County Commission calls for Neighborhood Workshops on land-use applications to be conducted in-person, with hybrid Zoom option

Staff directed to bring revised resolution to board for a formal vote

At the recommendation of Sarasota County Commissioner Mark Smith this week, the county will revert to a policy in place before the COVID pandemic, requiring that Neighborhood Workshops on land-use applications be conducted in person.

The board members formally voted 4-1 to direct staff to bring back to them an updated version of the resolution that the commission revised in 2020, allowing for those workshops to be held via Zoom.

Chair Ron Cutsinger cast the “No” vote, saying he wanted more information first, including statistics regarding participation of county residents in workshops conducted in-person prior to the pandemic and those held via Zoom.

Smith brought up the topic during his report to his colleagues as part of their regular meeting on March 7. During the pandemic, he noted, Neighborhood Workshops could not be held in person because of the risk of spread of the coronavirus. “I believe now it’s important that we do those Neighborhood Workshops in person,” which meant requiring the applicants to plan accordingly, he said.

He had received emails asking for the change, Smith continued, “and I’ve met with residents in DeSoto Acres,” who had expressed their displeasure with a workshop they recently participated in via Zoom.

Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, pointed out that the Zoom workshops as a rule have gone well. However, he acknowledged, a couple of them recently had been plagued by technical glitches, including the one involving the DeSoto Acres residents.

Smith also pointed out that, prior to his November 2022 election, he had participated in a Zoom meeting with the county’s Planning Commission, “and some of [the members] didn’t’ even turn their cameras on … If you think there’s … a disconnect with government to the citizens, do a Zoom meeting and [the members of the body conducting the proceeding] don’t even turn the cameras on.

“I believe it’s really important,” Smith added, to require in-person workshops once again.

“I would agree,” Commissioner Nancy Detert responded. “COVID’s over. I think we at least owe the public the courtesy of having an in-person meeting,” she added. “A lot of people aren’t great at technology,” Detert continued, “and we can’t be over-dependent on it.”

However, she also said that the option of a hybrid in-person/Zoom meetings “is fine.”

In regard to such hybrid meetings, Chair Cutsinger asked Osterhoudt of Planning and Development, “How would that work?”

Osterhoudt explained that a county resolution establishes the procedures that must be followed for conducting a Neighborhood Workshop, which is a requirement in the county regulations for applicants seeking land-use changes. Therefore, he added, the commissioners simply could update that resolution to mandate in-person meetings.

However, Osterhoudt continued, “We’d have to explore that [hybrid proposal].”

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis told the commissioners, “I just don’t see how a mandatory hybrid [concept] would work, [though] it could be an option, as Commissioner Detert said.”

Later, Lewis made it clear that the board members would not be able to force applicants to conduct hybrid sessions.

The applicants themselves conduct those Neighborhood Workshops, Lewis continued. Some of them may not have access to equipment to provide a Zoom option for participants, depending on where they hold the meetings, Lewis added.

Nonetheless, Lewis said, “We could certainly bring the board some options around that [option].”

Then Cutsinger asked whether Osterhoudt had any statistics about attendance at the workshops held via Zoom, compared to in-person sessions.

After the switch to Zoom during the pandemic, Osterhoudt responded, “We actually got a lot of positive feedback.”

For example, he said, participants expressed their appreciation for the fact that they could easily see graphics and other illustrations, instead of straining to look at such materials from the back of a meeting room. Moreover, he noted, participants were happy that they could take screenshots of images that they wanted to review at length after the workshop was concluded.

“Business is done in person,” Commissioner Joe Neunder pointed out in concurring with Smith and Detert. “You have to see somebody face-to-face. You have to shake a hand.”

“In the 21st century, yes, we have the options of using technology as a supplement to doing business in person,” Neunder acknowledged.

In fact, he continued, his children use the internet — including Facebook Live options — to meet with people. He indicated that a number of those sessions take place on his children’s smartphones.

Nonetheless, Neunder questioned the difficulty some applicants might have in conducting hybrid Neighborhood Workshops.

He then reiterated his support for requiring face-to-face workshops. For example, Neunder said, an applicant coming from out-of-state needs to meet county residents if the applicant plans to do business in the county.

Commissioner Michael Moran asked County Administrator Lewis whether a bill had been introduced in the 2023 legislative session — which began March 7 — to require any local government-related meeting changes, in the aftermath of the pandemic.

As of that day, Lewis replied, county staff was not aware of such a bill. However, Lewis added, “We’ll keep an eye out for [such legislative action].”

Then Lewis asked the board members whether they wanted him to have staff schedule a discussion item for a future agenda in regard to the proposed switch to in-person Neighborhood Workshops.

Cutsinger said, “Yes” and requested data regarding residents’ participation in Zoom sessions compared to in-person meetings.

However, Commissioner Detert said, “It sounds like 5-0 [support for making Neighborhood Workshops] in-person mandatory.” If an applicant wanted to pursue the hybrid option, she added, “It’s not mandatory; it’s just nice. … So we wouldn’t need a workshop or anything.”

Commissioner Smith ended up making a motion calling for staff to revise the resolution and bring it back for a vote, and Detert seconded the motion.

After his colleagues cast their “Yes” votes, Cutsinger announced that he would not support the motion.

The notification issue

Detert took the opportunity of the March 7 discussion to voice another request that she has made in the past. That is a call for the county regulations to be modified so property owners who live farther than 750 feet from the site proposed for a land-use change be notified, as well.

As she has explained, she lives in a Venice subdivision that is close to a commercial area. Yet, Detert pointed out again this week, she typically does not receive formal notifications of applications involving property in that area. In fact, she said, “Nobody in our neighborhood gets notified.”

Detert suggested that she and her colleagues also consider a policy change to require notifications for a wider group of residents living in proximity to a site proposed for new development.

Osterhoudt of Planning and Development explained that the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC), which contains all of the land-use and zoning regulations, would have to be amended to increase the size of the area in which such notifications are provided.

Section 124-36(c)(5)c1 of the UDC contains the following provisions:

Mailed Notices (also Written Notice). When the provisions of this UDC require that mailed notice be provided, the, County shall provide the notice and mailing addresses to the applicant. The applicant may also choose to send notices to property owners outside the minimum distance requirements. The applicant shall be responsible for copying and mailing the notice a minimum of 15 days prior to the public hearing date. Notice shall be deemed mailed by its deposit in the United States mail, first class, properly addressed, and postage paid. An affidavit attesting to such mailing shall be submitted to the Administrator prior to the public hearing date. Notice shall be mailed to:”

i. “All property owners within 750 feet of the boundary line of the subject property; however, that where the subject property is part of, or adjacent to, property owned by the same person, the required notification area shall be measured from the boundaries of the entire ownership. Where such property is adjacent to property in the same ownership as the subject property of the application, the distance shall be measured from the boundaries of the entire ownership. The distance measurement shall not include public or private right-of-way.”

vii. “In addition, the County shall supply the applicant with a list of all municipalities or other public agencies that may be affected by the proposed development. The applicant shall notify these municipalities and other public agencies by mail and inform them that they have the right to be heard.”