Elected Officials Are Putting Sarasota's Character and Natural Assets at Risk
How many of us have frozen ourselves in time as younger selves? I’ve been thinking about that lately when I look around Sarasota. You’re probably doing the same if you’ve just come back after a beautiful summer and fall in the north or haven’t visited in the last couple of years. The Sarasota you see will not be the landscape you remember.
Construction is everywhere. A major roundabout is being built at Gulfstream Boulevard and U.S. 41. New luxury condos and apartments are springing up downtown. East of I-75 and in South Sarasota County, we’re seeing unprecedented growth in Lakewood Ranch, North Port, Wellen Park and Venice. More large-scale developments, like Hi-Hat Ranch, have been approved on huge swaths of rural Florida. Hotels that will dwarf surrounding neighbors have been approved on Siesta Key.
The quiet, quirky town I first encountered as a teenager some four decades ago vanished long ago. I’ve accepted that. But since the pandemic began not quite two years ago, our region has hit the world’s radar.
In the last year, Sarasota has been documented as one of the fastest-growing places in the U.S. Our airport has also made the list as one of the nation’s fastest-growing. We’re ranked No. 1 as best place to retire and one of the 10 best places to live. The Wall Street Journal identified us as a “top emerging housing market.” Time magazine named Sarasota as one of the “World’s Greatest Places” in its top 100 list. Travel + Leisure named Longboat Key one of the top five islands in the U.S. and then a month later introduced Sarasota in a big, splashy feature telling readers that we have a “progressive spirit” and cultural gems that “outpace those in the far glitzier and more touristed Palm Beach and Miami.”
No wonder we’re attracting newcomers—and newcomers of means. Coldwell Banker recently came out with a wealth report that singled out Sarasota as one of the top three “power player markets” in the country for affluent baby boomers. We’re seeing that in record-breaking home sale prices: a $20-million sale in the yet-to-be-built luxury St. Regis on Longboat Key, a $16.5-million sale on Casey Key. Longtime local developer Pat Neal, who builds communities and homes for a market he’s calls the “Marvelous Middle,” is now seeing high demand for his million-dollar homes. He points to a booming economy and a record-high Dow Jones, which are benefiting people with assets. They’re attracted to Sarasota for its clean air and water, open spaces and safer environment, he says. And we all know that newcomers are drawn to Florida’s lack of a state income tax.
I know that good things come when people with wealth head here. New businesses and jobs, diversity, increased philanthropy and major future arts and civic projects like the master-planned, multimillion city park The Bay, and exciting expansions of Mote Marine and Selby Gardens.
And yet…I’m terrified about the impact of all this growth. Traffic gridlock is a huge issue. Our beaches are being privatized. Natural Florida is disappearing. More than ever, we need enlightened leaders—like the ones we had not that long ago—who had the strength and vision to maintain a balance between unchecked growth and stagnation and would limit or reject projects that would alter the enjoyable atmosphere of Sarasota.
Right now, elected officials are putting our character and natural assets at risk, like approving a big hotel in an established residential neighborhood or allowing rich people to cut off access to the beaches from “bad” everyday people—a remark Sarasota County Commissioner Alan Maio made recently when he wanted to protect the wealthy from “what our less-than-kind citizens are doing to our nicer citizens.” I have some control over how we grow—and so do you—through the leaders we elect.
Editor in Chief