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Is Sarasota Changing for Good?

Every conversation started with, “What do you do?,” to Sarasota, which felt placid and laid-back in comparison. My parents purchased their new house, built on spec, in 2006, at the height of that era’s real estate boom. Coming from a 1970s colonial at the crest of a Virginia cul-de-sac, our sparkling home, with its cerulean tiled pool and Mediterranean roof, beckoned with the promise of a new life. But it quickly became a symbol of something else—the excesses of Sarasota’s real estate sector, which fell apart during the Great Recession, leading to countless housing projects left on hold and never completed, forever in stasis. We had moved to one version of Sarasota only to quickly find ourselves in quite another.

Almost 20 years have passed since then, and here we are again, finding ourselves entering yet another iteration of Sarasota. My parents, who moved here for the dream of warm weather and a more relaxed lifestyle, now talk of leaving. At dinner parties, I hear guests discussing the latest outrages by Gov. Ron DeSantis or the Florida Legislature in hushed tones, not to mention grumbling about all the new developments creeping in and all of the open space we’re losing. Nearly every day, a new Facebook post emerges from a disgruntled resident abandoning Sarasota for greener pastures. Who among us hasn’t heard the common refrain, “I would leave if I could”?

Of course, the number of people who are unhappy with current-day Sarasota and moving out is dwarfed by the number of people who have fallen in love with the region and are moving in. The Covid-19 pandemic encouraged many people who had toyed with the idea of moving to Florida to take the plunge, while new remote work options have allowed people to choose where they want to live rather than be bound to a particular city. Many of those people are choosing Sarasota because of its sunshine and beaches, and some are drawn by the area’s increasingly conservative politics. The result has been a boom in new condo buildings downtown and new suburban developments in places that had previously been mostly untouched—changes that many longtime residents decry.

But is Sarasota really changing all that much? Haven’t growth and development always been controversial? For decades, people have complained about losing the Sarasota they love, the one they encountered the day they arrived, whether that was in the 1970s or last week. But in conversations with local activists, academics and politicians, a common refrain emerges: Sarasota really is changing this time, and our shifting identity has led to an uptick in tension and discord. Explanations range from local government’s increasingly unchecked mentality toward development, the region’s changing political demographics and a general air of social change, which is harder to pin down but felt by many.

Some longtime local observers, like Sarasota native Jon Thaxton, a former county commissioner who is now the senior vice president for community leadership at the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, say tensions are higher today than ever before. “I can safely say that the hostility in the political environment, both local, regional, state and national, is like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Thaxton says.

It may seem strange to begin the history of the new Sarasota with the coming of Lakewood Ranch, but that is perhaps the development that has had the largest single impact on the region’s growth in the last 25 years.

Lakewood Ranch sprouted nearly 30 years ago from 48 square miles of land that was Schroeder-Manatee Ranch east of I-75. The community’s first model homes and “village” opened in 1995. At the time, prices began in the high $80,000s, a number that is unthinkable now. By 2020, the planned community was home to almost 18,000 homes on more than 33,000 acres, and in January 2023, Lakewood Ranch was recognized as “the best-selling, master-planned multi-generational community” in the country, having sold 1,846 new homes in 2022, down from 2021’s record-breaking number of more than 2,500 new homes sold.

That nearly exponential growth proved to be an inspiration for others, who watched Lakewood Ranch developers turn what were once largely cow pastures into a thriving community that has attracted more than 60,000 residents. Suddenly, parts of Sarasota and Manatee counties once seen as unsuitable to development became fair game.

“Back then, University Parkway was a long, dusty shell road,” Robin Uihlein, a member of the family that owned Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, said of the Sarasota Polo Club in 2010, according to an article in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “We would hold events like the Ringling Cup and some big charity events, and it was pretty incredible to watch Mary Fran Carroll [the former chief executive officer of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch] get people to come out here. They’d scoff and say, ‘Come on, there’s nothing east of the interstate!’ And she’d say, ‘Oh, yes, there is. Trust me!’”

The emergence of Lakewood Ranch kicked Sarasota County officials into gear. If the community was a harbinger of things to come, then they had better have a plan of their own. Thus was born Sarasota 2050, a comprehensive long-range planning document adopted in 2002 and intended to guide the development of eastern Sarasota County for decades to come.

Sarasota County was created roughly 100 years ago—in July 1921, when it became its own entity, separate from Manatee County. The first official Sarasota County census in 1930 showed a population of 12,440 residents. By 1950, the number of residents had more than doubled, to almost 29,000. A post-World War II boom from 1951 to 1960 caused the population to more than double once again, this time to more than 75,000. That unparalleled growth only continued, with the county’s largest influx of new residents—more than 80,000—coming in the 1970s. The boom coincided with the development of the Tampa-to-Naples portion of I-75, which was finished in Sarasota County in the 1980s and opened up the eastern part of the region to more habitation.

