Amendment to county’s land-use and zoning regulations approved to foster affordable housing development in upper stories of old commercial centers

Siesta Key resident explains long process, with lack of help from county staff, to get answers about proposal before hearing

What used to be known as Westfield Sarasota Square, now just called Sarasota Square Mall, has lost a number of tenants over recent years. Image from Google

Among its final actions before the end of 2021, the Sarasota County Commission formally approved new measures that board members have characterized as a means of spurring the development of more affordable housing stock in the community.

Officially, they added an amendment — No. 39 — to the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC), which contains all of the county’s land-use and zoning regulations. This amendment was written, as a county staff memo explained, “to foster redevelopment through incentives that not only encourage the development of workforce housing and affordable housing options, but also address current development regulations that pose a challenge for aging commercial strip shopping centers and underperforming malls.”

Among its provisions, the amendment allows dwelling units comprising 750 square feet or less space to be used by “landowners utilizing the [county’s] Optional Commercial Redevelopment [Regulations]” in the upper stories of commercial centers, the memo said. Each unit of that size would count as half a dwelling for residential density purposes, the memo added.

Second, as another incentive for such redevelopment, the amendment removes the requirement that clerestory windows be used in upper-story dwellings in commercial centers that abut residential districts, the memo pointed out. County regulations had called for clerestory windows in such situations to protect the privacy of neighboring homeowners, the memo noted.

“The biggest advantage” to installing such windows, the memo continued, is the fact that they allow natural light into the center of the unit, as well as a view of the sky. However, “[T]hey can also cause excessive glare in the room depending on the situation of the windows and time of day. In addition, many clerestory windows cannot be opened to allow breezes and circulation.”

Third, “To further incentivize the use of, or redevelopment of [upper-story residential units],” the memo said, “additional height allowance may provide flexibility in design which would otherwise not be feasible if restricted to the height [mandated by the zoning regulations for the affected parcel].” Thus, staff called for the maximum building height be raised from 45 to 50 feet “for any part of the structure” with two stories of upper-level residential units, as long as the building is located more than 50 feet from any residential zoning district.

This is an example of a half dwelling unit, as presented to the County Commission in May 2018. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Further, the memo continued, the amendment allows for two new parking incentives. First, approval of an Optional Commercial Redevelopment plan will include approval of a parking plan, which will save the developer the $1,000 application fee for an alternative parking plan. Second, the memo noted, on-street parking spaces will be allowed, where available, to meet the parking requirements.

Finally, “To incentivize redevelopment yet stay within the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) regulations for the management of development in floodplains, part of the County’s outstanding Community Rating System (CRS) Class 5 designation,” the County Commission may approve a stormwater exemption for redevelopment that increases impervious area by less than 5,000 square feet.

Existing regulations had allowed a development to be exempt if the net change in impervious area was less than 2,000 square feet, the memo explained.

“Staff is also proposing to increase the applicable size of the redevelopment property” from 10 to 20 acres, the memo added.

Solitary speaker voices frustrations

Robert Luckner addresses the commissioners on Dec. 7. News Leader image

The item was listed on the Dec. 7, 2021 commission agenda under the “Presentation Upon Request” heading. That meant staff had not anticipated any controversy over the proposed amendment. Although a board member still can request a presentation, none of the commissioners did that day.

Nonetheless, one person had signed up to address the board — Robert Luckner, a director of the Siesta Key Association (SKA).

During the Dec. 3 SKA meeting, Luckner had told members about having seen the county’s public notice of the upcoming hearing on the proposed UDC amendment. He also had discussed the difficulty he had in trying to learn from county staff whether the amendment would affect Siesta Key, as a barrier island.

The map that he had seen published in a newspaper, with the hearing notice, was not clear, Luckner said.

During his Dec. 7 remarks to the commissioners, Luckner repeated much of his commentary to the SKA members.

“I want to be real clear upfront,” he began on Dec. 7. “I support [the amendment]. This seems like a very good move to make.”
However, he continued, “In the spirit of continuous improvement for the county,” he also wanted to express the “frustrations we on Siesta Key had.”

Luckner explained that, after reviewing the hearing notice, he called the county’s Contact Center number, 941-861-5000. When he told the staff member who answered why he was calling, he said, he was transferred to the Code Enforcement Division. When no one answered, Luckner added, he left a message.

The next day, he said, he received a call back, telling him Code Enforcement had nothing to do with the UDC amendment. Therefore, Luckner continued, he asked that he be transferred to the Planner of the Day. (That position rotates among Planning Division staff members, The Sarasota News Leader has learned. The primary role of the Planner of the Day is to assist someone who has questions about planning issues.) Again, Luckner told the commissioners, he had to leave a message.

The Monday before Thanksgiving, he said, the Planner of the Day returned his call but told Luckner he knew nothing about the proposed amendment. Further, Luckner added, the planner advised him that, even though the public hearing was scheduled for Dec. 7, only drafts of the materials for the agenda packet were available, and he could not provide those to Luckner.

When Luckner asked whether the county’s Planning Commission had addressed the proposed amendment, the Planner of the Day said that board had done so. Then, when Luckner requested copies of the Planning Commission materials from that board’s applicable agenda packet, Luckner reported to the county commissioners, the planner told him that he could not provide those, either.

Matt Osterhoudt is the director of the Planning and Development Services Department. File image

Luckner pointed out to the County Commission that staff does not keep Planning Commission agenda packet materials readily available online after those meetings have been conducted. As Luckner put it to the County Commission, “You purge everything.”

Finally, Luckner said, he spoke with Matt Osterhoudt, director of the Planning and Development Services Department, whom Luckner has known for many years. Osterhoudt was able to help, Luckner said. The UDC amendment would not apply to Siesta Key, Luckner added.

“It seems to me like it was a little hard,” Luckner said, to get the answers he was seeking. “If you drill down the right way, you get to [them].”

Luckner then suggested that the commissioners consider asking staff to revise its public hearing notices so maps are easier to read. The map in this case, Luckner pointed out, was only about 1.5 inches high. “You can’t tell what it says. … It’s hard enough to follow these things sometimes.”

He concluded his remarks by telling the board members, “I appreciate you hearing my constructive criticism.”

Chair Alan Maio responded, “I believe every word you said. That sometimes happens,” Maio added, referring to the problems that Luckner encountered in trying to get answers to his questions.

Then Maio suggested that Luckner not hesitate to email the commissioners with any questions or concerns. As chair, Maio noted, he passes along constituents’ questions to appropriate staff members, who find the answers and convey them to the constituents, copying all of the commissioners.

After Maio closed the hearing, the board members approved the UDC amendment on a motion made by Commissioner Ron Cutsinger, seconded by Commissioner Nancy Detert.