North Port Is Adding a Natural Resources Division to Help Preserve the Environment

The new division aims to respond to fast and furious development that’s exploding in south Sarasota County.

By Kim Doleatto July 5, 2023

North Port in south Sarasota County.

North Port is home to the Atlanta Braves spring training facility at CoolToday Park, the North Port Aquatic Center, Warm Mineral Springs Park, and lots of people, too. Wellen Park, which is located within North Port, is adding 3,500 new residents a year within one mile of its downtown and for the third year in a row, it's the fourth fastest-growing master-planned community in the nation. Pre-construction work is beginning on a new Sarasota Memorial Hospital on a 32-acre site at Sumter Boulevard and I-75, and four new schools and three hotels are on the way.

In short: South Sarasota County is exploding with growth.

“Our pace of building is unprecedented for North Port,” says Alaina Ray, the city's development services director. In fact, “since Oct. 1, we’ve issued over 1,200 land clearing and tree removal permits,” she says—a number that’s doubled in the last four years. In pre-pandemic 2019, 11,000 building permits were pulled. In post-pandemic 2022, that number rose to more than 20,000. This year, the number has already surpassed 20,000—and it's only July.

But there hasn’t been much environmental oversight along the way until now. That's why North Port is adding a natural resources division to help preserve the environment.

"Most developers don't know when mating seasons for local wildlife are, and that construction shouldn’t take place during that critical time," Ray says.

Instead, she’s seen developers in other parts of the county move and dump threatened species, like gopher tortoises, in North Port.  “We have empty lots with the tortoises on them. We try to ensure they don't get buried during development, but we have 104 square miles of land and with all the building it’s hard to keep up with," she says.

"One of the things we'll do is significantly set up monitoring and protection of habitat and key areas,” says Lori Barnes, assistant director of development services for the City of North Port. She adds that areas along canals and creeks will be among the top priorities for the new division.

A gopher tortoise in North Port.

It will also boost tree protection efforts, coordinate a city-wide tree planting plan, offer community education and more.

A tree study will look at the current tree canopy to determine how many trees are covering the city and what areas might benefit from more, like heat islands or barren areas. The study will also determine what areas might actually be fit for fewer trees.

“Urban forestry is [about planting] the right tree in the right place,” Ray says. Hurricane Ian, among other natural disasters, has taught lessons in avoiding tree planting near underground power lines and planting pines and oaks near major throughways. “It was very difficult to remove all of that after the hurricane. It was expensive and time-consuming, with lots of power outages and long wait times to restore power," she says.

The North Port City Commission approved the new natural resources division last month, and it will be staffed with four new positions: a natural resources manager, an environmental planner, an environmental specialist and an urban forester. They will join the city’s existing three arborists.

Funding will come from the city’s tree fund, which is made up of permit and mitigation fees paid by developers for the removal of protected trees in the city. A developer building on a quarter-acre lot might contribute an average of $3,000 to $5,000 in fees to the tree fund, Ray says. But fees of $25,0000 for a larger multi-family project aren't unheard of, either. The current tree fund balance is more than $3.2 million, and the annual funding for the natural resources division is projected to be approximately $460,000. 

Once the new hires are chosen, Ray says they'll hit the ground running. She expects results before the end of the year on some of their goals, like the tree study. 

And, she adds, the division's efforts will not slow down the permitting process.

"Habitat restoration and requirements are part of a developer's responsibilities, but without the staff to provide ongoing monitoring that's been very difficult to maintain," Barnes says. "We're excited to have the additional staff to ensure building requirements are adhered to." 

For more information on the city’s tree-planting efforts and how citizens can help the natural environment click here.

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