Sarasota County’s Bait and Switch

Citizens of Sarasota County in March 1999 approved and via taxes funds the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program (ESLPP) and Neighborhood Parkland Acquisition Program, which are designed to acquire and protect natural lands and park lands. Citizens are now questioning county staff efforts to transfer development rights (TDRs) from these publicly owned lands to selected developers. You may read a Cornell University history of Transfer Development Rights programs by going here.

Cathy Antunes, President of Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government, in an email states, “A TDR means Transfer of Development Right. One TDR equals the right to build one dwelling. The County has purchased land for preservation, and some of the County lands set aside for preservation could have been used to build housing. Those preserved lands each have a TDR value.”

Private landownership was and remains one of the first measures of citizenship in the United States. The passion to protect the right of property owners to reap economic gain from their land still burns strongly today. However, is the selling of public land TDRs a government bait and switch?

Accoring to Ms. Antunes, “County staff is advocating that the development rights, or TDRs, for preserved County land be sold to developers so they can increase the dwelling density of their projects. For instance, a developer could pay the County for 1000 TDRs and then build 1000 extra dwellings in the same space where before only 350 dwellings would be allowed. The purchase of 1000 TDRs transfers the right to build 1000 dwellings from County owned preserved land to a different site belonging to the new owner of the TDRs. At this point in time the County does not have an accurate inventory of publicly owned TDRs, nor do they have a reliable method of valuing what a TDR is worth.”

“Regarding County TDR value, so far only one TDR appraisal exists, created by an appraiser that has completed at least one problematic appraisal for Sarasota in the past. That was the Payne Park (3 lot) appraisal done in 2008, which inflated the purchase price of land bought by the City of Sarasota by 2 million dollars. The appraiser valued 3 separate lots along 301 (adjacent to Payne Park) as if they were already one assembled parcel, instead of individually. The result was a 2 million dollar value inflation and gouging of Sarasota City taxpayers. Ouch! Should the County be relying on that same appraiser to be telling them what a TDR is worth? The methodology used to value a County TDR warrants careful scrutiny. At least two more appraisals should be sought,” states Ms. Antunes.

During a radio interview Kathy Bolam characterize the sale of public land TDRs as “Sarasota County’s form of Cap and Trade”. The county is selling something that belongs to the public for a price that it determines outside of the real-estate open market system. Beth Colvin, in an email exchange with Ms. Antunes, states, “Land taken by the govt stops bringing in property taxes and then the rest of us must subsidize the taxes because gov’t has no money other than ours.  If the land can be developed by the government it surely can be developed by private enterprise.”

Ms. Antunes raises a question dealing with the ethical behavior of Mr. Roland Piccone, member of the County Planning Commission.

Ms. Antunes notes, “Now for the ethical question. A development company – Lindvest – would like to purchase 1000 TDRs from the County so that a 350 dwelling project can become a 1350 dwelling project.  A managing partner of Lindvest is also a sitting Sarasota County Planning Commissioner.  That Planning Commissioner is lobbying the County Commission to allow the sale of 1000 TDRs to Lindvest, so they can increase a 350 unit project to a 1350 unit project.  The Planning Commissioner, Mr. Roland Piccone, is “overseeing the planning and development of the project” (quote from the Herald Tribune).  An obvious ethical question arises:  Does the County Ethics Policy allow a sitting planning commissioner to lobby the County Commission on behalf of his employer or company that he/she has an interest in?   Still waiting for clarification from the County regarding the ethics question.”