Drive south on Interstate 75 into Sarasota County, and you can't help but notice an absence.
Unlike Manatee and Hillsborough counties, where huge shopping centers and neighborhoods spread far east of the highway, Sarasota allows almost no construction on that side of the interstate.
Sarasota planners have used the dividing line to guide growth for close to 40 years.
But over time, the lands west of the interstate started to fill. Intense discussions ensued. At the core of the debate stood a basic yet contentious question: How would Sarasota County grow into the future?
The community created a 50-year plan that leaders hope will provide the answer. It still generates heat even as it heads to the state for approval.
Sarasota is not alone in its attempts. Governments throughout Florida and the country are seeking ways to come to grips with growth, and also improve older communities that time seems to have forgotten.
They have found solutions ranging from strictly enforced design rules in Miami Beach, to neighborhood redevelopment in Englewood, to new building standards for untouched areas of southwestern Orange County.
Hernando County leaders now want to build upon the lessons learned by Sarasota and others and are seeking creative input from residents during a workshop scheduled for Thursday.
This will not be the first time Hernando has talked about the future.
Four years ago, a select group of civic, business and government honchos began kicking around similar questions. A handful attended a conference about villages and greenways during fall 2000 _ it was part of Sarasota's planning initiative _ and they liked what they heard.
Slowly, they generated support among county commissioners, who recently have adopted some aesthetics-oriented development rules. Now, they hope to extend the conversation to Hernando at large, and make it stick.
During the Thursday workshop, experts on land use, transportation and agricultural preservation will offer some insight and field questions. They also will conduct a roundtable discussion with selected community members.
"Some counties have done their growing, and it's hard to turn back when everything is etched in concrete and asphalt," said co-organizer Gene Kelly, a planner for the Southwest Florida Water Management District who lives in eastern Hernando. "Hernando County has the opportunity to implement before it's a crisis."
The county must revise its comprehensive future development plan in two years. So this effort to devise a shared vision for growth comes at the right time, said Paul Wieczorek, a county planner.
"We'll be looking at every policy we have in the plan," Wieczorek said. "We have an opportunity to change direction."
Change is vital for Hernando's future, Commissioner Betty Whitehouse said.
Residents must determine whether they want widespread, controlled or no development in undeveloped areas, she said, because the demand is coming _ witness the proposed 799-home Hampton Ridge subdivision just south of Brooksville.
They also must seek ways to revive downtrodden areas such as south Brooksville and older portions of Spring Hill, Whitehouse added.
"The biggest mistake we can make is to just let things evolve and then say, "I don't like that,' " she said. "If we make responsible decisions as to what we feel is the best for Hernando County and have some consensus from the people, it is better to proceed that way rather than to just let things happen."
The path will be long and could be thorny, cautioned workshop speaker Jill Schwartz, a consultant for the nonprofit American Farmland Trust. If Hernando decides it wants to preserve its agricultural base, for instance, Schwartz said, political and public support will be critical.
"They're doing the right thing to start asking questions," Schwartz said. "Our organization very rarely gets calls from communities that are thinking 10 years ahead."
Traffic engineer Walter Kulash, another scheduled speaker, said communities like Hernando are finding that sometimes just simple rules can monumentally alter a community's look and feel.
Solutions can be as easy as a requirement that shops abut sidewalks and parking remain in back, like on Orange Avenue in Orlando, he said. A village design _ with a commercial hub serving small, interconnected neighborhoods within walking distance of the center _ is a more complex way to have development emphasize the movement of people rather than the movement of cars.
Just getting grocery stores off major highways and thoroughfares, and onto more easily accessible neighborhood roads, could ease congestion and tension, Kulash said.
"It doesn't take much to rig it up that way if you start right," he said. "A growing community like Hernando County has the ability to do it right."
Sarasota County's model
Examples for Hernando to build upon abound, and Sarasota County stands out prominently.
Its Sarasota 2050 plan, submitted to the state for approval last month, includes possible answers to many issues that growing counties grapple with daily. The basis for the current proposal, which emerged after years of heated debate, came from a report generated by the Urban Land Institute, an independent think tank.
