Venice Residents Oppose New Hospital Site on East Venice Avenue
VENICE — Residents of Blue Heron Pond say they fear that if Venice Regional Bayfront Health builds a new hospital on East Venice Avenue, the 210-bed structure would bring with it more traffic to choke the nearby Jacaranda roundabout and cause both safety and flooding issues. The 50-plus-acre campus — which is big enough for the hospital to eventually feature 290 beds — is across East Venice Avenue from Wading Bird Drive, the only entrance to their 100-home subdivision.
Nothing they heard at a public workshop last October — an early vetting that many proposed developments go through before plans are formally submitted for consideration by planning commissioners and elected officials — brought them comfort. Traffic studies were not yet available, but the proposed complex — which includes a five-story, 600,000-square-foot hospital and a three-story, 65,000 square-foot medical complex that needs more than 1,400 parking spaces — could significantly change the residential area where many of them have lived in since Blue Heron Pond opened in 2003.
“It’s not that we’re opposed to Venice Regional building a new hospital; we are opposed to the location site they have chosen,” said Cheryl Carvalho, one of four members of C.A.R.E. — Citizens Against Rezoning of East Venice Avenue for Venice Bayfront Hospital — who gathered last week to discuss their concerns.
Even though the workshop was an early step, they said they wished the parent company of Venice Regional Bayfront Health, Franklin, Tennessee-based Community Health Systems Inc., would have consulted them earlier — ideally reaching a contract to purchase the property.
At the least, someone from CHS should have been there so the residents could assert that “this is not a great place to put your hospital — do you not understand that we are the people who would actually frequent your hospital but yet we would have a total bad taste in our mouth, right from the get-go about what you’re all about, because you didn’t listen to us,” Saune Kimbler said. “Nobody wants to hear us.” Residents will have other formal opportunities to speak, as zoning changes needed to build the hospital wind through both the planning board and County Commission.
The zoning question is just one complication for the hospital’s quest to move from its outdated facility on Venice Island. A court decision is expected any time on competing bids by Sarasota Memorial Hospital and Venice Regional to build new medical campuses just one exit apart on Interstate 75. The two longtime health care providers’ battle for the South County patient base goes back to at least October 2012, when Sarasota Memorial first moved to operate an urgent care center on the U.S. 41 Bypass. Over a year ago, state regulators gave a green light to both competitors’ applications to establish full-service hospitals. If both are built, south Sarasota County residents will enjoy an unprecedented choice between two state-of-the-art facilities — along with new access to maternity care and a community medical clinic for low-income patients at the Sarasota Memorial site. The presence of two new hospitals could, in turn, prove a magnet that draws even more retirees to the area. But less than a month after the state’s approval, each hospital submitted a challenge that argued against the other’s project. After a lengthy hearing this summer, a ruling is due from the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings. But that decision, too, is subject to appeal.
In response to the neighborhood concerns, Venice Regional CEO Bob Moore said in a statement that while residents will have the opportunity to speak at public hearings, he’s also happy to meet with board members of individual homeowner associations, as well as residents.
For the hospital to be built, Sarasota County must approve an application to change the zoning from RSF-3 — single-family residential — to an office-professional category, and grant a special exception for a hospital and supporting health-care facilities.
“They’re gutting the comprehensive plan by choosing that particular site,” Carvalho said. Irene Pinski, who hosted the meeting at her home, noted that the constant rezoning is common in local development, pointing to the angst over the proposed Siesta Promenade project at U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road. “The theme of rezoning — people are frustrated the plans in place get changed and not necessarily to enhance,” Pinski said. “It’s a NIMBY thing, but it’s more than that. “It’s not only our backyard,” she later added. “One of the things that frustrated me is that we have to do this, that we have to fight, that we have to fight because they want to change the comprehensive plan. “We shouldn’t have to do this, hiring a lawyer to find out ... that the deck is stacked against us.”
Blue Heron Pond was itself part of a boom in development of the area south of I-75 between Jacaranda Boulevard and River Road in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Platted in 1926, that area was once called Venice Farms and East Venice Farms — when John Nolen planned the city of Venice, he envisioned that area as a small farm community east of the city.
Both the hospital site and Blue Heron Cove are about a half-mile east of the Jacaranda roundabout, which earned the dubious distinction of being the region’s top spot for crashes since it opened in 2011. The Florida Department of Transportation poured $1.1 million into the roundabout in 2017 hoping that a reconstruction would fix flaws in lane geometry that had drivers approaching the roundabout at the wrong angle. Wait times at the roundabout increase the time it takes to get to the Publix at Jacaranda Commons Shopping Center, and the new lane striping only moderately increases confidence that the trip will be made without a fender bender.
Shaune Kimbler noted that traffic on East Venice Avenue is heavy enough now and that backups at the roundabout are so routine and predictable that her daughter must leave home by 6:40 a.m. in order to make it to Pine View School in time for classes. “Five minutes late, she can’t make a right-hand turn out of the subdivision, she can’t make it around the roundabout, she can’t go down Venice Avenue to get to 41 to get to PV (Pine View),” Kimbler said. A bus driver who picks up a special needs student in the Subdivison told Kimbler that she started her route 10 minutes earlier for the same reason. “She too has to make it out on East Venice Avenue by 20 ’til 7.” The proposed hospital’s main entrance would be just west of Blue Heron Pond, while a limited-access second entrance to the hospital campus would be directly opposite Wading Bird Drive. “I didn’t see the education traffic taken into consideration at all,” Kimbler added. “I find that a little amiss.”
The traffic impact study for the rezoning and comprehensive plan amendment, which was completed in November and provided to C.A.R.E. by the group’s attorney, Dan Lobeck, addresses additional peak-time traffic generated by the hospital. During morning peak hours, defined as 7 to 9 a.m., the hospital and medical office would add another 751 vehicle trips to East Venice Avenue, and ostensibly the Jacaranda roundabout, once it’s built out in 2021. Evening peak hours of 4 to 6 p.m. would add 830 vehicle trips. The same study calls for widening East Venice Avenue from two to four lanes and Jacaranda Boulevard to as many as six lanes.
Sarasota County currently has no plans to either fund or build that construction, though mobility fees from the hospital and other projects, such as The Floridian — an upscale 319-home resort-style rental community for residents 55 and older — could be applied to that expansion. River Road — about two miles east of the proposed hospital site — is slated to be widened to four lanes, though funding for that has not yet been secured either. The report, prepared by George Deakin of Tampa-based Deakin Property Services, also suggests that the Jacaranda roundabout will be be overwhelmed by traffic and may need to be replaced by a traditional intersection with traffic signals and turn lanes. Though the Blue Heron Cove residents are the most organized residential group, they have been reaching out to representatives from area subdivisions, including Caribbean Village off of River Road and the Venice Golf & Country Club on Center Road.
“Where is the tipping point?” Carvalho asked rhetorically. “If you don’t speak up and don’t try to manage and make smart growth decisions, it’s allowing uncontrolled, chaotic kind of growth, which nobody wants — nobody wants it.”