Motion to hold public hearing on appeal fails during April 2 board meeting
On April 2, only Sarasota Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie supported Commissioner Willie Shaw’s motion for a public hearing on an appeal of the city Planning Board’s unanimous approval of a proposed Fruitville Road development. The crux of the issue is that half the residents will be homeless individuals transitioning into permanent housing.
Confusion ensued immediately after the 2-3 vote on the motion, as commissioners sought clarification from City Attorney Robert Fournier about the result. Fournier reminded them that four votes — a super-majority — were necessary for them to be able to hold a quasi-judicial hearing on the appeal.
The decision capped almost exactly four hours of presentations, public comments, questions and discussion about the project, Arbor Village, which is slated for 2901 Fruitville Road, across from the Sarasota Fairgrounds and adjacent to the Pen West Park. In fact, it was the owner of the latter property, George C. Perreault, whose attorney — Dan Lobeck of Sarasota — had filed the appeal with the city regarding the Feb. 14 Planning Board decision.
Just before the vote on Shaw’s motion, Vice Mayor Liz Alpert and Commissioner Hagen Brody voiced concerns that the opposition to the development was rooted in discrimination against the potential residents, some of whom likely will have substance abuse and mental health problems.
The staff memo explaining the April 2 agenda item said that of the 80 proposed residential units in the apartment complex, 50% are to be leased to homeless individuals with disabling conditions, and 20% of those are to be reserved for “persons transitioning from community residential care” or those who have been chronically homeless.
The developer has received $19,950,400 in grants — including $15,100,000 from the Florida Housing Finance Corp. — for the project, the staff memo pointed out.
While the applicant has been upfront about the plans for the tenants, the memo said, city staff reviews of site plans typically do not discuss the potential occupants of new dwellings. The city does not have any regulations regarding the types of people who can live in residential units, the memo added, because that “would be a violation of the Federal Fair Housing Act.”
Along with the apartment building, the project will include a 10,000-square-foot office structure, the memo noted.
Brody referenced what he called “a lot of misinformation [that] was disseminated throughout the community” that surrounds the site. (A number of the members of the public who spoke during the meeting mentioned flyers they had found at their homes, providing details about the project and the City Commission meeting that evening.)
“I cannot and will not entertain a discussion on a site plan … that’s focused on the type of people that are going to be living there,” Brody said.
“I definitely am a supporter of Housing First,” Alpert pointed out, referring to the years-long priority of the City Commission for dealing with homelessness in the community: enabling individuals to transition into permanent housing instead of having to live in a shelter. “This is what Housing First is,” she added of Arbor Village.
The City Commission’s obligation, she stressed, was to make sure the project complied with the zoning code. The five Planning Board members considered all the issues and agreed that Arbor Village, as proposed, does meet the standards of the code, she pointed out.
A number of the 28 people who addressed the board on the issue said they just wanted to have their voices heard, that they were upset that they had had no advance notice from the city about the Planning Board meeting and that no neighborhood workshop was held on the proposal.
Lucia Panica, the city’s chief planner, explained to the commissioners that staff followed standard protocol by notifying property owners who live within 500 feet of the site. No community workshop was required, Panica added, because no rezoning or other issue was involved that necessitated such a gathering, according to the city’s zoning regulations.
The people who were upset about the project were heard the night of April 2, Alpert said. “There would be nothing different at another hearing.”
Freeland Eddie disagreed, however. “The concern that I have is that the notice didn’t reach the people most affected.” A public hearing was necessary, she continued, “to get to the bottom of this.”
Pointing out that she has been a strong proponent of housing for homeless individuals, Freeland Eddie said she still felt the project could work, but not as it was presented. “I think we have a duty to have a public hearing.”
Earlier, Shaw had questioned Fournier about whether the opening of Arbor Village would have any impact on the number of beds for the homeless that the city and the County Commission contract with The Salvation Army to make available.
Fournier responded that Arbor Village would have dwelling units, not beds.
“All of this just happens to be in District 1,” Shaw said, referring to his district, which includes Newtown and north Sarasota.
Finally, Fournier told Shaw, “I don’t think it’s part of the relevant criteria for approval of the site plan [for Arbor Village].”
At Fournier’s suggestion, Lobeck was given 20 minutes to make a presentation on behalf of his client, explaining why the appeal was filed. Then the Arbor Village project team was given 20 minutes to discuss its plans. The public comments followed those presentations.
At the outset of his remarks, Lobeck emphasized the lack of notice to the affected neighborhoods and businesses and stressed that no effort was made to ensure the Latino residents in the area received any communication in Spanish.
