City Commission approves first reading of zoning changes to facilitate expansion and remodeling of downtown buildings on major streets

City attorneys say the measures could encourage the Woman’s Exchange to expand on its Orange Avenue property

An aerial map shows the Woman's Exchange property. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
An aerial map shows the Woman’s Exchange property at the intersection of Oak Street and Orange Avenue. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Although a second reading will be required, the Sarasota City Commission has given unanimous endorsement to a series of Zoning Code changes designed to make it easier for businesses in the Downtown Core to expand or remodel.

The measures also foster historic preservation and allow for less density than the Downtown Zoning Code districts have mandated, City Attorney Robert Fournier and Deputy City Attorney Michael Connolly explained on Sept. 19.

Commissioner Liz Alpert said she did not believe neighbors would object to changes that would enable property owners to keep additions further from sidewalks and as low as one story.

Commissioner Susan Chapman added that the reasoning behind the Downtown districts was that putting buildings no further than 5 feet from a sidewalk on a major street would enhance the walkability of the area. “[That] no longer is the thought of designers or planners. … What we’re seeing now is that it’s almost like some of these buildings almost up to the sidewalk make it look like a medieval city.”

Deputy City Clerk Karen McGowan told The Sarasota News Leader that the second reading of the amendments most likely will be held during the City Commission’s Oct. 3 meeting.

Both Fournier and Connolly have made it plain that the three zoning text amendments the commission approved on Sept. 19 are an effort to encourage the Woman’s Exchange to maintain its nonprofit operations at the intersection of Oak Street and Orange Avenue in downtown Sarasota. (See the related story in this issue.)

Because loading zones are not allowed on streets designated “Primary” in the City Code — and both Oak and Orange are Primary streets — Connolly pointed out this week, the Woman’s Exchange had no option but to include a loading zone on Rawls Avenue in its plans for an expansion, because Rawls is not a Primary street. Yet, Connolly reminded the board, “That’s a compatibility problem with the neighborhood.”

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie. File photo
Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie. File photo

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie questioned giving staff the ability to grant exceptions, as provided in two of the amendments, instead of requiring Planning Board and City Commission hearings. Nonetheless, she ultimately made the motion to approve the changes as recommended by staff and amended by the Planning Board in August.

The amendments

In regard to the first proposed amendment, Connolly explained that the Zoning Code does not provide for any adjustment to be made for the location of parking on a Primary street. However, an applicant may seek a special exception if the property in question fronts on three Primary streets. Therefore, the recommended changes would allow for exceptions for parking, vehicular access and loading zones involving Primary streets when a property fronts on two of those streets.

A Planning Board hearing would be necessary on such requests, Connolly pointed out.

The second proposed amendment would allow for administrative approval of a request to expand or remodel a structure on a Primary street without having to adhere to the height and setback requirements for Downtown zoning districts. Connolly stressed, “We’re talking about maximum setbacks when you normally talk about minimum setbacks.”

The Downtown districts necessitate an addition or expansion of a structure be no less than 5 feet from the sidewalk and have no fewer than two stories.

Deputy City Attorney Michael Connolly. News Leader photo
Deputy City Attorney Michael Connolly. News Leader photo

Connolly pointed out that two options were provided with that second proposed amendment. The first would have the change apply to any proposed addition or remodeling of a structure built prior to a 2005 update of the Zoning Code. Option B would have the changes apply to the expansions or remodeling of the following only:

  • A masonry building.
  • A structure built before 1940.
  • A building listed on the National Register of Historic Places or in the Florida Master Site File or one having a local historic designation.

The addition also would have to be less than 50% of the existing square footage.

“The director [of the city’s Neighborhood and Development Services Department] would be the judge,” Connolly said. “But the applicant would have to prove that the adjustment equally or better meets the purposes of the regulation to be adjusted,” plus compatibility with the neighborhood.

“The public has no input?” Freeland Eddie asked.

That is correct, Connolly told her, pointing out that the code change would allow for smaller buildings in the Downtown zoning districts.

Staff recommended the commission approve the first option, Connolly added, which would make the amendment apply to structures that existed before the 2005 Code update.

“You have to love the Downtown Code to chose either one of these options,” Commissioner Susan Chapman interjected.

“Fair,” Connolly replied.

The third proposed amendment, Connolly continued, would allow administrative approval of requests to allow parking, vehicular access and loading areas on Primary streets. It would apply to applications for expansions or additions of buildings meeting the same five criteria included in Option B for the second text amendment.

When Commissioner Liz Alpert pointed to the similarities of the language in Option B and the third proposed amendment, Connolly replied, “There is overlap,” adding that he would have no problem if the board members approved Option A with the second amendment and then the third amendment as suggested.

City Commissioner Liz Alpert. Image from Liz Alpert Law
City Commissioner Liz Alpert. Image from Liz Alpert Law

The third proposed text amendment, Connolly explained, “is to protect an existing historic structure.”

The city’s Planning Board approved the third amendment, but with the deletion of the language regarding a masonry building erected before 1940.

Alpert concurred with the Planning Board members. “There are historic buildings that maybe were built in 1950,” she said, and they are not necessarily masonry structures.

After Connolly completed his explanation, Freeland Eddie asked, “Are we looking at historic preservation at the expense of public input?”

Fournier said he felt the third proposed amendment “is fine.” It gives staff more flexibility to handle expansion or remodeling requests involving historic structures, he added. Altogether, the changes in the Zoning Code would enable the Woman’s Exchange — which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places — to expand on its existing property and get city approval of a loading zone on Orange Avenue, he pointed out.

Nonetheless, Freeland Eddie asked, “Is the goal to give them an option or is the goal to get this right?”

Does the city even receive enough applications for remodeling or expansion of structures to make the text amendments beneficial, she questioned staff.

“I think the goal is to get it right,” Connolly told her.

Freeland Eddie finally made the motion approving the first text amendment as proposed, the second with Option A (eliminating the five criteria about a building’s age and historic designation) and the third with the Planning Board recommendation.