Wetland to Become Whole Foods Parking Lot

Whole Foods Market site was approved by Sarasota County commissioners this week. HERALD-TRIBUNE ARCHIVE

Whole Foods Market site was approved by Sarasota County commissioners this week. HERALD-TRIBUNE ARCHIVE

The problem with fighting to save a piece of paradise from a developer's asphalt is that even if you win, the developers can just keep coming back.

Gary Comp recalls how right it seemed in 1999 when his environmental assessment of a wetland full of maple trees helped sway the Sarasota County Commission not to let it become a parking lot.

This was despite the glaringly obvious fact that the would-be developers had major clout. One in particular. John McKay, from Bradenton, was a powerful state senator and soon-to-be president of the Florida senate. That meant he had a lot to say about who got state funding for local projects.

But Comp was not some easily ignored tree hugger holding a protest sign outside that wetland near University Parkway and Honore. He was the guy in charge of Sarasota County's division of natural resources. The environmental science professional had a reputation for balancing developer interest and environmental concerns.

This week, 17 years later, Comp says he can still recall the way Jim Ley stared right through him after Comp's testimony helped persuade the county commission, which voted 5-0 to save that 4.5 acres of wetland forest.

Ley, you may recall, was the county administrator then. Ley rarely met a development plan he didn't seek to accommodate. With McKay as the one asking, it looked like a political slam dunk.

Not for Comp. But he says his principled decision to tell the truth about the wetland's value pretty much marked the end of feeling comfortable in his job. He was soon targeted for a major demotion, after a contractor's controlled burn in South County went out of control and Ley blamed Comp.

An appeal before a hearing officer overturned that demotion effort, but Comp soon left for a private sector job anyway. He says he had done enough time in what he felt had suddenly become a hostile workplace.

At least he knew he had done the right thing, and, much more remarkable, that commissioners all had, too.

Chalk one up for the trees?

Not so fast. On Wednesday, a very different county commission undid that old environmental win with a 4-1 vote. The wetland is now to become a parking lot after all.

Charles Hines was the only county commissioner who voted no this week. I can only think that he didn't get the supreme urgency of the situation.

You see, though it might seem ironic to those who don't know better, the development request this time came from Whole Foods. Yes, that oh-so-groovy grocery chain that, at least in its organic and free-range ads, is devoted to protecting the natural environment.

Just not any natural environment inconveniently placed where Whole Foods wants to park cars, it turns out.

Astoundingly, a company representative told our current crop of mostly developer-hugging commissioners that Whole Foods really needs to pave that wetland because, golly, there is just no other site that would do around here. That's right, there's no other possible place Whole Foods could build!

I wish I could report that the Sarasota County commissioners all responded in skeptical unison and shouted, “Oh come off it. You think we are that stupid? And besides, who cares? You know this was decided 17 years ago! That wetland is under the county's pledge of protection!”

Instead, faced with such a panic-inducing assertion and the alleged possibility there would no new Whole Foods store, what could commissioners do but toss those 4.5 acres of trees into the wood chipper and call the asphalt delivery trucks.

I wish tree huggers could just do the same and wait a few years and then get some future set of commissioners to forget who funds their campaigns for a moment and agree to reverse the decision, forcing Whole Foods to unpave the wetland and put all the trees back.

But it doesn't work that way. Developers just have to win once.

Still, Whole Foods is so hip and all. I'm sure we can count on that groovy corporation to be good stewards of the parking lot. I'll bet they will maintain that asphalt gently and use nothing but the best organic weedkiller.