Resident who advocates for environmental and long-range planning argued that another choice was necessary because of conflict-of-interest issue
A letter of protest from an advocate for environmental protection policies and long-range planning failed to elicit any response on Jan. 14, as the Sarasota County Commission addressed the reappointment of a member of the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals.
In approving their Consent Agenda of routine business items during their regular meeting in Venice, the commissioners agreed unanimously to having Jon Mast serve another three-year term on the Board of Zoning Appeals. Mast was the only applicant for the position, according to a county staff worksheet provided to the commissioners.
Commissioner Alan Maio made the motion on the Consent Agenda, and Commissioner Nancy Detert seconded it.
Commissioners routinely have reappointed members of the county’s advisory and other boards over the past several years.
As its webpage explains, the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) hears appeals concerning interpretation or administration of the county’s zoning regulations, as well as appeals regarding variances.
On Nov. 18, 2019, a majority of the BZA indicated readiness to affirm an interpretation issued by county Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson regarding a proposal to change the location of stormwater facilities to serve a waste transfer station at the intersection of Palmer Boulevard and Porter Road, in the eastern part of the county. The applicant for the appeal was TST Ventures, owned by James Gabbert of Sarasota.
However, Mast argued that Thompson was incorrect in her view. Ultimately, the BZA members ruled in Gabbert’s favor, splitting 4-3.
Having seen that Mast’s proposed reappointment was on the Jan. 14 County Commission agenda, Tom Matrullo of Sarasota asked that the commissioners “consider the potential appearance of conflict of interest presented by [Mast].”
Mast is CEO of the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association, which Matrullo contends is “a powerful construction industry lobbying entity.”
Matrullo pointed out in his letter that the BZA “exercises quasi-judiciary authority with power to approve, amend, or deny modifications to approved binding site plans.
“Because of this power to rule on the legitimacy of land uses,” Matrullo continued, “this Board’s appointments warrant an extra level of conscientious oversight. The appearance of conflict of interest could jeopardize credibility for a judicial Board.”
Matrullo noted that a county document titled BZA Section 23states, “[N]o person shall be appointed with private or personal interests likely to conflict with the general public interest.”
Additionally, Matrullo wrote, a document titled Board of Zoning Appeals Short Course for Board Members “states that the Board of Zoning Appeals has ‘Three Legal Requirements in Exercising Powers’: Most decisions of the Board of Zoning Appeals are regarded as quasi-judicial decisions. When they are reviewed by a court, they will be assessed for three criteria (1) whether procedural due process was accorded, (2) whether the essential requirements of law were observed, and (3) whether the findings and decision are supported by competent substantial evidence. Education Development Center, Inc. v. City of West Palm Beach Board of Zoning Appeals, 541 So. 2d 106 (Fla. 1989) [Matrullo’s emphasis in the letter].”
Referring to the Nov. 18, 2019 BZA appeal by Gabbert, Matrullo urged the commissioners to consider the fact that Mast “appealed for interpretative judgment on technical and evaluative matters” to Gabbert’s attorney, William Merrill III of the Icard Merrill firm in Sarasota, “asking [Merrill] whether Mr. Gabbert’s new plan was better than his former plan.”
The County Commission approved the original Binding Development Site Plan for the waste transfer station during a vote in the fall of 2015.
Matrullo asked in his letter, Could Merrill “be considered either an expert on stormwater, or a disinterested observer in this matter? It is open to serious question whether ‘competent, substantial evidence’ was the deciding factor” in the BZA’s decision that evening.
Expertise as county employees
During the November 2019 BZA hearing, both Mast and BZA Chair Paul Radauskas cited their expertise, as former long-time county employees, in arguing that changes in site plans such as the one Gabbert sought had been made numerous times in the past without the need for the County Commission to address the modifications.
Zoning Administrator Thompson’s interpretation was that the proposed changes needed County Commission review and approval, based on her reading of county regulations.
Radauskas was named the county Building Official in June 2002, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Prior to that, he served as executive director of development services for the county.
In his application for reappointment to the BZA, Mast noted that he previously served as general manager of the Planning Development Services Department — as it was called then — and as manager of land development. In the latter capacity, he pointed out on his application, he adjudicated “land development and zoning codes” for the county. That experience, he continued, “gives me the unique ability to contribute to this community.”
Radauskas and Mast told their BZA colleagues on Nov. 18, 2019 that because the proposed new stormwater facilities’ configuration involved a parcel immediately south of the waste transfer facility site, they believed the plan complied with county regulations. Thus, they deemed Thompson’s interpretation incorrect.
Mast’s other qualifications
Along with serving on the BZA, Mast noted in his application for reappointment that he is chair of the county’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee, a member of the Suncoast Technical College Carpentry Advisory Committee, chair of the Florida Home Builders Association’s Executive Officer Council, and regional director of the board of the Executive Officers Council of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). A county native, Mast also pointed out that he is a Florida-licensed general contractor, as well as a member of the Sarasota Republican Party and the Sarasota Republican Club.
In response to the application question about what he felt would be his most important contribution to the BZA, Mast wrote, “To discern how [the] Sarasota County [Code] affects a property owner” and how a request for “relief from the code” will affect the community at large.
The final question on the application asks, “Are you able to express your opinion even though it may not be the view of other board members?” He checked “Yes.”
Mast first was appointed to the BZA in July 2017; that action also was a Consent Agenda item, county documents show.
The attendance record for the BZA for 2018-19, which was provided to the commissioners in advance of their Jan. 14 session, noted that Mast was present for 64% of the board’s meetings.
The only member with a lower attendance mark — 60% — for the same two years was Justin Powell. He is vice president of Palmer Ranch Holdings.
Conversely, Chair Radauskas was present 91% of the time, and member James Piatchuk attended all of the meetings. Piatchuk, also a Sarasota native, is an architect who established his eponymous firm in January 2014, his LinkedIn account says.