My County’s Award-Winning Smart Growth Plan is a Disaster. Here’s Why.

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Sarasota County, Florida, where I live, belongs on a short list of poster children for America’s Growth Ponzi Scheme. A popular retirement destination on the Gulf of Mexico, we have an economy that is powered by real estate development. And for decades, we’ve kept the bulldozers running.

As the county’s population has gone from about 75,000 in 1960 to 434,000 today, we’ve supersized roads, extended pipes, and built budget-busting freeway interchanges with little attention to long-term replacement costs. And those costs, especially for water and sewer infrastructure, are beginning to rear their heads. Our prevailing development pattern is insolvent: A 2008 study by Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 demonstrated that a typical residential townhouse development in Sarasota County would take 42 years to generate enough taxes to cover the cost of its associated infrastructure.

It might, therefore, surprise you to learn that Sarasota County is viewed as a trailblazer in the prevention of unchecked suburbanization. (Think of the way you’d be surprised if you learned Wisconsin was running an acclaimed public health campaign against the dangers of excessive cheese consumption.) This undeserved reputation can be traced to an award-winning, innovative growth management plan that the County government adopted in 2002, titled Sarasota 2050.

Unfortunately, the Sarasota 2050 plan has not remotely changed our growth trajectory or resulted in a better pattern of development. It’s a dismal failure.

The reason for this failure is simple but important to grasp. It’s that the best plan in the world can’t solve something that’s not a planning problem. What we have here is a problem of power: who has it, and who doesn’t.

Anatomy of an Award-Winning Plan

By the 1980s, fast-growing Florida was home to some of the most ill-conceived development schemes in American history, and discontent with haphazard growth had led to a powerful, populist backlash. Advocates pushed, often successfully, for growth controls and long-range planning. (I describe this history at greater length in a 2021 piece on a development controversy in Collier County, two hours south of Sarasota.)

It was in this context, in the 1990s, that Sarasota County initiated a massive effort to achieve a Grand Bargain among rural preservationists, environmentalists, developers, and existing land owners. It would be a master plan that would accommodate population growth, while breaking with Florida’s history of indiscriminately carving up the countryside.

The resulting Sarasota 2050 plan allows new development in the eastern, predominantly rural portion of Sarasota County as long as it clusters into compact communities, called “villages” and “hamlets,” in exchange for leaving nearby land permanently undeveloped. This is accomplished through a planning mechanism called a Transfer of Development Rights, or TDR. Think of it as a cap-and-trade scheme like carbon credits, but for development density.

Official county documents describe these requirements as promoting New Urbanism, a planning movement that aims to create walkable, compact communities where you can meet your needs locally, inspired by the traditional development pattern of pre-automobile cities and small towns. Villages, per the plan, were to be complete, self-sufficient communities. Each would be compact and walkable, have a village center with neighborhood-serving businesses, and a mix of housing types and price points. The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) praised Sarasota 2050, awarding it one of its 2003 Charter Awards. And for some time thereafter, the plan received accolades in the planning profession as an example of “smart growth.”

The Gulf Between Theory and Practice

Unfortunately, calling something a “village” does not make it so. None of the development that Sarasota 2050 has produced is either New Urbanist or village-like in any ordinary sense of that word.

The northernmost of the designated 2050 “villages” is Waterside, itself a portion of gargantuan Lakewood Ranch, the second-fastest-growing master-planned community in the United States. (Ironically, it’s second to a mega-retirement community named, ahem, The Villages, also in Florida.) I’ve written about Lakewood Ranch and Waterside before (here, here, and here). The whole place is a turbo-charged version of everything we at Strong Towns critique about suburbia.

The prevailing thing you experience when you drive through Lakewood Ranch is distance. Incredible, alienating distance, with long stretches of nothing at all flanking the major roads in between entrances to gated communities and business parks. It’s a landscape of supersized roads, supersized parking, giant medians, noise walls, and retention ponds. It’s impossible to even imagine walking anywhere as a means of transportation in Lakewood Ranch. The distances are so great that the idea is ludicrous.

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