Majority of City Commission chooses to stick with current policy for special events in downtown Sarasota

Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association had sought changes

Michael Normile (left) and Patrick Gannon address the City Commission on Feb. 20 on behalf of the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association. News Leader photo

Residents of downtown Sarasota condominium complexes believe the City of Sarasota needs stricter regulations for special events in their part of the community.

The majority of the City Commission begs to differ.

On a motion by Commissioner Hagen Brody, seconded by Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie, the board members voted 4-1 to deny a request by the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association (DSCA) that the commission direct staff to modify its special events policy to give condominium and apartment residents the opportunity to prevent street closures — and, ultimately, events — under certain circumstances.

As Brody put it: “This is a solution without a problem whatsoever … This is riddled with issues.”

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch cast the sole “No” vote after about an hour and 15 minutes of discussion and public comments during the board’s regular meeting on Feb. 20.

“To me,” Brody said of the DSCA recommendations, “this proposal makes it more burdensome on the sponsors to have an event.” “It could be challenging,” Debbie Perez, manager of the Municipal Auditorium and special events for the city, responded.

Perez also voiced concern about the potential that one of the DSCA recommendations could lead to staff suddenly having to tell a sponsor who had been working on an event for 12 months that the city would not allow it.

The DSCA called for notices to be sent to all affected property owners when an event lasting between six and 72 hours would entail a street closure; those people would have 30 days to provide comments to the city, and their responses would be “a significant factor in the decision by the City to approve or deny the closure application,” the recommendation said.

City Attorney Robert Fournier. File photo

City Attorney Robert Fournier also had referenced that section of the DSCA proposals, saying it was the only part about which he had “a real legal concern.”

Staff has more than a dozen very specific reasons why it can deny someone’s request for a special event, Perez said. In the case of the 30-day comment period, she continued, some resident might be tired of art festivals and complain when notified one was coming up. “I don’t know how it would be just to deny [a sponsor] based on multiple opinions. How do we enforce that?”

If a sponsor met all the city criteria to hold the festival, Perez said she felt the sponsor should be able to proceed with the event.

“We won’t even entertain the idea [of an event] if [the sponsors are] going to completely block off access to the residences [in the affected area],” Perez also stressed to the commissioners.

In her approximately eight years in her position, Perez pointed out, she could recall only one occasion when such a situation was proposed. That was in 2016, when Suncoast Charities for Children was seeking to hold Thunder By the Bay on the eastern part of Main Street, and the plans called for blocking off Indian Place, which provides access to the residents of Rivo on Ringling, she said.

Suncoast Charities ended up moving the event to Lakewood Ranch.

The city’s current special events ordinance calls for two-thirds of the affected property owners in an area where a street closure is proposed for an event to approve the event before the city will allow it to be held. However, condominium complexes are allowed only one vote, along with other property owners, regardless of the number of residents in a building.

That situation was the primary impetus for the DSCA’s recommendations, DSCA Treasurer Michael Normile — who led the initiative to develop them — told the commission on Feb. 20. He emphasized that the 106 owners of units in the Rivo on Ringling complex were allowed only one vote in that Thunder By the Bay survey.

Rivo on Ringling is near the Sarasota County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota. File photo

Normile also characterized the DSCA’s view that the public comments should be “a significant decision factor” in whether a special event is allowed to proceed as planned.

Nonetheless, as the discussion neared its end, Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown concurred with Brody: “I don’t know if we’re trying to fix something that doesn’t need fixing.”

“That’s what I’m asking,” Freeland Eddie responded.

“I think that we should be working in the other direction,” Brody said: “to foster great events downtown. The community loves downtown events.”

“I think our job is to work out where there is a problem and where there isn’t a problem,” Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues.

People peruse a variety of arts during a November 2013 festival, with booths on Gulfstream Avenue. File photo

“We certainly don’t want to be denying people access to their own home.” The Rivo on Ringling situation, she pointed out, “seems unreasonable to me.”

Brody responded that that situation has not recurred, based on staff comments that afternoon.

Using specific criteria to deny or approve special events seems the best process, Vice Mayor Liz Alpert said.

Freeland Eddie also voiced concern about deterring groups from having special events in downtown Sarasota. What the board’s focus should be, she said, is to “plan a policy as a whole and make sure it doesn’t have a negative impact.”

