More than 200 people protested outside a property the county is looking at developing as a wholesale restaurant equipment and food supply facility. The development is controversial because of its proximity to Celery Fields, a popular public recreation spot for birding, hiking and water sports. The county commission will vote on Wednesday. Photos courtesy of David G. Johnson

Protesters line up to oppose development near Celery Fields

SARASOTA — Facing public opposition, the Sarasota County Commission is scheduled to decide Wednesday whether to allow the development of a wholesale restaurant goods facility on property near the popular Celery Fields recreation spot and wildlife habitat.

The proposed 60,000-square-foot facility, called “Restaurant Depot,” is intended for wholesale restaurant equipment and food and would be on 6.9 acres at the northwest corner of Apex Road and Palmer Boulevard. The land is vacant, except for a temporary fire station.

If the County Commission approves the development, JMDH Real Estate of Florida, LLC, will be the new property owner. But this development has provoked opposition because of the Celery Fields’ popularity as a place to enjoy bird watching, hiking trails and water sports such as canoeing and kayaking.

At a Feb. 2 meeting, the county planning commission unanimously approved the development. Conservationists and neighboring residents of the Celery Fields argue that the development will lead to increased car traffic and eliminate the buffer between the Celery Fields and the industrial buildings on Palmer Boulevard.

“Celery Fields is starting to look more and more like Central Park up in New York City,” said Robert Wright, the conservation chair of the Sarasota Audubon Society, which has spent more than $1 million on the Celery Fields. “There’s nowhere to go within walking or biking distance to kind of get away from the madness of everyday life, except for the Celery Fields, so if we damage it or make it smaller, that’s not a good thing.”

While the county has said the development site is not considered wildlife habitat, Wright said that it is located where many of the birds at the Celery Fields go to feed. But his main concern is that the property currently serves as a boundary between the Celery Fields and the industrial businesses on Palmer Boulevard.

“You’re pushing development closer to Celery Fields and the things that live there will retreat farther into the Celery Fields,” Wright said. “It will reduce habitat value within Celery Fields and all of the things that live there are potentially at issue.”

On Saturday, more than 200 people protested outside the Celery Fields at the proposed “Restaurant Depot” site. They held signs reading, “Don’t let this beautiful land get re-zoned” and “Say No to Restaurant Depot!” An online petition is circulating to reject a second proposed facility, an industrial recycling plant, also near the Celery Fields. The petition had more than 5,000 signatures Monday afternoon.

The recycling plant proposal is at a much earlier stage in county review. In early February, James Gabbert of TST Ventures, LLC Recycling, submitted an application for a 16-acre plot and recycling facility after the county held two neighborhood workshops. County staff will review the application before it goes before the planning commission and county commissioners. But that process could be “several months” away, county spokesman Jason Bartolone said.

The county has played an extensive role over the years in developing the Celery Fields as a stormwater collection area and as a public recreation spot. In the mid-1990s, the county spent more than $20 million to modify the Celery Fields for flood prevention. In 2001, the Sarasota Audubon Society worked with the county to restore more than 100 acres of wetlands and protected areas.

Many of those who observed the initial planning are surprised by the proposed construction.

“We’ve all poured so many resources into Celery Fields — so why are we doing this?” said Suzanne Dameron, whose public relations firm represents the Sarasota Audubon Society. “That’s the question that comes up again and again.”

But Wright said that what he really wants is more time and more discussion. If the county were to delay the rezoning petition, there could be more opportunities for local groups to talk with commissioners about the best way to use the land.

“We would be happy with that and we could sit down as a group with them and discuss what the use should be,” Wright said. “We don’t want this to be a battle between the homeowners — we want this to be a discussion.”

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