Commissioner Christine Robinson is the lone board member to oppose the change
None of the Sarasota County commissioners offered comments on the matter before voting 3-1 on Sept. 22 to reduce the requirement for the number of units to be constructed in the county’s Affordable Housing Overlay from 50 or 60 percent of a development to 15 percent.
The airing of their views took place two months ago, when Commissioner Christine Robinson — who cast the lone minority votes on both occasions — questioned a developer’s proposal to build 100 affordable housing units instead of 300 in the Palmer Place project planned east of Interstate 75. The community has been designed for up to 600 homes on 412 acres east of the Palmer Boulevard and Iona Road intersection.
Vice Chair Al Maio recused himself from the discussions in July and this week because he serves on the Habitat for Humanity Sarasota board of directors. The developer, Kolter Land Partners, based in Palm Beach County, has said it will contribute $3 million to Habitat for Humanity Sarasota in lieu of the extra 200 affordable homes.
During the July 14 discussion, Robinson pointed out that she had watched the 2007 County Commission discussions that led to the creation of the current affordable housing policy in the county’s Comprehensive Plan. (She joined the board in late 2010, serving out the unexpired term of Commissioner Shannon Staub.)
“I can’t support this [revision of the Comprehensive Plan] because I believe we’re going to create a domino effect with [Sarasota] 2050 properties,” she said, forecasting further attempts ahead “to buy out” affordable housing. While she understood Habitat representatives anticipated being able to leverage the $3 million Kolter contribution into a total of $6 million, she continued, “I can’t ignore what’s being lost.”
Representing Kolter, Robert “Bo” Medred of Genesis Planning and Development in Sarasota, told the board that when the county adopted its affordable housing pilot plan, “we were flying blind …” The requirement for 50 to 60 percent of the homes to be sold to lower-income buyers “was too high a bar,” he added.
The county Future Land Use Policy 3.1.7, adopted in 2007, called for at least 50 percent of the homes in the overlay district to meet the definition of “affordable housing” and to remain so in perpetuity, or for at least 60 percent of the units to meet the affordable housing definition and to remain owner-occupied for at least 10 years from the closing date of their purchase.
During the July 14 discussion, David Langhout, vice president of Kolter, told Robinson that when the policy was adopted, the Palmer Place project called for two to five dwelling units an acre. It will end up with 1.4 units per acre, he added. Regarding the 50 percent affordable homes provision, he said, “[It] is kind of indefensible.”
Furthermore, Langhout explained, the company never proposed that the 300 affordable housing units in the original plan would be “given away.”
“I have to tell you, I’m really struggling with that,” Robinson replied, calling the reduction of affordable homes “a real bargain for you all. I’m very uncomfortable with it.”
Earlier, Sarasota County Long Range Planner Vivian Roe told the board that staff research showed the typical requirement for the percentage of affordable homes in developments in other jurisdictions ranges from 5 to 20 percent. The higher level is linked to greater density, she added. “Fifteen percent is more typical of the ranges found nationally.”
The staff report
In her presentation on July 14, Roe noted the major revisions Kolter had proposed for Palmer Place. Along with the reduction in the number of affordable housing units, she said, the developer wanted to change the income level allocations for the dwellings. The original plan called for one-third of the units to be available at 80 percent of the average median income in the county (AMI), one-third at 100 percent and the last third at 120 percent AMI.
With its latest application, Roe continued, Kolter was seeking a stipulation for two-thirds to be available for purchase at 80 percent AMI and the final third at 100 percent AMI.
The current 80-percent AMI for a family of four is $48,550, she noted, which meant the maximum mortgage would be $183,012, assuming a 4-percent interest rate. The 100-percent AMI level was $60,700, putting the maximum mortgage at $234,849.
Those figures were obtained from data from the Sarasota/Bradenton/North Port Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), Roe added.
Further, Kolter had asked that the deed restrictions applying to the affordable homes remain in place for only five years. Staff did have concerns when it first reviewed the changes, Roe continued. However, Kolter representatives pointed out that the company would not be subsidizing the selling prices of the affordable units, which would be townhouses. After the five-year period, the units’ prices would be based on market value for their types, sizes, amenities and construction materials, she pointed out.
Yet another requested change, Roe said, was the ability to construct one affordable unit for every five market-priced units. The existing agreement called for 50 percent of the affordable homes to be constructed prior to the issuance of building permits for more than 75 percent of the market-rate units, Roe noted.
