The city of North Port is taking a serious look at protecting its natural resources.
As one of the fastest-growing cities in Florida — the U.S. Census Bureau recorded a 13.8% population increase between April 2020 and July 2022 — the development services department decided it was time to add a Natural Resources division dedicated to preserving natural assets. The city commission approved the division during a June 13 meeting.
North Port is in the southeast corner of Sarasota County, neighboring the southend end of Venice. The city is home to CoolToday Park, where the Atlanta Braves host spring training, and master-planned community Wellen Park.
“We started looking at our processes and budget, and realized that only 0.4% of the city’s annual budget is dedicated to environmental issues,” Alaina Ray, Neighborhood Development Services director, says, noting that one of the pillars of the city’s strategic planning points to protecting the environment. “With the way the city is growing, we knew that just wasn’t enough.
“If we’re going to say one of our strategic pillars is environmental then we need to put our money where our mouth is.”
The department will be run by the city’s existing three arborists and four new positions approved by the city commission: natural resources manager, environmental planner, environmental specialist and an urban forester. The city is actively recruiting for those open positions and Ray says they’ve already received a few applications.
The city estimates the division will be funded by $460,000 annually that will come from the city’s tree fund, which consists of permit and mitigation fees developers pay when they remove protected trees in the city. Currently, the fund’s balance is nearly $3.5 million.
"Every time a large piece of land is cleared, we hear about it,” Ray says. “People are shocked. We want to be able to provide our community with real solid programs to preserve our environment.”
Most of that funding will be spent on salaries, Ray says, but it will also be distributed to operating expenses, educational materials and training. Funding for software to determine how much tree canopy is available in North Port has already been budgeted and will be pulled from the tree fund, she adds. Ray expects the fund will also be used for programs and purchasing property for conservation. In the last year, the fund brought in about $2 million.
“A lot of that has to do with our rate of building because we’re building so much right now,” Ray says.
That hike in development — most recently Wellen Park, which is on 11,000 acres with a planned 22,000 homes, an Anna Maria Oyster Bar expansion and the addition of Myakka Crossings Commercial Park, a 7.5-acre mixed-use development currently under construction— isn’t going unchecked, according to Lori Barnes, assistant director of the Neighborhood Development Services. Barnes says the planning department is currently revamping its unified land development code, specifically with context sensitive site design, which she says minimizes the disturbance to the land involved in development.
“Right now with the tree mitigation program, a developer can clear cut an entire lot,” Barnes says. “We don’t believe that’s what the community and citizens of North Port want. So we are going to be incorporating a regulation to preserve a minimum percentage of trees on a property and preserve those areas that provide habitats for local and endangered wildlife.”
The department hopes to approve the new code by the end of the year, with it going into effect January 2024.
“We’re not looking to prolong the development process,” Ray adds. “We’re not planning on our permitting process being delayed at all through this. It is simply a proactive way for us to work with these developers to consider the environmental benefits of what we have on the properties now and how they can use it to their benefit as well.”
So far, Ray says the city has heard nothing but positive feedback from both developers and community members.
“We met with some of our environmental advocacy representatives; they’ve been very supportive and excited to see this happen," she says. "For a long time, they have felt that their voices haven’t been heard.”
Those voices will likely be heard now.
“We are hoping that North Port can become an example of how to have sustainable growth, preserve our environment and provide that quality of place for our residents while also being able to have a modern city where people can live, work, go to school and play,” Ray says. “We’re really looking for that balance.”