Application for Tommy’s Express Carwash on North Tamiami Trail withdrawn per May 3 letter to city staff

Developer points to site constraints and plans for operations in other parts of the county

The developer who had planned to construct a Tommy’s Express Carwash in north Sarasota had his attorney withdraw the application on May 3, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

Stephen D. Rees Jr. of the Icard Merrill law firm in Sarasota, acting on behalf of Nick McMullen, sent the letter to Tom Sacharski, a senior planner who works for the city’s Development Services Department.

McMullen, of Sarasota, is the principal of Tommy’s Express Holdings, Florida Division of Corporations records note.

Tommy’s Express Holdings had sought Conditional Use approval to build the automated car-washing operation on property located at 1716 N. Tamiami Trail.

The approximately 1.8-acre parcel lies in the northeast quadrant of North Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) and 17th Street, as city documents have noted. The structure would have contained 5,243 square feet.

McMullen told the News Leader on May 10 that the reason he and the other project team members decided to give up on the proposal was “really the inability to meet the city site plan requirements. They were very strict.’

The need to keep the Grand Trees in place on the site, and also to provide the number of parking spaces city regulations specified, “really threw a wrench in the ability to do our product on that site,” McMullen added. One issue was the location of the dumpster, he said; city regulations would not allow it to be placed on the 17th Street or U.S. 41 frontage.

In a Feb. 14 memo, City of Sarasota Senior Planner Tom Sacharski wrote Zachary Komninos of Bowman Consulting Group in Melbourne — who was on the project team — to address various remarks that members of the city’s Development Review Committee had made in regard to the Tommy’s Express Carwash application.

“Per Section VII-1401(c)(4) [of the Zoning Code],” Sacharski pointed out, “refuse containers shall be placed in a manner so that their location does not restrict internal site traffic circulation. The proposed location blocks vehicles exiting the vacuum area. Please revise accordingly.”

Then, in a follow-up document on April 17, Sacharski referenced a revised site plan submitted to city staff in March. Sacharski asked “Is the “left turn out of the wash tunnel necessary for operation? This has the potential to cause backup with the exit located so close to N. Tamiami Trail.”

The project team response was that that exit had been eliminated. That access would be used only for a left turn into the property to facilitate the collection of refuse from the dumpster.

McMullen also pointed out to the News Leader that he has new car-wash operations “coming in the pipeline” in Sarasota — on Clark Road, on U.S. 41 just south of the Stickney Point Road intersection, and on Bee Ridge Road — as well as two in Venice and three in Bradenton. He already has “12 sites that are open and operating throughout the Gulf Coast region,” he added, with 300 employees. “We said … let’s just stop wasting time and the money in pursuing that [North Trail site] any further since we have all these others we can focus on.”

McMullen pointed out, “The industry is booming,” especially given the number of cars on the roads these days.

Abundant and even ‘unprecedented’ opposition

In early March, the News Leader reported that the proposal for the business on that North U.S. 41 parcel faced strong opposition from residents who live in the surrounding area.

Additionally, leaders of the North Trail Redevelopment Partnership (NTRP) had expressed their opposition to the plans. Steve Roskamp, that organization’s secretary/treasurer, wrote in a Feb. 9 letter to the city commissioners that preliminary concepts for the proposed business had “circulated in the community for some time now.” He added, “It was our hope that attempting to force this use on the North Trail against nearly unanimous community outcry would have encouraged the developers to find a different location within Sarasota.”

In response to a News Leader request for comment about the withdrawal of the application, David Morriss, vice chair of the Partnership, wrote in a May 9 email, “It is rare, actually  unprecedented, that the NTRP comes out against a project. In the NTRP letter, we commented that the idea of locating such a clearly incompatible use immediately adjacent to residential property did not make sense, and that there are other sites that are less problematic.”

Morriss continued, “Even that early on, it should have been clear that there was not merely a NIMBY [not in my backyard] response rising; our neighbors saw this use as forcing a serious decline in their quality of life owing to noise, grossly incompatible architecture and excessive traffic generation that would likely lead to unsafe conditions both within the neighborhood and on [U.S] 41 itself. They sought hard evidence versus endless speculation. The neighborhood organized in a mature, capable and informed way — something to be proud of.

“It’s no mistake,” Morriss added, “that the [city] Zoning Code categorizes this use a ‘minor conditional use,’ one likely to create more adverse impact than those identified as ‘by right’ in the same code; such a designation gives compatibility issues more weight in a public process such as [hearings before the city] Planning Board and City Commission and even before such hearings … Clearly the basic issues were not solvable by the applicant.”

Nonetheless, Morris pointed out, “Tommy’s is a great operator and can be an asset in the right location — this was not that right location and  I suspect that pushing too hard in these cases could unnecessarily damage the brand from negative publicity.”

In regard to the neighbors’ worries about the project, Charlie Nagelschmidt, a representative of the Central Cocoanut Neighborhood Association in the city of Sarasota, explained the details in a Feb. 27 email blast, which the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations of Sarasota (CCNA) sent to its members. He wrote that while the business would be in a commercial area, it would have no direct access to U.S. 41. Therefore, he pointed out, anyone wishing to enter the site would have “to navigate into the property via 17th Street.”

