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Business Observer Friday, Mar. 12, 2004 18 years ago

Dealing with NIMBYs

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Debra Garrett's efforts to win approval for a Publix in east Sarasota County show the new reality for developers. Before you file for anything, be aggressive getting out the facts and be willing to make a lot of concessions.

Dealing with NIMBYs

Debra Garrett's efforts to win approval for a Publix in east Sarasota County show the new reality for developers. Before you file for anything, be aggressive getting out the facts and be willing to make a lot of concessions.

By David Wexler

Staff Writer

No matter how many Publix sugar cookies and "I love Publix" buttons she distributed to Misty Creek residents at a homeowners meeting last week, Debra Garrett knew she wouldn't please everyone. Nor would she win everyone's support. After all, developers have tried three times in the past - and each time they failed.

Garrett was meeting with the Misty Creek Homeowners' Association in East Sarasota County to conduct an informational and question-and-answer session about her client's desire to build a 75,000-square-foot neighborhood shopping plaza - 10 stores and a mid-sized Publix Super Market - at the intersection of Bee Ridge Road and the Bee Ridge Extension.

With residents seated shoulder to shoulder in the clubhouse of the Mistry Creek Country Club, Garrett stood in front of the crowd surrounded by easels of renderings and blown-up aerial photos. She stood in both hostile and friendly territory.

She was on the front lines of what it takes these days to develop in Sarasota County.

Long gone are the days when developers can buy a piece of property and file a site plan with the government, hoping to wind their way through the legal planning process step by arduous step.

Garrett represents the strategy that is becoming increasingly part of the process - a offensive strategy (as in offense) of disclosing as much information as possible to dispel the NIMBYs' campaigns of disinformation.

North American Properties enlisted Garrett to conduct such a campaign with several crucial objectives: to get a firm grasp of the pulse of the area's residents; learn in detail, and with documentation, what residents want and don't want, why they are opposed to a shopping center, what they would want if they designed the center themselves, how to allay their concerns.

North American had tried on three previous occasions since 1998 to develop the same site, but each time the county turned it down. This time, the company's executives realized they needed to invest and spend more up front, go on the offensive and be open with their intentions and with facts and be ready to compromise.

Says Dale Hafele, North American Properties partner in charge, based in Fort Myers: "I think, in part, in some of our approaches in the past, we did not communicate effectively with the neighborhoods with what we thought would work. That was one of the primary reasons we brought on Debra Garrett. We were able to have someone who lived in Sarasota County and who was able to meet more frequently with residents."

In the past five months, Garrett has held frequent night meetings with neighborhood groups to listen to their concerns. She has met with residents of Heritage Oaks, The Hammocks, Laurel Meadows and most recently, Misty Creek. She has incorporated their suggestions into colorful brochures, which also include renderings of the site plan. She has made promises to work with residents concerned with the proposed development, particularly at The Hammocks.

She is battle worn. "I'm exhausted," Garrett said last week.

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Last summer, representatives from North American Properties and Publix Super Markets Inc. contacted Garrett about joining the project as a consultant. At the time, Garrett had just left RMC Property Group to form her own company, Debra Garrett Consulting Group.

Through her role as director of tenant development for RMC, Garrett had developed a long-term relationship with Publix. Among her accomplishments for Publix is finding the site where the new Publix will be built at 10th Street and U.S. 41 just north of downtown Sarasota.

While her dealings with Publix were positive, she had reservations about taking on the proposed store in east Sarasota County. "It took me about three months to decide if I wanted to take this on," Garrett said. "I said, 'No, I can't do this. It's too controversial, it's too political.' "

A former model, Garrett has more than 10 years of experience in commercial real estate. She has lived in Southwest Florida for 25 years and currently resides in Sarasota County.

"She's familiar with the area and also feels that a shopping center would be a good idea for this particular area," says Hafele of North American Properties. "We thought her experiences perfectly aligned with ours."

Cincinnati-based North American Properties has developed 16 million square feet of retail space and more than 1 million square feet since the firm's inception in 1954. The company opened its Fort Myers office in 1988. One of its Gulf Coast projects is the Publix-anchored retail complex on University Parkway just east of I-75 in Lakewood Ranch.

Garrett initially agreed to review the developer's petition and study the tapes from the County Commission meeting in September 2002, the most recent time the project failed. It also failed in 2000 and 1998. After meeting with staff from Sarasota County's planning department, Garrett reluctantly accepted the challenge.

"I saw some things that I thought could be done better, such as some design changes to the site," she says. "Our county commissioners are very visual when they're looking at these projects. I've watched the tapes and looked through the files." One of the missing pieces: detailed renderings for residents to visualize what would be built. Garrett told her clients: "We are going to do all these things this time."

So far, Garrett has lived up to her promises.

For starters, Garrett persuaded Publix to minimize noise by limiting truck deliveries to between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Garrett says an average of five Publix trucks would come in and out the center daily.

Second, Garrett has addressed residents' biggest concern: increased traffic. Some residents near the site fear the shopping plaza would attract shoppers from the north, west and south.

"The rumors and things I've been hearing with regard to traffic are old data from when this property was bought from the county a couple of years ago," Garrett says. "There have been a lot of changes as far as the size of it and the overall improvements that we plan to do."

Additionally, Garrett and North American's attorney, Sarasota lawyer Dan Bailey, proposed drawing up binding contracts between the developer, the church and residents, all of which would give assurances and power to the residents. At the meeting with the Misty Creek residents, Bailey said the contracts "would enable anyone who supports our petition to become a beneficiary of those restrictions and would be able to enforce them in a court of law. It would only become effective only upon approval of the comprehensive plan amendment, but it would contain all of the assurances or concerns you may have."