In the early 2000s, Sarasota fully embraced the real estate boom. From 2000 to 2005, the county’s population grew by 12 percent and the median sales price for a single family home increased by a whopping 92 percent. This onset of demand prompted county officials to get creative: How could they ensure that there would be enough housing for people who wanted to move to Sarasota while also preserving the region’s environment and open land? Their answer was Sarasota 2050, which was intended to provide “the option for higher density developments in rural/semi-rural lands out east in exchange for preservation of open space and greenways,” according to the county’s Planning and Development Services department. Wrapped up in the plan was the definition of the urban service boundary, which separates dense development from agricultural land.

Thaxton was one of the county commissioners involved in the adoption of 2050. At the time, he says, it was “one of the most progressive” future land-use plans out there. In 2003, it even won a charter award from the Congress for the New Urbanism and was praised for its environmental stewardship and encouragement of compact development. The idea, Thaxton says, was to “draw a line in the sand”—a term that was used often, he notes—between urban development and development that would retain open space and the character of rural Florida.
On the day the document was signed, Thaxton says, commissioners opened a bottle of Champagne in the back room and toasted what they saw as a victory for smart growth.

“We believed it to be a successful community dialogue and compromise plan that would secure the preservation of eastern Sarasota County while allowing for some additional growth,” Thaxton says. Today, he regrets voting for it. “It was the worst decision I made as a county commissioner,” he says. Part of that has to do not with the 2050 plan itself, but with the fact that, as Thaxton says, “all of the commitments” in the original plan have either been “compromised or eviscerated.”

“We are fast approaching the point in Sarasota County where these planning decisions will have no impact on preserving natural landscapes,” Thaxton says, “because the [natural landscapes] will all either be gone or protected.”

State Sen. Joe Gruters, who has been part of the Florida Legislature since 2016 and served as chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota County for many years, attributes the destruction of the 2050 plan to one thing: term limits. In 1998, Sarasota County voters passed a referendum implementing a limit of two four-year terms for county commissioners, but that measure didn’t go into effect until 2012 because of a drawn-out legal battle. (Thaxton himself was forced to leave the county commission that year because of term limits.)

“When you have elected officials who are in office for long periods of time, they can win or lose without support from any particular group,” Gruters says. “Now people are campaigning for the county commission ahead of time. We had the 2050 plan, we had the urban service boundary line, and when you flush out all those old county commissioners, all the restrictions that existed are gone.”
Freed from the 2050 regulations, county commissioners can now do as they wish—or, as some might say, as developers wish. In the last 10 years, the county has greenlit developments that, critics say, threaten to change the character of the region. From future residences on what was once rural Hi Hat Ranch to continued building east of I-75 on Fruitville Road, the proposed communities are often gated and isolated, forcing residents to commute by car and increasing the amount of traffic on formerly quiet roads.

But in recent years, the county’s disregard for tempering any development has led to pushback. In 2020, Old Miakka activist Becky Ayech rallied a group to fight a proposed 400-home community on roughly 400 acres of land off of Fruitville Road. (She lost.) Siesta Key residents, meanwhile, are leading a push to incorporate the barrier island as its own municipality after a series of proposed hotel developments and a litany of decisions they say are at odds with their vision for the future of the island. (Activist Lourdes Ramirez recently successfully challenged the county’s approval of a 170-room, eight-story hotel on Siesta Key, noting that it would violate the county’s comprehensive plan.) Residents are starting to push back—but is it too little, too late?

Political experts like Frank Alcock, a professor of political science at New College of Florida who ran for state Senate in 2016, say that what once was impossible now no longer is.

“My take is that a lot of the guardrails have come off,” Alcock says. “Whether it’s the internal calculus of the representatives around the state or in our area, we’ve seen a shift on a number of issues. There’s not much resistance to rapid development.”

Thaxton is at work on a sweeping project: He aims to map all of the lands in Sarasota County that have been developed, are in the process of being developed or will be “imminently” developed, and look at what’s left. It’s a question, he says, to which nobody knows the answer.

“People say, ‘We’re not going to let Sarasota become Fort Lauderdale and pave over the entire county,’” he says. “Well, I’ve got news for you—we are there. We’re not there in the built environment, but we are there in the planned environment.”
What that means, according to Thaxton, is that enough development rights have already been given away in Sarasota to double the county’s existing population. He understands why some people have given up the fight to preserve Sarasota’s open land and quiet character, but, he says, to accept that nothing can be done to alter our current reality is to let the other side win.

“If you’re here and throwing in the towel, your complacency is now a tool of compliance for the other side,” Thaxton says. “And that’s game over.”

“The voters are no longer open to different parties,” Gruters says. “People may say they are, but in the end, they’re not.” Still, Gruters says, he has conversations with Democrats “all the time.” He argues that Sarasota is “a center-right community” and that his voting record reflects that. (Others likely disagree with that assessment.) “But,” he says, “I’m always happy to have conversations with my colleagues in the Senate and here in Sarasota.”

Much like Sarasota was when my parents first moved here, the city is at an inflection point, and none of us know exactly which way it will go. Will all the people moving here find the conservative, suburban paradise they envision? Or are they destined to join the ranks of those who come to Sarasota because they fell in love with the region, only to find the city changing around them? Sarasota’s identity has always been in flux, and it always will be. The danger is that, in trying to create something new, we destroy the very things—the green space, the peaceful lifestyle, the strong sense of community—that drew us here in the first place.

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