Based on Tommy’s Express Car Wash statistics that he had reviewed, Nagelschmidt continued in the CCNA email blast, a projection for 50% of the maximum capacity of the new franchise would introduce more than 2,000 extra vehicle trips “onto 17th Street and neighborhood streets without bringing any added benefit to the neighborhood.”

When the News Leader asked Nagelschmidt this week whether he would care to offer comments about the withdrawal of the application, he responded in a May 8 email that he and other leaders of the Central Cocoanut Neighborhood Association “had accumulated approximately 400 petition signers, and had submitted or would have submitted 75-100 Affected Party applications from residents and businesses in opposition to this location’s use for a carwash largely because of its impact on existing properties. We also had a file of opposition letters although all had not been submitted but would have been presented to the Planning Board. The applicant was not aware of the full depth of our outreach or research but they knew it was material,” he added.

Navigating the development review process

In an April 28, routine update to city leaders regarding the status of development proposals in the city, Lucia Panica, director of the city’s Development Services Department, reported that, in April, the city’s Development Review Committee (DRC) had required yet another resubmittal of the site plan for Tommy’s Express Carwash.

The DRC already had made a resubmittal request on Feb. 15, she noted; the applicant had provided a revised site plan on March 15.

During the April 19 DRC meeting, members of the Tommy’s Express Carwash project team were present as city staff involved in land-use applications reviewed details of the March version of the plans that still did not provide answers to all of the concerns that staff had cited.

Komninos of Bowman Consulting responded to the comments that morning.

Among the lingering issues, Sacharski of Development Services explained, was the fact that the latest site plan did not show the setbacks as required for both U.S. 41 and 17th Street. He also had made that point in a Feb. 14 memorandum to Komninos.

“The north (side) setback should be 0 feet, the south (front) setback 10 feet, the east (side) setback 15 feet, and the west (front) setback 10 feet. The Site Data table must include both the required and proposed setbacks for each lot line,” Sacharski wrote.

During the April 19 DRC meeting, Sacharski explained that the city’s zoning regulations necessitated those setbacks, though he acknowledged that those regulations imposed more constraints on the proposed development.

“Due to that hardship,” Komninos asked, “is there a variance process we could apply for?”

Sacharski replied that he was not sure about that, so he would need to undertake some research.

Yet another issue he addressed with the team was the fact that a noise study provided to city staff indicated “a decibel level ranging between 72 and 81 decibels near the northern and eastern property line of the [carwash]. This decibel range is comparative to a shouted conversation and has the potential to negatively impact the surrounding properties. Staff has concern over the compatibility of the proposed use with the surrounding residential properties.”

Sacharski noted that Section IV-906(a)(2)(d) and Section IV-906(a)(5) of the city’s Standards for Review for a Conditional Use “outline the compatibility of a development with the surrounding character of the neighborhood and whether adequate measures have been taken to mitigate any negative impacts to the existing neighborhood. Staff is [concerned] that adequate measures are not being proposed to mitigate the noise that would result from the proposed development.”

A third issue that Sacharski raised involved a proposed 6-foot “opaque screening fence” that would be constructed to buffer the site from the neighboring properties. That needed to be clearly labeled and shown on all the site plans, he told the team during the April DRC meeting.

Komninos replied that members of the team had conducted a neighborhood meeting during which discussion arose about construction of a block wall instead of the opaque fencing. The wall would cut down on the noise from the business, Komninos said. “We would show the details for it [on the revised site plan].”

In regard to that neighborhood meeting, Nagelschmidt of the Central Cocoanut Association explained to the News Leader the following in his May 8 email: “In late March, almost a year after the [required] Community Workshop [on the project plans], the applicant reached out to us to set up a meeting through their attorneys at Icard Merrill. … [W]e met with them at the Icard Merrill office on April 4th.”

Nagelschmidt added, “It was a friendly meeting but after 2 hours it ended without us being able to offer any endorsement of the project.  I told the applicant: ‘We appreciate your time and effort but at the end of the day it is still a carwash and there is just no way to protect the neighborhood and businesses from the impact of a carwash running 14 hours a day.  It is not disapproval of Tommy’s as a business, we would feel the same about any carwash. It is the wrong project for this parcel.’ “

Moreover, Sacharski noted during the April 19 DRC meeting, the latest site plan did not comply with city regulations regarding the lighting levels on the property.

Additionally, Sacharski talked about differences in documents that had been submitted to the city in regard to the number of entry lanes to the property. The site plan showed two, an April 17 DRC memorandum said, while three lanes were provided on another document. “Ensure that all plans are accurate and consistent, the memorandum pointed out.

Among other comments in that April 17 document, staff noted the following:

  • No recycling plan had been submitted, as required by the City Code.
  • The city’s Zoning Code requires height of a structure “to be measured from finished grade to the top of the roof. Any appurtenance located above the roof must be dimensioned separately.” Further, the memo said, only 6 feet of an architectural feature would be allowed for a building of the proposed size.
  • The site plan must include a statement saying that displays on electronic message boards will not be changed more than once in each 24-hour period, in compliance with city regulations.
  • The city’s arborist, Donald Ullom, pointed out that the site plan has to show the “locations of all existing trees identified by common or botanical names,” plus information about the diameter at breast height of each tree, along with details about those that would be removed, or relocated, as well as those that would remain in place on the site. Ullom wrote, “Generic terms such as ‘tree,’ ‘palm,’ or ‘oak’ are not acceptable.”