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Take 5 oil change proposal splits county planning commission

Two and a half hours of tense debate left the Sarasota County Planning Commission split down the middle on the fate of a proposed Take 5 oil change — much to the relief of a packed commission chamber that literally applauded the decision.

The commission voted 3-3 on a proposal to rezone 1.4 acres at the corner of Tamiami Trail and Habitat Boulevard from commercial shopping center to commercial general, which would allow for the oil change. The tie, which fails the agenda item, came after lengthy discussion regarding the development’s potential traffic issues, environmental concerns and compatibility with surrounding residences and businesses.

The development has faced continuous backlash from Preserve Osprey, a citizen advocacy group comprised of residents in the Willowbend subdivision and surrounding communities like Rivendell and Seaside Springs. Around 150 members of the group attended the meeting and voiced their opposition, often reacting audibly and causing planning commissioners to pause their discussion.

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Developers Cougar Investments LLC and 8Square LLC applied for the rezone to build a 3,600-square-foot office on one parcel and retail building and a 1,430-square-foot vehicle service center on another, with a stormwater system to the east and south. The sits is surrounded by commercial general zoning, office zoning and residential zoning in the Willowbend development, and it lies a quarter of a mile from Oscar Scherer State Park.

The applicants argued that, though originally zoned commercial shopping center, a 2004 ordinance changing the commercial shopping zoning to commercial general meant the site should be allowed the provisions of a commercial general distinction. And as a project that algins with community needs, the developers maintained that the Take 5 was an appropriate and needed use for the commercial parcel.

County guidelines encourage planning commissioners to recommend developments for approval if they provide competent substantial evidence that the development will meet county goals and regulations. Steve Rees, the attorney representing the developers, argued that Take 5’s site plan meets county criteria with competent substantial evidence based in fact.

“It’s real. It’s reliable, material, probable, sufficient,” Rees said. “What competent substantial evidence is not is politically pressurized, false or misleading, speculative, fear- or emotion-based.”

With a landscape easement belonging to the Willowbend community on the site and stormwater systems maintained in the site plan, applicants content that Take 5 will not have adverse environmental impacts. They also insisted that an estimated 11 additional trips at peak afternoon travel time, per a traffic study included in the plan, will create minimal traffic impacts.

Opponents contested these points in an hour of public comment, where 20 speakers expressed traffic, environment and compatibility concerns. The Take 5, they said, is too intense a business for an area that’s mostly residential or light commercial.

Protective covenants in Willowbend’s neighborhood code restrict residents from certain lights, noise levels, exterior colors and other potentially harmful factors to the neighborhood’s surrounding nature. A private agreement between a past buyer and seller released the parcel from this covenant.

Jane Graham, the attorney representing the Willowbend development, said Take 5 not being held to the same standards would prove detrimental to the landscape and deprive residents of the quiet, natural space they’ve worked to maintain.

“It’s a change of the character and expectations of the property owners,” Graham said. “This departs on them.”

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Opponents also questioned the overall necessity of the Take 5. Though Cougar Investments and 8Square maintained that the facility would serve the community, residents pointed to other businesses in the area that already meet their auto care needs.

Ed Kulback, a Willowbend resident, cited 49 oil change facilities, auto shops, car dealerships and other vehicle service businesses within a 10-mile radius of the Take 5. These businesses, Kulback said, have left the area saturated as-is.

“In an already overcrowded marketplace, how do you think these 49 businesses would feel about you supporting a 50th?” Kulback asked. “Who will Take 5 customers be?”

Potential runoff from the facility into nearby stormwater systems and threats to native species such as wood storks, gopher tortoises and sandhill cranes were among the chief environmental concerns. Traffic issues — particularly involving Take 5’s potential entrance on the winding Habitat Boulevard and how the facility would mesh with an already-crowded Tamiami Trail — were also prominently discussed.

The intersection of Habitat Boulevard and Tamiami Trail is routinely congested, and residents consider attempted left turns out of the neighborhood dangerous due to the regular traffic. Tim Boesch, a Willowbend resident and transportation planner, said he and his neighbors are used to the maneuver but are concerned that Take 5 customers won’t know how to make it.

“This is basically the wild west of turning movements” Boesch said. “Our concern is that new people who are hopping in for a quick oil change are going to exacerbate the issue.”

A lengthy discussion section saw commissioners grill planning staff and the applicants on the Take 5’s compliance with county traffic guidelines, existing vegetation on the site and compatibility with the county comprehensive plan. As a land use hearing, commissioners couldn’t propose alterations to the site plan, but they strongly encouraged the developers to remain conscious of the importance of the entrance and exit onto Habitat Boulevard and the site’s landscaping if the project reaches construction.

The two proposed entrances and exits onto Habitat Boulevard, planning staff said, wouldn’t hinder local traffic flow or access to the neighborhood, and future office development adjacent to the Take 5 would make access to Tamiami Trail easier. The developers also maintained that they would keep as much of the site’s landscape easement with several trees — which Willowbend owns — on the property.

The crowd vocally objected at points in the discussion, leading the meeting’s Commission Chair Colin Pember to bang the gavel and threaten a recess to restore order.

“We’ll sit here all night,” Pember said.

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The meeting wrapped just under an hour later, as Commissioner Andy Stultz made a motion to recommend the rezone to the Sarasota County Commission for approval. Though he acknowledged the widespread opposition, Stultz said it wasn’t up to the planning commission to reject the rezone based on dissatisfaction with the site plan.

Because the intended use of a Take 5 with the zoning criteria, Stultz said, he voted to recommend it. He reminded meeting attendees that they can still engage with the county commission before it’s officially approved.

“I know the residents don’t want it. That’s why we only make recommendations,” Stultz said. “Hopefully the applicant will do a good job on the design.”

Some in the audience stormed out of the chamber as soon as Commissioner Adam Maio seconded the motion, believing the rezone to be all but passed. Those who stuck around, however, saw three dissenting votes that left the motion at a standstill.

Traffic concerns were the major hang-up for dissenting Commissioners Donna Carter, Cullen Morgan and Justin Taylor. As a predominantly residential area, Carter said she couldn’t support a significant shift to daily traffic patterns that the Take 5 could incite.

“There’s nothing of this level of commercial there,” Carter said. “Having an egress and ingress through the beginning of the neighborhood, I think, will not be a good, safe thing.”

The planning board’s recommendation to deny the rezone will go before the Sarasota County Commission on a future agenda.

Contact Herald-Tribune Growth and Development Reporter Heather Bushman at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @hmb_1013.