Ron Soto, chair of the Downtown Sarasota Merchants Association, said of downtown, “This is a business district. We can’t go out to Bird Key and have a festival there of any type because it’s a residential area. It’s a big difference.”

“A lot of residents,” he added, like the events held in downtown Sarasota.

“It’s the broader community that we really serve,” Brody told his colleagues, noting that the city has about 53,000 residents. “I would like to see the [special events] rules streamlined.”

Getting to that point

City Attorney Fournier explained at the outset of the discussion that the DSCA’s recommendations dealt only with street closures longer than six hours and less than 72 hours. Any sponsor planning an event that would last longer than 72 hours has to seek City Commission approval, he pointed out.

Patrick Gannon, president of the DSCA, had met with him, Fournier continued, and then city staff members had talked about the proposals, agreeing that they had “some merit.”

During the DSCA presentation, Gannon explained that the DSCA had been working on its recommendations about 11 months. The effort began after the City Commission, in March 2017, discussed the potential for modifications to its special events ordinance. That public hearing ended with the commissioners, by consensus, directing the City Attorney’s Office “to consult with Staff after [it has] gathered input and information from the stakeholders and to come back before the Commission to present a report at a later date.”

If the commissioners on Feb. 20 wanted to move forward with implementing the DSCA recommendations, Fournier said, he suggested they direct staff to draft an ordinance “that would be substantively based on this proposal”; the draft would come back to them for discussion before any public hearings were set.

Fournier also indicated staff’s desire to tweak facets of the DSCA recommendations.

The DSCA proposed these recommendations for an amended city special events policy. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

As an example, he pointed to the 30-day comment period. “This isn’t going to be a sort of referendum or plebiscite, where you vote,” Fournier said, “but the comments will be taken into account.”

He indicated that complaints about problems with a specific event, or violations of the city ordinance governing special events, would be taken into consideration by staff when deciding whether to allow the same sponsor to hold another event in the future. “We think we can incorporate the general [DSCA] idea into the ordinance.”

The fourth recommendation called for no event-related street closure lasting between six and 72 hours to occur “at any given location more frequently than twice in four consecutive weeks and twelve times in twelve consecutive months.”

“That would be a lot easier to manage if it was twice per calendar month,” Fournier added.

Yet another recommendation, Normile of the DSCA noted, was for the city to prohibit any event-related street closures of any duration that would prevent vehicular access to residents on the street or in a condominium complex, unless 100% of the affected parties who would be constrained by the situation agreed to the closure.

Vice Mayor Alpert suggested that securing 100% agreement of the property owners would be difficult in many cases. Some people might not reply to the notice they received; they could be out of town, for example, she said.

City staff could make a judgment based on the number of respondents, Normile replied, stressing, “We would not want any of our buildings to have full denial of access.”

Vice Mayor Liz Alpert. File photo

He then asked the commissioners to think about a scenario in which a group of homeowners on a neighborhood street wanted to hold a block party. If the street were going to be closed longer than six hours, he said, then all the homeowners or tenants should agree to that beforehand.

But what if two of the people on the street did not respond to the notice? Alpert asked. Would the city staff have to “chase them down?”
Fournier could fine-tune that recommendation, Normile replied. It would not be workable in every case, he concurred.

When Freeland Eddie asked Perez about the 100% agreement stipulation, Perez said she felt the burden for compliance “would fall back onto the sponsor.”

Regarding the recommendation of no event-related street closures more than twice in four consecutive weeks, Normile explained that the intent was to ensure that no single high-rise complex be “unduly burdened” by the number of street closures.

Many events take place in Five Points Park, he continued, so Central Avenue should not be shut down more often than twice in each four-week period. Pineapple Avenue and First Street also border Five Points Park, he noted, so one of them could be shut down.

“This is something that’s already in process,” Perez pointed out of that recommendation. “I can understand the concern of one street being overburdened.”

“What’s wrong with the way [the special events policy] is right now?” Brody asked Normile.

The fact that the 106 individual property owners in Rivo on Ringling were reduced to one vote in the 2016 Thunder By the Bay situation, Normile replied.

After hearing from four other members of the public who, like Soto of the Downtown Merchants Association, opposed the DSCA recommendations, Brody made his motion to deny the request for a revised city policy. In seconding it, Freeland Eddie said she had not seen or heard anything to indicate condominium owners’ rights were not being protected already.