Additionally, Kolter wanted the period for which those prices would be available to be reduced to five years, Roe said. Under the existing Affordable Housing Overlay, she continued, if the developer constructed 50 percent of the homes to comply with affordable housing standards, those units would have to remain affordable “in perpetuity”; if the firm chose the 60 percent level, the resulting dwelling units had to remain affordable for 10 years.
When Robinson asked whether the county requirement regarding the number of bedrooms in the affordable housing unit also would be affected, Roe responded, “We are not regulating the number of bedrooms; that is correct. [That] is being regulated through the price point.”
The existing ordinance called for a “mix of units with varying bedroom counts,” reflecting the market rate dwellings of similar building type.
Langhout, the Kolter vice president, told Robinson that, in his view, the “exhaustive details” in the existing county stipulations for the housing units, including bedroom counts and the requirement for installing energy-efficient appliances, were inappropriate.
When Robinson then asked whether the revised plan completely eliminated the requirement for three-bedroom units, Langhout said that provision could be added back into the new proposal.
When it was his turn to address the board on July 14, Medred, the agent for Kolter, pointed out that, along with the $3 million contribution to Habitat for Humanity Sarasota, Kolter would spend $1 million to reconstruct a quarter-mile of Palmer Boulevard offsite of the development, including the purchase of rights-of-way and easements, at no cost to the county. Additionally, Kolter would dedicate to the county 120 feet of right-of-way on Iona Road, design the development’s stormwater system to accept drainage from future Iona Road improvements at no expense to the county, and reimburse the county $129,000 for the previous oversizing of the offsite water main for Palmer Place.
In further discussion about the requested reduction of affordable housing units, Robinson said, “I’m a huge supporter of Habitat.” However, she pointed out, the $3 million contribution would represent $15,000 for each of the 200 affordable homes that no longer would be built in Palmer Place. She added, “I know it’s going to cost more than $15,000 to build 200 Habitat homes, so how do you explain that?”
“Our intention is not to count units,” Langhout told her. “What we’re trying to do is make an impact … It’s a huge gift, and it’s going to go a long way.” Later, he referenced the $15,000 as “appropriate down payment assistance.”
Commissioner Paul Caragiulo also questioned the $3 million figure. However, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh advised the board members that they needed to recognize that “in-lieu-of payments are subject to whole different legal standards,” so the commissioners should focus only on the documentation in the application.
When Commissioner Charles Hines asked whether Kolter had considered adding another 50 affordable housing units to the site plan, or even another 25, Medred responded, “We hadn’t.”
Speaking on behalf of Kolter, Sarasota Attorney Charles Bailey emphasized staff comments’ about other jurisdictions requiring a range of 5 to 10 percent for the number of affordable housing units in new developments, and Kolter was proposing 15 percent.
However, Dan Lobeck, president of Control Growth Now in Sarasota County, told the commissioners the drop from the 50 or 60 percent level to 15 percent represented “a shredding of the affordable housing requirement.”
He added that he was disappointed county staff also was recommending the ordinance be changed to provide for those dwelling units to remain affordable for just five years. That was a public policy question that should be left to the board, he pointed out.
(Earlier in the discussion, Robinson alluded to new staff members having worked with the Kolter representatives on the proposed changes in the ordinance.)
In 2013, Lobeck noted, the developers tried “buying their way out” of affordable housing in Palmer Place; the county commissioners at that time rejected the idea.
Now Kolter is “attempting to buy [its] way out cheap. If this commission cares about affordable housing, limiting urban sprawl,” Lobeck continued, “you have to vote ‘No.’”
Attorney Bailey called Lobeck’s remarks “hyperbolic,” adding, “David Langhout is a decent, decent, sharp, intelligent guy who has really tried to make this work.”
Hines made the motion to adopt a resolution transmitting the proposed Affordable Housing Overlay changes to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity for review and comment. Chair Carolyn Mason seconded it.
Hines thanked all of those involved with the project. “This is a unique piece of property,” he said, and it was difficult under the constraints of the current ordinance to make a project viable there.
Having worked at one time for Habitat for Humanity Sarasota, Chair Carolyn Mason said, she had seen the need for affordable housing for “the $12-an-hour folks. … That’s part of the reason I’m supporting the motion.” With Robinson’s dissent and Commissioner Maio’s recusal, the motion passed 3-1.
The 3-1 vote on Sept. 22 vote marked the formal adoption of the affordable housing changes in the county’s Comprehensive Plan.