Whoa!” Remarkably, it worked.

Becky Ayech of Old Miakka. Source: Ayech

Lean in close and I’ll tell you a secret (looks around, then whispers): A lot of the folks who live in areas notable for their peace and quiet like them for that very reason.

They don’t WANT to be turned into a clone of Tampa or Fort Lauderdale. And they’re ready to kick up quite a tempest to keep it that way.

I spent some time recently chatting with one of the strongest advocates for preserving rural Florida: Becky Ayech of the historic Old Miakka community in Sarasota County.

She and her husband have lived there for 47 years. That makes them newcomers to some of her neighbors whose families have called it home for four generations. But nobody knows as much about the history — and the threats — facing the place.

“Old Miakka’s been around for 172 years,” she told me. “We were a city until the late 1800s. There were two stores and a post office. Then they decided they didn’t want to be citified.”

I got in touch with Ayech because I read this paragraph in a recent story in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune: “More than 4,000 acres of rural land in northeastern Sarasota County will likely become a new Lakewood Ranch community of homes, despite concerns from nearby residents.”

Sounds like the city is again out to convert the country. When I asked Ayech if she and her neighbors felt like they had a target on their backs, she snorted and said, “Hell yes.”

Making matters worse, those in power often treat them as if they’re Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel, incapable of understanding what a big favor the government is doing them.

When Old Miakka residents listened in on a recent Zoom planning commission meeting about this project — a meeting that lasted all of 15 minutes — one of the planning commissioners said they should welcome the change. It would boost their property values! They could sell out, make a lot of money, and move elsewhere!

“I’ve lived here for more than 45 years,” Ayech retorted. “Why should I leave?”

Pay attention to this sad tale. It may be told by an idiot, but it signifies a lot more than nothing.

Signs in the country

It’s been a while since I’ve been to Old Miakka, so I drove out there from downtown Sarasota.

I soon left behind the city’s noisy traffic, blocky storage warehouses, grubby pawn shops, and poky drive-thru lines. I traveled 16 miles inland on Fruitville Road. After I passed under car-clogged Interstate 75, I started seeing signs of country living still lingering between the evidence of new construction.

Keep the Country Country sign at Old Miakka School. Credit: Craig Pittman

Nearing Old Miakka, the first yellow sign I saw was next to one that said, “Fresh Eggs for Sale.” The yellow sign said, “Keep the Country … Country!”

The next yellow sign, much larger but with the same message, hung at the intersection with a road named Cowpen. The largest yellow sign I saw, same message, was on the fence outside the Old Miakka School, built in 1914.

Call it a hunch, but I suspect that people here feel strongly about keeping Old Miakka a country place. Another sign they favor spells it out: “This Place Matters.”

But when a major Manatee County developer asked the Sarasota County Commission for a big favor — one that required making a big change in its long-term comprehensive plan — you could tell someone else mattered a lot more.

The Merchant of Manatee

There’s a Florida tradition of developers naming their suburbs after what the bulldozers knocked down or chased away. We’ve got Cypress Woods, Panther Trace, and the Wilderness Country Club. One of my favorite examples is Pasco County’s The Preserve.

Lakewood Ranch is part of that tradition. It was once an actual cattle ranch. The 48-square mile Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, according to Sarasota magazine, has been owned since 1922 by the Uihleins, a notoriously conservative Midwestern family who made their millions selling Schlitz.

The new “Lakewood Ranch” debuted its first “village,” Summerfield, amid those cattle pastures in 1995. It’s been pushing the cows out ever since. Now it’s “a thriving metropolis of almost 18,000 homes and nearly 43,000 residents,” the magazine reported.

As of 2021, Lakewood Ranch was the No. 1 selling master-planned community in the nation.

Homes in Lakewood Ranch are not exactly the affordable housing that Florida needs right now. One recent purchaser of a home that sold for $1.9 million was an elderly and reclusive Brit named Sir Mick Jagger and his latest girlfriend, the ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick.

The Lakewood Ranch CEO — the Merchant of Manatee — is a Michigander named Rex Jensen, who has been known talk on the phone with powerful politicians. Just last year, for instance, Gov. Ron DeSantis called Jensen up to ask him for help setting up a COVID-19 vaccination site in Lakewood Ranch for all those wealthy Repub — er, I mean, totally deserving retirees.

Gov. Ron DeSantis opens a COVID vaccine “pod” on Feb. 17, 2021, in Manatee County. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

The governor himself popped up at the pop-up clinic, something that I’m sure had absolutely nothing to do with him running for reelection. Jensen, by the way, was on a commissioner-created VIP list of people to get a Fauci Ouchie at the clinic.

One Manatee County commissioner asked why Lakewood Ranch residents got preferential treatment ahead of elderly people in poorer parts of the county. The governor — that even-tempered politico — erupted with sound and fury. He threatened to pull the vaccine doses from Manatee and send them someplace where everyone would be more grateful to him.

