Draft of form-based code not expected to be released to Sarasota city staff before March 9

Mayor expresses dismay with another delay in the completion of the document

Planning Director Steve Cover and Urban Design Studio General Manager Karin Murphy appear before the City Commission on Feb. 5. News Leader photo

The mayor of Sarasota repeatedly expressed dismay this week after learning that the completed draft of the city’s new form-based code would not be available until March 9. The date falls two weeks after the city commissioners will hold a special meeting on setback and sidewalk provisions in the document, which will be a comprehensive revision of the city’s zoning regulations.

“I’m not happy about that at all,” Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie said of the latest delay during a Feb. 5 discussion of public meetings on the document. “I’m just asking for what this commission directed.”

City Manager Tom Barwin pointed to the complexity of the process to create the form-based code. “It’s just a lot of work, and I think everyone’s intended to try to get this to you as quickly as we can.”

When did staff plan to tell the commission that the full draft would not be ready by Feb. 22, Freeland Eddie asked Barwin.

“This is a work in progress,” he replied, adding that he is “not sure” of the date when it will be finished.

During a Nov. 30, 2017 special commission meeting, Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown told the board that the draft form-based code would be completed by the beginning of February.

Vice Mayor Liz Alpert sought clarification on Feb. 5 about whether staff would receive the full draft before the commissioners will see it.

Karin Murphy, the Urban Design Studio consultant who has been leading the effort to revise the zoning regulations, said that city staff wants to have about two weeks to review the draft before the document is released to the commission.

“So staff doesn’t even get it till March?” Alpert asked.

“Correct,” Murphy replied.

City Attorney Robert Fournier. File photo

Commissioner Hagen Brody pointed out that City Attorney Robert Fournier had worried, too, about having sufficient time to review the full draft.

“Adopting a schedule to adopt a document that isn’t completed and unseen is a concern,” Fournier said. “I would like to have a completed, fully integrated document to look at as a whole … at some point.”

When Freeland Eddie asked for clarification that Fournier had not seen a draft, he told her, “No. No.” He had not wanted to review segments of it, he added, as those could change, which would affect the flow of the final version.

In response to questions from The Sarasota News Leader about when work began on the form-based code, the city’s senior communications manager, Jan Thornburg, wrote in a Feb. 7 email, “The Urban Design Studio came into existence during the 2013-14 fiscal year.”

In regard to the city’s expense thus far for the project, Thornburg added, “Through the 2017-18 fiscal year, $1,354,861 has been allocated for consulting work [on the form-based code]. That total includes salaries, office supplies, postage for mailings, training/travel, etc.”

Amending the schedule for public review

The latest schedule for the form-based code’s release came up on Feb. 5 as the commissioners reviewed a revised calendar for the meetings they feel will be necessary this year to allow sufficient public review of the regulations before they implement them.

On a 4-1 vote, the commissioners did approve the rescheduling of city Planning Board meetings on the code from August to September, out of concern that many residents are out of town in August, let alone the fact that snowbirds are absent in the summer.

Planning Director Steve Cover and Murphy, general manager of the Urban Design Studio, appeared before the City Commission after Vice Mayor Alpert pulled the proposed new schedule from the board’s Consent Agenda No. 1; Alpert said she wanted to make certain she was considering the correct document.

The primary differences in the latest schedule, staff explained, were the elimination of March 1 and March 8 community workshops; corresponding adjustments to the April schedule; the inclusion of three city Planning Board hearings in August; and the shift of the final two City Commission public hearings from September to Oct. 29 and Nov. 13.

City staff has proposed this schedule for form-based code meetings in March. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Commissioner Willie Shaw then said he had received phone calls from residents, asking that the August Planning Board hearings be moved to September. “There’s not that much participation [of residents in city functions] in August,” he pointed out.

“We could certainly do that,” Cover replied.

In November 2017, Freeland Eddie said, the commissioners had worked to schedule all the meetings before the Sept. 30 end of Murphy’s contract with the city. The changes would appear to derail that, she added.

“It’s an unknown,” Murphy said of her plan for leaving Sarasota, adding that she would not be certain about her personal schedule until March or April.

During the Nov. 30, 2017 special meeting, Murphy indicated that she had another commitment lined up following the conclusion of her work on the code. On Feb. 5, however, she said she might still be in the city after the end of her contract. In November, she told the board she would be able to come back to the city if she were needed at any of the meetings held after Sept. 30.

Commissioner Brody noted his desire that she be present as the commission completes the review and adoption of the new regulations. “I’m more concerned about getting this right by the person that’s been working on it for three years. … I would like to see this come to a head before her contract is up.”

When Freeland Eddie asked why staff was proposing the rescheduling of the special meetings originally set for March 1 and 8, City Manager Barwin replied that staff members needed “a bit more time” to make certain they were fully prepared for those sessions.

Alpert said she had no problem with the new schedule. Nonetheless, she added, “I just think that trying to get [the work] done by Sept. 30 is just going to be a really Herculean effort.”

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch agreed.

“When do we get the code?” Freeland Eddie then asked.

Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie addresses her colleagues on Jan. 2. File photo

“March 9 is when it is to be completed,” Planning Director Cover responded.

Yet, the City Commission already has a special meeting set for Feb. 22 on sidewalks and setbacks issues, Freeland Eddie pointed out.

The relevant draft sections and a narrative will be ready for that meeting, Murphy said. “We’re just about ready to launch the online version of the map” regarding those issues, she added.

The Form-Based Codes Institute, based in Washington, D.C., offers this information about what a form-based code is. Image from the institute’s website

Without the full code in front of them, Freeland Eddie replied, “it really puts us at a disadvantage in terms of asking appropriate questions.”

The February session could be pushed back, Murphy told her.

“I don’t have a problem with having the sidewalks and setbacks [meeting before the code is completed],” Alpert said. After that session, changes probably will be necessary anyway, she noted.

“I think [that Feb. 22 meeting] will be a good first start,” with the public present, Murphy told the board.

“We specifically asked that those meetings be special commission meetings,” Freeland Eddie pointed out, so the board members could take formal action on facets of the code.

“It will be specific language,” Murphy assured her, referring to the relevant sections that the commissioners will have before them on Feb. 22.

When Freeland Eddie asked about the date the board members would receive the agenda packet for that session, Murphy said she believed it would be Feb. 14.

Back to the ‘August question’

After Commissioner Shaw made a motion to move the August meetings to September, Commissioner Ahearn-Koch seconded it.

Commissioner Willie Shaw. File photo

Staff probably could schedule all of those Planning Board hearings in September, Planning Director Cover replied, with one set for each week. “There’s a lot of material to cover, and it certainly can’t be done in one night.”

After the commissioners voted, Freeland Eddie said she inadvertently had pushed the “abstained” button, so she asked for another vote. (Alpert and Brody had voted “No.”)

Then Freeland Eddie allowed Kate Lowman, a member of the STOP! organization’s steering committee — which had called for the special meetings on sidewalks and setbacks — to address the board. Lowman urged the commissioners to proceed with the Feb. 22 special meeting.

Additionally, Lowman concurred with Shaw about the need to move the August meetings to September. “Many, many of the neighborhood associations don’t even meet in the middle of the summer,” Lowman pointed out. Even year-round residents are out of town for various reasons, she said.

Furthermore, “Some of the most meaningful parts of this process … will take place at the Planning Board,” Lowman stressed.

When the commissioners voted again on Shaw’s motion, it passed with only Brody opposing it.

Shaw had emphasized that all the motion called for was the delay of the Planning Board meetings to September. “Then I can support that,” Alpert had said.