City must change plan to allow for Warm Mineral Springs development – Sarasota Herald-Tribune


NORTH PORT – North Port residents continued to oppose the city’s plan to partner with a business to develop Warm Mineral Springs and support reopening the water body to public access as soon as possible at a Monday workshop.
The public outcry at the workshop – which had been scheduled to discuss the city’s development code, including growth plan changes needed to allow such a partnership – comes on the heels of several public protest rallies against the springs’ development.
Related:Warm Mineral Springs: North Port residents hope to stop development of park
The most recent rally, on Jan. 6, included an appearance by City Manager Jerome Fletcher, who attempted to explain the city’s interest in developing the 61.4-acre site surrounding the 21.6-acre historic area that includes the springs itself.
Access to the springs, which is believed by many users to have healing properties, has been closed since Sept. 27 – the day before Hurricane Ian made landfall on Cayo Costa in Lee County.
Last summer, after bids to restore three historic buildings at the springs came in more than double the $9.4 million the city had budgeted, the City Commission decided to solicit a private partner to help with the task, in exchange for the right to develop the parkland not immediately earmarked for historic preservation.
While those negotiations will take months, North Port is bringing in temporary bathroom facilities and hiring staff to reopen Warm Mineral Springs to the public.
Fletcher said the hope is to have it reopened around spring break.
David Iannotti, one of the organizers of the protests, said that the recent public feedback should clearly illustrate “that this is not the right place to do this type of development.
“I hear lots of generalizations about why it’s OK to do – a lot of them financial – and I find that very hard to stomach when we still, as a city, don’t  even collect proper impact fees for our residential building, but yet we’re going to use this property as a means for financial gain,” added Iannotti, who was elected to the commission in 2021 but stepped down days after being sworn in because of health concerns.
Edie Driest said that “this should be a natural, holistic Zen kind of a place, where there’s a healthy type restaurant, a museum and a spa. 
“Those things seem to fit.”
Virtually all of the speakers favored abandoning the public-private partnership idea and using some form of a phased-in plan by Kimley Horn and Associates in 2018 and adopted by the commission in 2019 that featured low-impact activities on the 60-plus acres.
Former city commissioner Jill Luke was the lone proponent for private development. She stressed that the land is mischaracterized as a park and was always an activity center targeted for improvement.
Earlier:Five things to know about Warm Mineral Springs in North Port, Florida
“It’s city property for a reason,” said Luke, who also frequents the springs. “The 20 acres is what’s important to me because it must be preserved.”
North Port resident Alan Hale read a letter by Shannon Larsen, co-founder of Ancient Trees, that he said was sent to him by Leroy Osceola of the Otter Clan that requested input from the Indigenous Peoples be considered.
“It is our responsibility, in this time, to be careful stewards of Warm Mineral Springs and defend the rights of the Spring for a healthy future,” Larsen wrote.
Most of the residents who spoke echoed those of North Port resident Jasmine Bowman, who fears that overdevelopment will ruin the springs and just want public access restored.
“We’re being told that $9 million isn’t enough for a bathroom and office facility at Warm Mineral Springs Park, which is one of our public parks,” Bowman said. “We’re being told that we have to give our public park to developers – turn it into a mini Lakewood Ranch in order to fund it – and we have $9 million.”
While Bowman said she had no interest in preserving the three historic buildings –  a sales building, a restaurant and spa building, and a cyclorama, built for the three-month Florida Quadricentennial in 1959 – she was fine with historic preservationists raising funds to restore them on a pay-as-you-go schedule.
“But the buildings should not be the priority and the buildings should not be a reason to give our public park and our national treasure – which is extremely fragile – to developers,” she added.
Robin San Vicente, who served in a variety of capacities at Warm Mineral Springs through 2009, when it was privately owned, contended the property is geologically fragile, though she didn’t provide documentation.
“The vents are very sensitive and they’re just getting more and more sensitive,” she added, referencing the underground water source that feeds the lake, which is essentially a limestone sinkhole formed more than 10,000 years ago.
Preservationists point to the fact that there have been no geotechnical surveys or hydrographic studies conducted to see if the ground can support hotels or condominiums and predict disaster.
Fletcher has previously noted that those studies would be paid for by the eventual private partner and those results would guide the intensity of any development.
The workshop was designed for city staff to receive guidance on growth plan amendments needed for Warm Mineral Springs Park, as well as a 17 acres on the west side of Ortiz Boulevard that has been envisioned as a health and wellness resort by Dr. Grigory Pogrebinsky.
To accommodate a private proposal along the lines of one proposed by the Warm Mineral Springs Development Group, the city comprehensive plan must be changed to allow for a 250-unit resort hotel and roughly 300 multi-family homes.
To do that, the commission must agree to change the future land use map designation for about 30 acres from recreation/open space to “activity center” and approve amendments for a maximum development density and amount of commercial and hotel development.
The staff also recommended adding a minimum open space requirement of 28.5 acres, which is 35% of the overall property, as well as a maximum area of 24.4 acres for impervious surfaces.
Other suggested requirements included low-impact development practices and a 40-foot maximum building height, which equates to roughly three stories.
The city will have to determine how high to set the development limits and how to calculate them.
Mayor Barbara Langdon wanted to see all calculation options and not just one because “it could result in our approving a level of development that none of us are comfortable with.”
For the Pogrebinsky property, which is owned by WMS North Port LLC, the commission must fix a 2015 ordinance allowing for too many residential units and too little commercial development, by allowing for 72 multi-family homes and only 269,000 square feet of commercial.
Earlier:Springs vision moves forward
Staff said the ordinance was also an example of contract zoning – which is not allowed in Florida.
In its place, staff suggested 47 dwelling units, 371,393 square feet of commercial development and 5.64 acres of open space.
Monday’s workshop was the first of several steps required before the plan changes can be voted on, including two public hearings before the City Commission and approval by the state of Florida.
While that process is under way, the city will also be deciding on an appropriate private partner.
While Warm Mineral Springs Development Group appears to be a favorite because its initial proposal from September is being used to set the parameters for the growth plan amendments, that’s not the case.
“The goal of today was truly to match the alignment of the code,” Fletcher told the board.
“In order for you to have a proposal in front of you … we have to get some direction to meeting the vision that you want with the vision of the developer,” he added.
More than one speaker questioned how it looks for the city to be working so closely with a potential developer while it sets its public-private partnership criteria.
One of those was Bowman, who also stressed the low-impact path.
‘This particular space is special, it’s a treasure,” Bowman said. “I think there’s a lack of understanding about that and what it means to the people of this city and of this state. 
“Nobody here is asking for fancy amenities – nobody here wants fancy amenities,” she later added. “Just simple basic stuff and lots of green space protected because that’s what we have in the world. 
“Every town has hotels and condos and strip malls and more and more and more of that but not every town has the fountain of youth and it is rare and it is special and we should protect it.”

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