The organization suggested making existing communities nicer to live in, and encouraging "smart" growth in areas outside the area intended for urban and suburban spread. It posited that Sarasota could preserve green space while acknowledging growth through compact, mixed-use villages, county planner Olga Ronay said.
Part one of Sarasota 2050 proposes a program to help improve existing neighborhoods. These plans would deal with the infrastructure, housing stock, and the local shops and businesses that serve them.
The county had seen such efforts begin to yield success in the retirement village of Englewood, near the Charlotte County border, and the upscale resort community of Siesta Key. This section of the plan would consolidate current and future projects.
A gradual transformation
When the post office left the original Englewood village in the late 1960s, it didn't take long for the neighborhood to slide downhill, residents said. By the mid-1990s, the area easily bore the label "blighted," said Linda Pierce, executive director of the Englewood Area Chamber of Commerce.
Working with the county, local business people and homeowners created a community redevelopment area with special taxing privileges. The aim, Pierce said, was to revive the tourism-dependent area as a draw, which in turn would make the area a more attractive place to live.
Change has come gradually, with a lot of work remaining.
Red bricks now mark intersection crosswalks. The addition of roadside parking and four-way stops slow traffic on the former speedway of the area's main road. An eclectic mix of galleries and boutiques slowly is replacing the car repair shops, hardware stores and other older businesses, brightened up with paint and landscaping.
Some residents even have begun to repair long-ignored homes and put them on the market at vastly higher values.
Angie Radkins, co-owner of Grass Roots Gallery, said the county has helped owners get past minor building restrictions. When it became clear a nicer restaurant would not come without the ability to sell wine, she said, the county eased its liquor laws. Government was, in a word, flexible.
Four years ago, Radkins and her husband refused to invest in the neighborhood. They opened shop in December.
"It took awhile for everybody to buy into this," Pierce said. "But I think now there's good business owners down there. There's strong leadership. The excitement is building."
Siesta Key had different problems, and tackled them in a different way.
The community was built in the 1920s as a walkable beach resort. When cars became more prevalent, zoning rules changed, and the shops that once all touched the sidewalk gave way to parking lots with buildings in the back.
Big signs started to pop up. Merchants disappeared, and real estate offices took up the space. The area, with the same zoning as Tamiami Trail/U.S. 41, was becoming less what residents and merchants wanted.
Using community input as a guide, in 1999 the county developed a new set of zoning rules for the key that more closely reflected the desired atmosphere. The Siesta Village Association, meanwhile, worked out an architecture and landscaping plan that is in its final stages of design.
It is too soon to see any major results, said Troy Syprett, owner of the Daiquiri Deck, who helped devise the plan. But people have high hopes, he said.
"I live out here. I was born in Sarasota. I've been in business out here for 10 years," Syprett said. "I like Siesta Key. I want to see it improve."
Could these ideas work in Hernando County? Leaders have implied the answer is "yes."
Wieczorek, the Hernando planner, said the neighborhood surrounding the intersection of Northcliffe and Mariner boulevards, in the heart of Spring Hill, could thrive if a similar county-community effort took hold there.
Commissioners last year briefly flirted with the idea of creating special development rules for U.S. 19 south of Spring Hill Drive, suggesting such a program could maintain that area's "unique character."
And residents frequently have spoken about what they might do to improve the older parts of Spring Hill, as their deed restrictions expired and their civic association struggled.
The idea of rural villages
Miki Renner, a co-organizer of Hernando's workshop, said she believes the county also could benefit from adopting standards for some, if not all, future development in rural and agricultural areas, such as Spring Lake. Huge portions of the county fall into that category.
The adoption of growth boundaries, paired with the ability to create attractive neighborhood-oriented communities, could boost land values while also improving the county's overall look and protecting the environment, said Renner, a Swiftmud planner who once headed the county Planning and Zoning Commission.
"Often, the way we currently develop and grow is detrimental," Renner said.
The largest section of the Sarasota 2050 plan tackles this issue of building communities outside the county's urban service area.
Currently, rural properties in Sarasota County can have one home per 5 or 10 acres. They generally are not served by county utilities, paved roads or other amenities.