Garrett wanted this assurance explained to residents as a way of trying to convince them that the developers would live up to whatever promises they make.

Garrett also has been urging the developer to adopt strict covenants that limit the types of tenants allowed in the plaza. Verboten: No fast-food establishments, no gas stations or convenience stores, no free-standing drug stores (although she said the Publix store would have a pharmacy). The center would have a maximum of 10 to 12 tenants.

Acceptable: bank branches on the outparcels, beauty salon, insurance agencies, deli, art gallery, book store.

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Much to Garrett's surprise, her informational efforts and surveys of residents in the area have flushed out growing support for the shopping center. She now has about 20 residents in the area - mostly women - helping spread Garrett's professionally designed informational brochures and organize meetings with homeowner associations.

Garrett mailed out 1,200 invitations for a Jan. 13 meeting at Victory Christian. Every resident of Heritage Oaks, The Hammocks, Misty Creek, Gator Creek, Laurel Meadows and Laurel Lakes was invited. During the meeting, a group of six women approached Garrett, offering to help. At the meeting, they donned "I Love Publix" buttons and manned the sign-in tables for all the attendees.

From there, the group began meeting to provide information about the center and clear up any misconceptions. Their efforts far exceeded Garrett's expectations.

"They took a lot of our volunteers and took the entire community of 850 units, and they set up teams, and they gave each person a certain amount of homes to hit," Garrett says. "I haven't seen anything like it."

Following the Jan. 13 meeting, Garrett began scheduling meetings at each individual neighborhood rather than grouping them together. Garrett wanted to show the developer's efforts far exceeded the county's requirement that a developer conduct one neighborhood meeting before petitioning the county for permission on a building project.

"Nobody ever really went in and did this before," she says. "There has always been lots of support. Unfortunately, nobody went out and got them, and usually the supporters don't speak up unless they understand they are needed."

The supporters started to emerge after a meeting Dec. 8 with residents of Heritage Oaks. About 100 residents attended the meeting - the first meeting conducted by Garrett. Opposition at the meeting was so fierce Garrett strongly considered quitting.

Typically, the oppositon is expressed as Heritage Oaks resident Don Schultz put it in a letter. He had four concerns: changing the area's residential, noncommercial character; creating unsafe congestion at the intersection of Bee Ridge Road and Bee Ridge Extension; increasing traffic; and adding a shopping alternative in the midst of an area that has plenty of shopping within seven to 10 minutes of Heritage Oaks.

Schultz's letter triggered several other documents that were distributed to residents in these communities by residents of Heritage Oaks. Many of these letters contained inaccuracies and misconceptions, Garrett says.

One letter said a new grocery store is being planned at Bee Ridge and Mauna Loa. Garrett says county planners told her they were unaware of any such development. Another rumor said North American Properties would build a wall to protect The Hammocks development from the shopping center and highway noise. Garrett says her group has not discussed building a wall, but noted that it has engaged a noise engineer to look into helping The Hammocks. The developer hasn't made any commitments, she says.

"I knew it was going to be this way (controversial)," she says. "I don't mind people being opposed. Everybody has the right to speak his mind and voice his opinion. My job is to listen and hear everybody. What I do have a problem with are these letters."

The battle is wearing on Garrett. Routinely, she encounters hostile opponents who shout at her and their neighbors. "On Dec. 8, when I went into (Heritage Oaks), I spent two hours there under very stressful conditions," Garrett says. "I got yelled out by a lot of people and left there and said to one of my associates, 'This job is done.' "

After receiving input from her staff and receiving an encouraging e-mail from a supporter, Garrett chose to keep fighting. "I repeat the same message over and over," she says. "I try to be compassionate. I have empathy for people who don't understand. I understand the psyche of fear of the unknown. I know people don't like change. I just stay very calm and try to give them the best assurances that I can."

Is it worth it?

For North American Properties, the latest process to build this 75,000-square-foot neighborhood center will end up being another three-year investment. If it succeeds in meeting all of the county's demands, it projects a store opening in November 2006. It still has much to overcome (see timetable).

"We have a time clock running on us," says Bailey, North American's lawyer. "So we need to get along with the process if indeed we're going to be in this cycle, because they only allow you the opportunity one time a year to initiate a comprehensive plan amendment."

Bailey has seen plans for this particular site go down in defeat before. He, like Garrett, was reluctant to get involved. "I told Debra that if she came out here and visited with the residents and if she could illustrate to me that there has been a change in views and that the folks who had been opposed to it would now be in the minority, then I would think it would be worth moving forward with again," he says. "Otherwise, it's a waste of everybody's money, time and emotional energy if it's not going to be successful."

If the Misty Creek homeowners meeting was an indicator, Garrett's efforts appear to be paying off. An informal show of hands during the two-hour question-and-answer session revealed that a vast majority of the 90 residents in attendance favored the proposed shopping center. Only about 10 opposed the development, while a handful remained undecided.

Says Jim Mitchell, a Misty Creek Homeowners Association board member: "Previous development efforts out here have not been as well organized as this one. They haven't had people like Debra Garrett willing to go out and provide information meetings like this. People have been very much ill-informed about the type of development that was going to go in there. After two years, the developer is now much more organized, much more professional, much more willing to give information to the residents and make sure the residents out here are very well informed."

Adds Bill Baker, another Misty Creek board member: "They're setting the standard in communication."

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