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The CNC produces journalism on a variety of topics in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties for about a dozen media partners including newspapers, radio and television stations and magazines.

A developer’s plans near Celery Fields in Sarasota confound environmentalists

grassy area with water in the background
Jim DeLa
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Community News Collaborative
The Celery Fields, located east of I-75 and south of Fruitville Road in Sarasota County, is internationally known as a bird sanctuary and is a haven for birdwatchers and others who enjoy the outdoors.

Planning work is underway for 170 homes adjacent to the wetland restoration project.

Environmentalists in Sarasota County are gearing up for a fight to stop plans for a high-density housing development next to the ecologically sensitive Celery Fields.

A map showing the Celery Fields and the recently acquired Quad Parcels
Sarasota County
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Courtesy
A map showing the Celery Fields and the recently acquired Quad Parcels. The Smith Farm is the plot of land in the southeast corner. Courtesy of Sarasota County.

The development would be on 26 acres known as the Smith Farm, which sits along Raymond Road, south of Palmer Boulevard and bordering the eastern edge of the internationally recognized bird sanctuary.

Right now, a single home sits on the Smith property, along with some sheds and a few dozen cattle. But negotiations are underway to rezone the land to facilitate its sale to Arlington, Texas-based D.R. Horton, one of the largest homebuilders in the country.

Horton has unveiled a plan to build up to 170 single-family homes on the property, a project "which we are not very happy with," Sarasota Audubon Society President Jeanne Dubi said.

The Sarasota Audubon Society has helped manage the Celery Fields, a 400-acre site owned by the county. In addition to the birding areas, there are walking and biking trails, and lakes for fishing and kayaking.

The county and the local Audubon Society have restored more than 100 acres of the Celery Fields into a wetland area. The county also built two boardwalks that extend over lakes to provide vantage points for wildlife watching.

A kayaker in the water, surrounded by a grassy area
Jim DeLa
/
Community News Collaborative
A kayaker explores the Celery Fields, located east of I-75 and south of Fruitville Road in Sarasota County. The 44-acre area is internationally known as a bird sanctuary and is a haven for birdwatchers and others who enjoy the outdoors.

The Audubon recently celebrated the county's recent acquisition of 27 additional acres called the Quad Parcels on the Celery Field's southwestern corner to provide a buffer against development. The Audubon, with financial help from the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, is planning to create additional natural habitat, along with a pavilion and playground there.

But the news of Horton's housing development has environmentalists sounding the alarm.

"The birding, the whole nesting area would be disturbed," said Tom Matrullo, a former journalist and member of Citizens for Sarasota County. "What's it going to do to the light? What's it going to do to the noise? What's it going to do to the traffic? I mean, all the impacts are still up in the air. An open question."

Matrullo says the Audubon Society had hoped the farm's owner would have considered selling the property to the county. "It's complimentary to the Celery Fields. It's a piece of green real estate that could beautifully be incorporated into what we already have here," he said.

He says his group was blindsided when they found out about the plans with Horton, saying the developer wants to "intensely overbuild — I'll just say that — because we're talking 171 homes on 25-26 acres."

Woman walking a dog in a grassy area, and a woman walking
Jim DeLa
/
Community News Collaborative
Walkers and joggers can use the many trails along the Celery Fields, located east of I-75 and south of Fruitville Road in Sarasota County. The 44-acre area is internationally known as a bird sanctuary and is a haven for birdwatchers and others who enjoy the outdoors.

At a May 23 online neighborhood workshop hosted by D.R. Horton, Dubi, Matrullo and others questioned the company about the proposed development. "The county and Sarasota Audubon have invested millions of dollars into the Celery Fields for protection of wildlife, protection of birds," Dubi said, according to a published transcript of the meeting.

"We are really concerned about this development," she told meeting moderator Kelley Klepper. "We know that birds are affected by noise. I can’t see any way that 160 homes with all the traffic isn’t going to create more noise."

Klepper responded to concerns, saying project engineers are still working on the plans. "I’m not going to try to downplay your comments or your concerns," he said. "The county will be very engaged in this ... We’re still working through some of the environmental components and working closely with staff."

Matrullo says he realizes development is inevitable, pointing to a new apartment complex north of the Celery Fields. "Of course we are seeing all the apartments rising over there," he said. "And in fact, I would say part of the reason those apartments got built so vigorously and so quickly is that the developers understand what an amenity they have right here."

Cattle grazing on farmland
Jim DeLa
/
Community News Collaborative
The Smith Farm, on the southeast corner of the Celery Fields, is being pursued by developer D.R. Horton, who wants to build 170 single-family homes next to the bird sanctuary.

"There's kind of this ironic paradox," Matrullo observed. "People might buy them (houses) because they're in beautiful places, but this beautiful place is what's going to get attacked and impinged upon by that process."

Matrullo and Dubi says their groups are closely watching the progress of this application as it moves through the process and will encourage their members to register their opposition.

After county planning staff finishes its analysis, it will go to the Sarasota Planning Commission for review.

A date for that review has not yet been set.

Jim DeLa is a reporter for the Community News Collaborative. Reach him at jdela@cncfl.org

A drawing shows the plans to build 170 homes on the land known as the Smith Farm.
Sarasota County
/
Courtesy
A drawing shows the plans to build 170 homes on the land known as the Smith Farm.