A proposed village and hamlet district east of I-75 would allow three homes per acre. To build such high-density projects, homes would have to be clustered in neighborhoods around a village center of shopping, schools, office space and the like. At least half of the project's land would be retained as undisturbed green space.
Development incentives and tradeoffs are part of the package. And the developments must be "fiscally neutral," so people living in other parts of the county do not have to pay for growth in areas where it had not been intended.
The county touts this concept as an "alternative to urban sprawl." Such development would minimize infrastructure costs, traffic congestion and environmental degradation, according to the plan.
This idea comes from an increasingly popular trend called "neotraditionalism." It has gained attention in such noted communities as Celebration, near Disney World, and Seaside, the setting for The Truman Show movie. Hernando Oaks, a subdivision under construction at U.S. 41 and Powell Road south of Brooksville, is attempting the design now, without county incentives.
Orange County adopted the village concept in 1994 as a development standard for the 38,000 acres of former citrus land called Horizon West, just west of Disney World.
The land is zoned as rural-agricultural, and it sits outside the area where Orange County provides urban services such as roads and sewers. When freezes took the land out of citrus production in the early 1990s, landowners found their only option for residential construction was one home to 10 acres and no services.
With highway extensions imminent, they knew development would come. And to see what they did not want, the landowners needed to look no further than the other side of Disney.
"There was a lot of commercial, particularly oriented around the interchanges, because it's very near Disney," said Carol Stricklin, a chief county planner. "On the other side of the lakes is International Drive. There was a fear of budget motels and T-shirt shops."
To forge their own future, landowners began looking privately for alternatives. The county joined the effort soon after. Together, they crafted a voluntary program that allows for higher-density neighborhoods with urban services within the rural area, Stricklin said.
"Since that time, we have adopted two villages," she said. "One is called Lakeside. It was initiated by Orange County in an area identified as most likely to develop first."
The second, Bridgewater, was privately driven. The county spent nothing designing the project, Stricklin said.
Developers currently are subdividing and zoning the land while the infrastructure is installed.
As Hernando embarks upon its planning effort, participants in Sarasota's process offered some views on the method and the content.
Their message contained some simple tenets:
Pay attention to the details, because your opponents will.
Do not expect overnight results.
Involve as many stakeholders as possible, to better ensure the results are practical and acceptable.
Do not allow any group, including government, to dominate the process.
"Everything is delved into by all the various interests, so there's wrangling, fighting, fussing and feuding from Day 1," said Bill Zoller, president of the Sarasota Council of Neighborhood Associations.
Dan Lobeck, an environmental lawyer, said potential participants need to be aware of concepts that sound good but actually do not achieve what residents want. Participants must know all the ins and outs, Lobeck said, so they do not get snookered.
Hernando should think carefully before following Sarasota's lead, he said.
"The people of Hernando County should run from the Sarasota 2050 concepts like the plague," Lobeck advised. "It's a scheme by pro-growth interests."
Dickson Clements, executive vice president of the Homebuilders Association of Sarasota County, praised the effort to set standards because it brought all sides together to look at the future. But he worried that the limited incentives would not lure landowners or developers to make use of the village model.
"The advice I would have is to gather as much input as they possibly can from the landowners as to what it is they see as needing to happen for such a project to be successful," Clements said. "You can only provide what the market is interested in."
All acknowledged the value of having people from all walks come to the table for this serious discussion.
The hard part, Clements observed, is trying to strike the perfect balance.
Renner had no illusions that Hernando's effort will find satisfactory answers after a one-day session, much less in days or weeks. The workshop, she said, is just a first step on the path to a long-range solution.
"We want to bring the alternatives to the community," Renner said. "Is the way we're going what you want to see?"
During the workshop Thursday, residents will get their first chance to answer that question and suggest actions that might produce a better Hernando County.
Officials said additional public hearings and planning sessions will follow.
_ Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solocheksptimes.com.
Officials encourage interested residents to attend. For information, call Paul Wieczorek at 754-4057, ext. 116; Mikel Renner at 796-7211, ext. 4413; or Gene Kelly at 796-7211, ext. 4464.
The Dearborn Street area of Sarasota County's Old Englewood Village, where old mixes with new, has been revitalized through a community-county partnership. Hernando County wants to build on lessons learned by Sarasota County and other areas.