In their mishandling of affordable housing initiatives, city commissioners fail to uphold responsibility to serve constituents


We knew that one Sarasota city commissioner had designs on becoming a Sarasota County commissioner. Even though Hagen Brody failed in that quest, losing in the August Primary, he and three of his city board colleagues this week demonstrated just how well they could emulate the County Commission at its worst.

Over the past several years, residents of the eastern part of the county and Siesta Key, especially, have pleaded with and implored the county commissioners to give credence to their concerns about development issues. What has the County Commission’s response been? Casting votes diametrically opposed to what the residents requested.

On Sept. 19, city neighborhood leaders and residents were the ones who pleaded for more community outreach before the city commissioners voted on a controversial Comprehensive Plan amendment and related ordinances designed to encourage the construction of more affordable dwelling units in the city. They repeated arguments that they had expressed in emails to the commissioners over the past weeks.

That night, in typical “ready-fire-aim” fashion, four of the five city commissioners approved the controversial Comprehensive Plan amendment and the related ordinances.

As the lone opponent in all but one of those votes, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch supported her constituents in calling for the additional staff outreach, to enable residents to understand exactly what was being proposed and to provide them the opportunity to suggest tweaks. (The only ordinance she voted for pertained to the creation of a “Missing Middle” overlay zoning district, which would allow an increase in residential density when part of the extra units were considered “attainable,” based on their cost. That ordinance also encourages a wide range of housing types.)

It was not until after those votes that City Manager Marlon Brown acknowledged — at long last — that staff indeed had not conducted the multitude of meetings that staff had made clear it would hold in developing the Comprehensive Plan amendment and the ordinances. Brown used the word “robust” in stressing that staff would make sure to engage with the public as it works on the necessary zoning text amendments to implement the new policies.

Yet, one of the county’s biggest proponents for affordable housing — former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, senior vice president of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation in Venice — tried to tell the city commissioners that it was not clear that the Comprehensive Plan amendment would “actually result in the creation of new affordable housing …”

He suggested, at the very least, a tweak to the base residential proposal, which is 25 dwelling units per acre, except on North Tamiami Trail, where the figure will be 35. The way the amendment was written, he pointed out, meant anywhere from zero to 25 units per acre.

Moreover, Thaxton referenced comments of City Manager Brown and representatives of the Planning Department, who had emphasized that everything they were proposing to achieve affordable housing stock had come from a local committee that had worked on such issues.

That local group, the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee, would be releasing updated recommendations the very next day, Thaxton pointed out. Why not wait on those before proceeding, he told the commissioners.

Through hours and hours of testimony on Sept. 19, numerous representatives of neighborhood groups talked about the complexity of the Comprehensive Plan amendment and the related ordinances. Give them more time, they begged the commissioners, to be sure they understood the nuances of those proposals. Yes, the city needs affordable homes, they agreed, but make certain that the ideas staff had brought forth would not cause unintended consequences that would change their lives forever.

Ahearn-Koch herself emphasized the lack of detail in the future land use map that staff has proposed to allow for the construction of affordable housing units along commercial corridors and in aging shopping centers. She had yet to receive the property identification numbers for the affected parcels, she said, so she — and others — could determine which properties they abut.

It appeared, she said, that most of the parcels where the new development could occur are adjacent to single-family residential or other low-density areas.

City Planning Director Steve Cover’s response: That will come up during the Oct. 17 public hearing on the map. “We’re still working on putting that information together.”

Needless to say, it would be nigh on impossible for any of the neighborhood leaders to take comfort from Cover’s responses.

Some speakers noted that the final vote on that new land classification map is scheduled for the commission the day before the Nov. 8 General Election, when two at-large city commissioners would be elected.

All three of those candidates — including incumbent Ahearn-Koch — have expressed reservations about city staff’s proposals.

Yet, most of the commissioners took the stance of City Manager Brown during the Sept. 10 meeting of the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations of Sarasota (CCNA): No more waiting should be allowed.

As though to make up for the shortfalls in public outreach prior to the Sept. 19 meeting, City Planning Department staff members joined City Manager Brown in stressing that it would take years to get the zoning text amendments written and approved. As that work is underway, staff members would conduct plenty of meetings, they said — more than once. They would work with residents to ensure the text amendments were considered carefully, they promised.

How can residents put any stock in those assertions, since the series of public meetings staff vowed to hold in advance of hearings on the Comprehensive Plan amendment never materialized?

On the night of Sept. 19, as Mayor Erik Arroyo, Vice Mayor Kyle Battie, Commissioner Liz Alpert and Commissioner Hagen Brody were casting their last votes in favor of the agenda items, the Commission Chambers was far emptier than it had been earlier in the day. We attribute that not only to the lateness of the hour but also to the fact that residents knew their pleas had fallen on deaf ears.

Yes, the majority of the Sarasota city commissioners demonstrated once and for all — just as the county commissioners have on far too many occasions — that they may have heard the residents’ pleas. They just did not listen to them.


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