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Survey results show variety of South County communities

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image County Planners Jose Fernandez and John Healey. Penny Fletcher Photo

The overlay is a proposed attempt to make the U.S. 41 corridor more appealing from Big Bend Road to the Manatee River Bridge.

By PENNY FLETCHER

RUSKIN — Similarities and differences in preference between residents of Ruskin and Apollo Beach are being examined at a series of public meetings at the South Shore Regional Library before a proposed zoning overlay is outlined for an eight-mile stretch of U.S. 41.

The overlay meetings started in May and have been geared toward exploring the visions of residents from each community and forming working focus groups to decide how to accomplish them.

The overlay is a proposed attempt to make the U.S. 41 corridor more appealing from Big Bend Road to the Manatee River Bridge.

It was recognized early on that U.S. 41 in Apollo Beach and Ruskin are different and require different approaches. Because of this, in September attendees at the monthly meeting were given remote controls to vote on images on a projection screen. It was the county’s first time to introduce the VPS, or visual preference survey technique, in South County.

Led by county planners Jose Fernandez and John Healey who have been working with residents and business owners at all six meetings, images were shown and ranked in the order they were preferred, from one to seven, with one being “I love it” and seven being “I don’t like this at all.”

Topics of the visuals were types of signs; fencing; building design; building location in relation to the parking areas and street; landscaping in the parking lot; screening of open storage and other things; and location of the parking lot in relation to the building.

Top preferences in each category were shown at the Oct. 25 meeting and it soon became obvious that Ruskin residents and business owners opted for a small-town look while those from Apollo Beach preferred a more big-box style.

Long-time Ruskin resident Sandy Council, who is serving on the Ruskin working group, pointed out that the lots in Ruskin are smaller and won’t allow for variation of how to place buildings and parking lots.

“Some of the choices we were shown are just too large for small lots,” Council said.

The Ruskin group said that old Florida style like areas of downtown Ybor City and communities like Mount Dora should be examined instead of the images they were shown.

Part of the difference between the two communities exists because U.S. 41 serves as a corridor through Apollo Beach while in Ruskin, it passes through the heart of town and serves as its Main Street.

County zoning requirements regulate the use allowed on each property and codes now regulate how the lots are developed, but the overlay is an attempt to further improve aesthetics and eliminate eyesores on properties directly fronting the highway on both sides.

One category where Ruskin and Apollo Beach residents voted almost identically was on types of permissible signs; another was fencing. After seeing five images of fencing, neither community wanted chain link fencing and agreed on a style of brick that served as a solid buffer for noise.

Residents were consistent on the look of landscaping and parking lots, all saying they preferred more pedestrian areas, rest areas and shade. They also agreed on the look of landscaping that would be placed around screening, no matter which type of screening is chosen.

One big question that arose was whether the overlay should address both existing and new development.

“It’s one thing to do landscaping and parking,” said Mike Peterson, who serves on the Apollo Beach group. “But it’s a big leap from that to tell businesses how they’re going to design their buildings. How do you retrofit what already exists in more than 40 percent of the area? New development is one thing but we don’t start with a clean slate here.”

Audience participation brought out the idea that existing buildings that do not conform to any new overlay standard could be screened and alternatives need to be considered for properties that cannot possibly conform.

“No one wants to discourage the right kind of development,” Fernandez said.

Sam Cook, a member of the Ruskin group, asked how an overlay would affect previously grandfathered properties. These are properties that were not in conformance when new zoning regulations were put into effect and whose owners received special permission from the county to remain the way they were as long as they continued to be owned (or operated) by the same owners or (possibly) continue the same type of business.

“We do not want any business owners to lose their rights,” Cook said.

The survey results showed that 77 percent of those who voted from both communities want the overlay to apply to both new and existing properties.

Because the purpose of the overlay is to improve the look of the communities to those driving on U.S. 41, there are many things people wanted addressed that an overlay cannot address because they are not in county control. These include median improvements; including landscaping, turn lanes and quality of the road. These things must be done by the Florida Department of Transportation because U.S. 41 is not a county road.

The county’s maps have separated the areas within the overlay into sections, so that they can all be handled differently when the language of the overlay is finally adopted.

“Now that we have seen your preferences,” said Fernandez, “we can start working on the language.

A preliminary draft of preferences shown by the groups will be brought to the next meeting which will be held at the library Nov. 15 at 6 p.m.

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