Michelle E. Winiecki, manager of Pen West Park, pointed out that the office complex has “several world-class tenants,” including the Dattoli Cancer Center. The businesses provide thousands of jobs in the community, she continued, and they pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in city taxes. “We are interested in the overall health of the surrounding neighborhood, and we have invested in that community by donating five Habitat for Humanity houses,” she added.
“Our primary concern is the safety and security of our tenants.”
Based on figures provided by the project team, Winiecki pointed out, it appeared that Arbor Village would have about 328 residents. Yet, because of the scarcity of amenities planned in the apartment building, she added, “There is almost nothing compelling inside to attract [the tenants].” As a result, she said, they will be inclined to wander into the neighborhoods and public spaces in that area.
Lobeck noted that the plans called only for a clubroom, not even a clubhouse, on the site.
(The executive summary in the application provided to city staff says the building will have on-site counseling rooms, a laundry room, a covered lanai and free parking, as well as the clubhouse.)
“The neighborhood will be their amenities, including my client’s office park,” Lobeck said. “This is not a properly designed property.”
“The community just wants to have a voice in the process,” Winiecki told the commission.
And even though the applicant had noted the intent to provide services to the formerly homeless tenants, Lobeck continued, nothing in the materials filed with city staff showed that the residents would get the help they would need.
At one point, Lobeck showed the commissioners a photo of the site, noting the “heavily wooded lot next door. … Now that’s a really good idea for people who are struggling to overcome problems of drugs and alcohol abuse … Not good siting in that respect.”
Lobeck called Arbor Village “little more than a flophouse” in a neighborhood of businesses and residents, winning a sustained round of applause from audience members.
Making their case
Representing the applicant, William Merrill III of the Icard Merrill law firm in Sarasota, told the commissioners, “We’re sorry that we’re here, but it is what it is.”
The project team believes the real reason behind the appeal, he continued, is that Perreault — the owner of Pen West Park — has a contract to purchase the site if the applicant, Blue CASL LLC, backs away from its Arbor Village plans.
Shawn Wilson, president of Blue Sky Communities in Tampa — one of the partners in the project — then explained that he has been a developer of affordable housing in Florida for 26 years. “We’re property managers,” he said. “We care about keeping the properties nice.”
He told the board he needed “to set the record straight” on the number of residents planned for the apartment building. The figure Winiecki had cited, he said, was the maximum capacity the project team had to provide on documents related to fire prevention measures, under state law. “I don’t think there’s going to be more than about 100 residents in this community.”
Most of the one-bedroom units will have a solitary tenant, Wilson continued, while the two-bedroom units likely will have two-person households.
At one point, Wilson turned to the audience members and spoke to them in Spanish. When Mayor Freeland Eddie asked him to translate, Wilson replied that he was assuring “all my Latino friends” there tonight that Arbor Village would be well-built and well-maintained. He added that he readily would give anyone his cellphone number, so people could call if a problem arose at the apartment building.
“You’re looking at the guy who’s going to be here two years from now or 10 years from now,” if a Code Enforcement or trespassing issue arises, he added. “This is a serious real estate development that’s going to be a big asset for the community.”
“I do feel bad” that neighbors of the project site did not know about the plans earlier, Wilson told the commissioners. However, he added, the project team members had met one-on-one with the commissioners — except for the mayor — to talk about Arbor Village and had planned to take cues from them about whether any discussions should be held with community residents. (Freeland Eddie’s schedule had not allowed for the meeting, Wilson said.) “The cues we got did not induce us to do additional outreach.”
Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch indicated that he must have misunderstood her, because she had given him just such a cue.
Scott Eller, CEO of Community Assisted and Supported Living (CASL), which is also a partner in the project, explained that it would be a violation of federal law to talk about the type of occupant who would live in a building. Therefore, he added, “to me, the safest thing to do was follow the city [planning] process.”
Another person with Merrill and Wilson, James K. Green of West Palm Beach, explained that he has litigated fair housing issues in Florida for many years. “America and the city have made great strides towards equal opportunity in housing,” he said. “We’re going to urge you not to let the [Pen West] office building owner lead you astray … by using code words and playing to fears about people with disabilities, especially people with disabilities who are going to receive the kind of quality support services that Mr. Eller and his organization provide.”
Those services enable homeless individuals to become independent so they can live and work off the street, “and stay off the street,” Green pointed out. “Everyone deserves a fair chance to get housing in the neighborhood of his or her choice. That’s all we are seeking here.”