After initially signaling they would oppose the measure, Vice Mayor Alpert and Commissioner Arroyo approve ordinance rescinding vote of approval for apartment complex close to SRQ Airport

Second reading of ordinance part of April 17 agenda

 On April 3, Sarasota City Commissioner Erik Arroyo was the only member of his board to vote against an ordinance designed to spare the municipality further litigation — and the resulting expenses — over the commission’s approval last year of a 372-unit apartment complex only about 1,500 feet from the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport (SRQ) runway.

On April 17, as the city commissioners prepared to vote again on the ordinance — a requirement for it to be implemented — Vice Mayor Liz Alpert initially joined Arroyo in opposing what City Attorney Robert Fournier had described weeks ago as a “recission ordinance.” The document was crafted to keep in place the Future Land Use classification of the approximately 25.58 acres located at 5400 Old Bradenton Road.

That classification, as Fournier reminded the board members during their regular meeting this week, is Community Commercial.

Last year, the commissioners seated at the time voted to change that Future Land Use classification to Multiple Family-Medium Density, so a Raleigh, N.C., firm called Aventon Holdings LLC could built an apartment complex with a variety of outdoor amenities.

Frederick “Rick” Piccolo, president and CEO of the Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority, and the Authority’s attorney, Robert Lincoln of Sarasota, had stressed that a 2018 interlocal ordinance between the city and the Airport Authority stated that no construction on the 5400 Old Bradenton Road site could be pursued unless the commissioners determined that it was absolutely necessary.

During the public hearings involving the apartment complex, Alpert, Arroyo, now-Mayor Kyle Battie and then-Commissioner Hagen Brody all emphasized that the city’s apartment rents are so high that people are being forced to move away from Sarasota. They contended that the apartment complex’s units would add more housing stock and, therefore, lead to lower rents.

However, Piccolo stressed that the apartments would not be rented at levels considered to be affordable. Sean Flanagan, senior development director of Aventon, had acknowledged that the units likely would rent in a range from $1,600 to $2,200 a month. Piccolo thus characterized the complex as “luxury apartments.”

Moreover, Piccolo warned that the majority of the buildings would stand in what is termed the “65 DNL Contour,” meaning the average decibel level that residents of the complex would have to contend with from aircraft landing and taking off, day and night, would be 65 decibels.

Referring to that situation, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch pointed out during the April 17 discussion, “It’s not appropriate for humans to live in that full-time.” When the commissioners conducted their 2022 hearings on plans for the apartment complex, she cited scientific research about health problems associated with constant exposure to loud noises.

“It is our job,” she said during the Sept. 6, 2022 hearing, to protect the health, safety and welfare of city residents. “We swear an oath to this, and we know that this is a risk. We know it is.”

Then-Commissioner Brody responded, “I just, um, find those comments to be extremely hyperbolic and, um, have to defend the idea that this commission is somehow putting people at risk.”

Standing fast, at first

After City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs read the recission ordinance into the record on April 17, Arroyo told his colleagues, “I’m still voting ‘No’ on this.” He added, “The commission’s will and desire was to have housing in the City of Sarasota.” People who live in downtown Sarasota, along with residents of neighborhoods, routinely fight new housing projects, Arroyo pointed out.

Moreover, he continued, referring to the property where the former Sarasota Kennel Club stood, “This is a site, I think, that is underutilized, and we’re saying here that we want it to go back … to commercial.”

Arroyo did acknowledge that the landowner decided not to proceed with the sale agreement that had been forged last year with Aventon.

The owner of the property, as City Attorney Fournier has noted, is the Jack G. Collins Sr. Revocable Trust, whose trustee is Barbara Collins.

Arroyo emphasized that the 12th Judicial Circuit Court did not decide that the sale could not proceed. “It didn’t get to that point,” he said, referring to two complaints that the Airport Authority filed in Circuit Court to try to prevent the development on the property close to the runway.

“If our will six months ago was to have housing on this site,” Arroyo indicated that that should remain the commission’s goal.

“We don’t have many sites like this in the city of Sarasota,” he pointed out. Further, housing developments already exist in the vicinity of the airport, and — Arroyo contended — the city receives no complaints from residents of those communities.

Ahearn-Koch reminded her colleagues that, in the 1970s and 1980s, when those housing developments were constructed, city leaders were unaware of the issues related to close proximity to the airport, including the decibel levels.

Yet, Vice Mayor Alpert said, “I’m going to support Commissioner Arroyo. … It just is disappointing to me,” she added, that dwelling units would not be constructed on the land that Aventon planned to buy.

Without housing plans, Alpert continued, she expects the property to be used for surface parking or a storage facility.

“This isn’t a question of going back to [a commercial Future Land Use classification],” City Attorney Fournier stressed. “It’s never acquired the residential designation,” he said of the property, because the Airport Authority’s challenge of the Future Land Use change through a Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) proceeding put that new classification on hold in the aftermath of the commissioners’ 2022 votes.

If the board members ultimately refused to rescind the ordinance that changed the land-use classification, he further emphasized, “The lawsuits do not go away.”

“We almost have to do this?” Alpert asked of the ordinance before them that day for a second reading.

“There’s no [apartment] project anymore,” Fournier reminded her. “Now there is no real project happening.”

He also reminded the commissioners that the Airport Authority had agreed to take care of its own attorneys’ fees if the commissioners ensured the Community Commercial land-use classification remained in place. Otherwise, as he has explained, if the court cases proceeded, and the Airport Authority prevailed, the city would end up paying the Authority’s attorneys’ fees.

“It’s still very disappointing, is all I can say,” Alpert responded.

“I understand your sentiments about that,” Fournier told her.

Then Commissioner Debbie Trice, who was not a member of the board when the Aventon project was approved last year, explained, “I had a history of living in Los Angeles, and LAX Airport had had to purchase a whole housing development area under the flight path.”

The reason for that action, she continued, was the fact that if a plane had to return to Los Angeles International for an emergency landing, it would have to dump fuel to try to prevent a fire if the landing were not successful. That fuel would be spread all over that housing development, Trice pointed out, and the fuel is toxic.

Trice, too, noted the facets of the 2018 interlocal agreement that Ahearn-Koch emphasized during the hearings last year over the apartment complex plans. “It’s important for the city to have integrity” in upholding that agreement, Trice added.

The project, Trice said, “is clearly not appropriate for people to live in this area. … I would have supported the airport’s position [in 2022].”

Moreover, she continued, she could not see the commissioners at any point accepting a residential development on that site.

Then Arroyo asked Fournier how much the city already had spent on legal expenses in the Airport Authority litigation.

“I don’t know, exactly,” Fournier replied, adding that he would have to add up the figures.

Fournier also reminded the commissioners that the site plan approved in 2022 was specific to Aventon’s plans. Since that site plan was not flexible, he added, another company probably would have no interest in trying to construct those plans.

When Mayor Battie asked whether the Airport Authority would have been agreeable to a different sit plan, Fournier explained that he believed the Authority might have been, but the ordinance outlining the Aventon site plan already had been adopted. Any change to that ordinance would have resulted in a new round of public hearings, Fournier said.

In consideration of all of the facts, Arroyo responded, he would support maintaining the Community Commercial Future Land Use classification for the site. Nonetheless, he reiterated, “It’s disappointing.”

The “practical reality of the situation,” Fournier told him, would be for the commissioners to approve the ordinance before them again that day.

Finally, on a motion by Ahearn-Koch, seconded by Trice, the commissioners unanimously approved the ordinance that rescinded the change in land-use classification to Multiple Family-Medium Density.

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