City attorney outlines city’s culpability in the years-long process
Over a period of almost three years — even as public opposition mounted — City of Sarasota leaders continued to work with a local company called Lido Beach Redevelopment Partners on plans for improvements to the city’s Lido Pavilion and Pool property, City Attorney Robert Fournier pointed out to the City Commission on Feb. 19.
The city had issued an Invitation to Negotiate (ITN) after the Lido Beach Pool Committee of the Lido Key Residents Association (LKRA) in 2012 completed recommendations for redesigned facilities that would be more attractive to the public, he continued.
On Nov. 20, 2017, the commission finally voted 4-1 to approve a lease with Lido Beach Redevelopment Partners for the 2.42-acre property on Lido Key.
The ITN called for the lease negotiations to be completed within 120 days, Fournier emphasized to the commission on Feb. 19. “That’s four months. Instead, it took almost three years.”
Opponents of the project argued that the larger restaurant Lido Beach Redevelopment Partners envisioned for the site, plus a proposed tiki bar, would lead to loud late-night revelry and beachgoers fighting frustration as they tried to find parking spaces, with more patrons coming to the new facilities. The project was too intense for the site, opponents said, pointing to the “Old Florida” feel of the Lido Pavilion, including the concession area with popular food offerings.
In early January, with more and more signatures added to a petition opposing the company’s plans, and public outcry growing, Lido Beach Redevelopment Partners’ attorney broached with Fournier the idea of his clients withdrawing their proposal in exchange for the city’s reimbursement of their expenses.
As a result, the City Commission on Feb. 19 was faced with the prospect of approving a payment of $206,224.69 or proceeding with plans to hold a public hearing on the company’s applications regarding the restaurant and tiki bar plans.
Fournier said the amount of money Lido Beach Redevelopment Partners was seeking reflected what it had put into the project since Feb. 26, 2015, when it was selected by the ITN evaluation committee as the entity with which the city would negotiate for Lido Pavilion and Pool improvements. Fournier had reduced by $20,012 the figure submitted by the company’s attorney, William Merrill III, Fournier explained in a Feb. 6 memo to the City Commission.
“The responsibility for the situation that we find ourselves in today, I think, rests with the city and the [Lido Key Residents Association and its committee],” Fournier said, “but not really with the applicants.”
If the city had cut off negotiations with Lido Beach Redevelopment Partners before the commission approved the lease in November 2017, Fournier pointed out, he might have agreed with public comments that the expenses the company had incurred represented “just the cost of doing business.”
Moreover, he continued, “Widespread public opposition is not a legally sufficient reason to deny the [company’s] applications.”
“Public opposition could have been a reason to deny the lease,” Fournier said. “But it was approved.”
The city commissioners’ decision on whether to approve or deny the applications would have to be made after the they conducted a quasi-judicial hearing, he explained; their vote and would have to be “based on evidence placed in the record that the applications either do or do not meet the specified applicable criteria for approval that’s in the zoning code and not on whether [the] proposal is popular or not.”
Fournier stressed the potential for litigation regardless of whether the commission approved or denied the applications after a hearing. In fact, he pointed out, litigation could be drawn out for years in the courts, and the company eventually could prevail, with the construction the public opposes taking place after all.
His recommendation, Fournier explained, was that the commission accept the company’s proposal to withdraw from the process and reimburse it for its expenses.
Commissioner Hagen Brody finally made the motion to accept Fournier’s recommendations.
“The settlement is the only way to quash this this day,” Brody pointed out. That action, he added, is “the only one to appease the opponents of this project.”
“Staff shouldn’t take all of the blame,” Mayor Liz Alpert said. “Staff didn’t come up with this plan by themselves,” she added, referencing the LKRA committee’s vision for the improvements to the pool and pavilion that led to the city’s advertising the ITN.
“I think this is a good way to just put a halt to this and go back to the drawing board,” Alpert said.
Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues that, “on principle,” she agreed with many of the comments made by the 13 people who addressed the board that afternoon, in arguing against the reimbursement. However, she continued, “Bigger picture: The settlement is what we need to be doing.”
Only Commissioner Willie Shaw voted against Brody’s motion. He offered no comments during the discussion.
The motion passed 4-1.
Fournier did remind the commissioners that during their Jan. 14 special meeting, John Patterson, the attorney for the company that owns the Lido Beach Resort, said his client was “prepared to make an initial contribution of $175,000 and host a communitywide fundraiser to help make the Lido Pavilion a facility that will be right for Lido Key and one that the citizens will embrace and be proud of for decades to come.”
The Lido Beach Resort is immediately south of the Lido Pavilion and Pool property.
“It is my opinion that there is nothing inappropriate about [that],” Fournier said, referring to the statement from Mark Walsh, an officer of Logan Acquisitions, which Patterson read into the record on Jan. 14. That $175,000, Fournier pointed out, represents a large portion of the reimbursement to Lido Beach Redevelopment Partners.
The plans and the reality
The city staff report prepared about the Lido Beach Redevelopment Partners’ proposal in advance of a Sept. 12, 2018 city Planning Board meeting on the project explained that the company representatives signed the lease agreement with the city on Jan. 5, 2018. “Major Conditional Use and Site Plan approvals are required with all City Leasehold uses,” the report pointed out.
Lido Beach Redevelopment Partners was proposing an increase of 69 seats for the restaurant at the Lido Pavilion — bringing the total to 233, the report continued. It also proposed the tiki bar, 10 rental cabanas within the pool area, renovations of the restrooms, new shade structures, a lifeguard office, two playgrounds, a splash pad and 21 new parking spaces, the report said.
“The proposed site plan was modified numerous times in an attempt to alleviate [public] concerns,” the report noted. “Staff found the proposed Site Plan and Major Conditional Use petitions to be in compliance with all applicable standards for review and therefore recommend approval of the petitions subject to the conditions outlined in this report,” it added.
Among those conditions were that the takeout window remain open “during all special and private events so that the general public are able to purchase food and beverages even if the restaurant and/or bar are being utilized for a private event.”
Another condition was that the pool cabanas not be used for general restaurant or bar seating unless another traffic study was undertaken and it confirmed “that the additional seating does not cause the levels of service for nearby intersections to fall below acceptable capacity.”
The Planning Board ended up voting 4-1 to recommend that the City Commission deny the applications for the Major Conditional Use and site plan.
During the Feb. 19 City Commission meeting, Cathy Antunes of Sarasota, one of the leaders of the community opposition to the project, told the board members she had close to 5,600 signatures at that time on the petition seeking denial of the applications.
“There’s a lot of value in being done [with this],” she said, “and people want our park back. I just ask you to give a clear rationale for the decision you make. We need to learn from what went wrong here.”
Addressing the commissioners after the public comments concluded, City Attorney Fournier said, “I don’t think there’s really much question that the city would end up spending a significant sum of money, probably in excess of what you’re being asked to reimburse [Lido Beach Redevelopment Partners],” if the commission went forward with a public hearing on the applications. “It could be many years before that pavilion is improved … with many dollars spent in the interim.”
He pointed out that after the opposition to the company’s proposal began to materialize, “the city was very reluctant to let [the project] go.” He did not want to suggest that the city’s forging ahead “was unlawful,” Fournier continued, “but [city leaders] certainly [were not] mindful of what many of the residents were saying.”
Even when the suggestion was made for the city to hit the proverbial “pause button” in the process, Fournier told the commissioners — referring to the Jan. 14 special meeting — “that initiative came from the applicant, not from the city.”