City Commission holds off on resolution regarding leases of city-owned bayfront property until it gets clarification from organization working on master plan

Lawn Bowling Club president cites his group’s impact on city tourism as he voices worries about board action that might prevent leases from extending beyond Jan. 1, 2019

Members of the Historic Sarasota Lawn Bowling Club participate in a tournament in February 2014. File photo

After listening to concerns of one leaseholder of city-owned bayfront property, the Sarasota City Commission this week backed away for the time being from approving a resolution it had voiced full support for last month.

On April 17, City Manager Tom Barwin sought the commissioners’ views on a request by the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization (SBPO) to refrain from entertaining any requests for third-party use of the city’s 42 bayfront acres beyond Jan. 1, 2019. That would give the organization flexibility in developing a vision for the property, Barwin pointed out.

The board members concurred with the need for lack of constraints in that planning and asked that a resolution reflecting the SBPO’s request be prepared for their vote at their next session.

During their regular meeting on May 1, however, Daniel Jittu, president of the Historic Sarasota Lawn Bowling Club, told the commissioners that his group is fearful about the impact of the resolution on his group’s planning for future events. The club, he said, “is probably the only entity [leasing any of the bayfront acreage] that brings in outside tourism.”

Last year, he pointed out, the club hosted the US Open, which drew 235 athletes from 15 countries. This year, he said, the club is expecting big delegations from Argentina and Australia for the same event, which will be held in November.

Jittu added that he had just returned from a meeting in London, during which he participated in discussions regarding inclusion of lawn bowling as an Olympic sport. Already, he said, 55 countries have signaled their support of that initiative. The summer games of 2024, Jittu noted, would be “the soonest it could happen.”

If the effort is successful, he continued, “Sarasota would take on a major role.”

Historic Sarasota Lawn Bowling Club members lease city property on the bayfront. File photo

For all those reasons, he explained, club members are concerned about the lease they have on the bayfront land where their events are held. If the board approves the resolution as written, Jittu said, “it really handcuffs us.”

Commissioner Susan Chapman responded that it was her understanding in April that the action the SBPO was seeking would apply to “new people coming in, not the existing activities [on the city’s bayfront property].”

She also had read, she said, that the SBPO has hired the national firm HR&A and that the community group is working on a proposal for private business deals for part of the city’s 42 acres, in an effort to raise money for future improvements. (HR&A’s website says it “is an industry-leading consulting firm providing services in real estate, economic development, and program design & implementation.”)

(The Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 website says that during the current phase of planning, “HR&A will serve as a flexible resource to the community,” with the following among the firm’s specific tasks: “Assistance in preparing for and facilitating ‘community conversations’ beginning in September and assistance in building community support”; “Leading an interim workshop with the Sarasota City Commission”; and “Presentation of findings and preliminary roadmap to stakeholders and local government.”)

Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown. File photo

Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown told the commissioners that he had spoken with the chair of the SBPO. “There has been no movement toward commercializing any part of the 42 acres. I think [the City Commission’s] guidance to them is very clear.”

The board members have been adamant that any new performing arts venues share the land with amenities that will ensure continued public access to the waterfront.

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie said that if the board’s intent with the resolution is to protect current leaseholders, it needs to be clear about that in the resolution and also have City Manager Tom Barwin — who represents the commission on the SBPO — convey that to the committee members. The SBPO also needs to be made aware of groups such as the Lawn Bowling Club, she added. The latter “is there, is thriving [and] has tourism impact.”

Commissioner Suzanne Atwell agreed and then sought City Attorney Robert Fournier’s advice.

“This is easily fixed,” Fournier responded, “by inserting a clause [in the resolution] saying that there was no intent to apply to existing uses …”

If that clause grandfathers in those leaseholders in perpetuity, Commissioner Liz Alpert asked, will that hamstring the planning organization?

“I certainly wouldn’t say ‘in perpetuity’ [in the clause],” he replied.

More information sought

Fournier also suggested the commissioners ask staff to prepare an inventory of all the leaseholders of the bayfront property that is the focus of the planning organization’s work.

Still, he noted, “I would say the first thing is to clarify what the request was” from the planning organization.

Alpert then said she needed more details before she could vote on the proposed resolution.

City Attorney Robert Fournier. File photo

Fournier pointed to the section of the proposed resolution that reads, “The purposes of this policy are to maintain the general status quo with regard to the current usage of the property during the pendency of the master planning process and to avoid permitting long term uses that might ultimately prove to be inconsistent with final recommendations resulting from the master planning process.” If the city has obligations to leaseholders extending beyond Jan. 1, 2019, he noted, the board needs to know that.

Brown told the commissioners that the SBPO members do want to honor the current leases until January 2019. However, he continued, “they also don’t want to have their hands tied.” He added that he does not believe the SPBO would preclude the possibility of the city’s continuing leases beyond that time frame, but representatives of the organization probably would not want to see any extensions undertaken before they had the opportunity to talk with the City Commission about the impact the action could have on their vision.

“I guess I would just like to have that in writing from the chair of the committee,” Freeland Eddie said. “I think we need some guidance that that is the clear intent before we pass any resolution.”

Jittu put in one more plea: He told the commissioners the Lawn Bowling Club would be hampered significantly in its future planning for events if it had to find another area to hold them.

Alpert made the motion to continue the vote on the resolution until the board has received clarification about what the SBPO is seeking and until after staff has completed an inventory of all the leaseholders on the 42 acres.

Freeland Eddie seconded it, and it passed unanimously.