But I digress.

My point is that Mr. Jensen is a guy who has the ear of those in power. You can judge, then, the importance of the favor he wanted by the fact that he showed up in person to talk to the Sarasota County Commission about it last week.

Not to be

Sarasota County has done a better job than some Florida counties of planning for its future growth. Its current plan, created in 2002 by a lengthy process of community collaboration and negotiation, is supposed to last until 2050.

Jensen was there to tell the commissioners that the 2050 plan needed to be changed juuust a tad early. The change couldn’t wait, either. Although Shakespeare wrote, “How poor are they that have not patience,” Jensen wanted this change made pronto to accommodate his company’s plans to move southward.

The comp plan established a boundary between rural acreage and development. Jensen wanted that boundary moved. And he wanted something more.

The 2050 plan allows for pockets of development in rural areas, which it calls “hamlets” — referring to small settlements, not the Danish prince. Existing zoning for the company’s 4,120 acres bordering Fruitville would allow only 717 dwelling units to be built on that property. If it were rezoned as a Hamlet — sorry, a hamlet — it would allow a maximum of 1,600 dwelling units.

The other Hamlet would score it as “not to be.” Lakewood Ranch can’t make enough money that way.

Jensen wanted a new designation: a “village transition zone” in which “Lakewood Ranch South” would be built over the next 10 years and plant 5,000 homes in what is now a pasture.

In that “village transition zone,” the acreage set aside as “undeveloped” would include retention ponds, cell towers, and other things you don’t normally find in areas that aren’t developed.

The current comp plan protects rural areas, Jensen told commissioners, “but our proposal protects it better, I believe.” I looked closely, but he did not appear to be winking as he said it.

Much ado about nothing

The Old Miakka folks didn’t just show up at the commission meeting and say, “Don’t do this to us!” for five hours. Well, actually, they did jam into the commission chambers and spend a lot of time objecting. But that’s not ALL they did.

Ayech’s Keep the Country organization — the one that distributed those yellow signs — hired a professional planner named Charles Gauthier to review the Lakewood Ranch South plan. When he was with the state’s Department of Community Affairs, Gauthier helped Sarasota County prepare its 2050 plan. He knew it better than Hamlet knew poor Yorick.

Gauthier pointed out that the change Jensen was talking about would lead to “a three-fold jump in population and the open space would be cut by half.” Making this change would be unfair to other developers who’d played by the county’s rules, he said. And it didn’t come from a months-long process of working with people from throughout the county.

“Textbook urban sprawl.” U.S. 41 in Sarasota on June 20, 2011. Credit: Ebyabe via Wikimedia Commons

But the biggest criticism he offered was that “this is textbook urban sprawl.”

After hearing from the opponents, the commissioners explained at length why their objections were much ado about nothing.

One commissioner, Ron Cutsinger, claimed that the Lakewood Ranch South plan for packing in thousands more people was more protective of the environment than the current growth plan. Another commissioner, Alan Maio, talked about all the other land the county had preserved from development before saying he supported this one.

A third, Christian Ziegler, cited those million-dollar Lakewood Ranch homes as the solution to the affordable housing crisis — and with a straight face, too!

The fourth commissioner, ex-state senator Nancy Dietert, gave a rambling speech about mobile homes, the cattle industry, and people who like living on boats. In the end, she called Lakewood Ranch South “a best-case scenario,” because “it blends in with the surrounding community, which frankly is Lakewood Ranch North.”

The fifth commissioner, the one who’s supposed to represent the Old Miakka area, Michael Moran, didn’t show up for the meeting. He didn’t tell his constituents why he couldn’t be there. And he didn’t respond to my attempts to ask him where he was hiding. My guess is he’s still locked in the bathroom cupboard, afraid he’ll somehow displease Jensen.

Not a single one of the commissioners mentioned Gauthier’s report. They paid him as much attention as Julius Caesar paid the soothsayer warning him about the Ides of March.

To Birnam Wood

I couldn’t tell if Jensen did a victory jig after the commission meeting, but he sure could have. Or maybe he’s waiting until the final curtain falls.

The 4-0 vote for his proposed change sends it to the state Department of Tearing Up the Landscape — er, excuse me, Department of Economic Opportunity. The comp plan change has to get the state’s blessing. Gee, I wonder if Jensen will make any phone calls about that.

Anyway, should the DEO say Y-E-S, then the matter comes back to the county commissioners for a final vote in October.

I have no authority over Sarasota County and its players. But if I did, before October, I’d arrange to have Dunsinane come to Birnam Wood — in other words, a swap where the powers that be see the place that maybe won’t be.

I’d require all those commissioners to spend a week living in Old Miakka, to slow down and relish the rustic setting.

Then maybe they would be more appreciative of what’s going to be lost when the bulldozers condemn it to a dusty death. Maybe they’d even change their minds.

As Shakespeare would say, ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.