Majority of board sides with neighborhood association in concerns about safety, but the vice mayor and the Woman’s Exchange CEO point to city staff’s findings that the permit showed the plan met city zoning guidelines
As the retired general manager of the City of Sarasota’s Neighborhood and Development Services Department put it on Monday, April 11, “It’s the growing intensity of the very successful Woman’s Exchange that’s being debated here.” After about two-and-a-half hours of both testimony and discussion — on top of more than four hours of testimony on April 4 — three of the five city commissioners cast votes showing they believed the proposed increase in that intensity was more than residents of the Laurel Park Neighborhood should have to shoulder.
Mayor Willie Shaw and Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie supported a motion by Commissioner Susan Chapman to overturn city staff’s issuance of a building permit to allow the Woman’s Exchange to create a loading zone as part of a proposed 3,524-square-foot expansion on Rawls Avenue. Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell and Commissioner Liz Alpert were in the minority on the vote.
The April 11 special session was the continuation of a quasi-judicial hearing that began during the regular City Commission meeting on April 4.
The Laurel Park Neighborhood Association (LPNA) had appealed the Sarasota Planning Board’s unanimous decision on Jan. 20 to uphold the issuance of the city permit to the Woman’s Exchange.
In making her motion to reverse the Planning Board decision, Chapman referenced the chapter of the city Zoning Code that deals with neighborhoods. “[It] is viewed to be important and significant,” she pointed out, “and not every development that is applied for has the right to get [a permit], especially when [the construction] has an impact on neighborhoods.”
Rawls Avenue, she continued, “is a one-way residential street [built] before motor vehicles were predominant in our society … and it is walkable … and it is still cyclable … and it’s inconsistent with delivery trucks.”
In issuing the building permit to the Woman’s Exchange on Nov. 3, 2015, city staff had attached six conditions to the use of the loading zone on Rawls, which the nonprofit Woman’s Exchange proposed in an effort to make its furniture consignment operations more efficient. Among the conditions, the Woman’s Exchange agreed not to allow more than 12 vehicles per day to deliver or pick up items at the loading zone. Trucks larger than 24 feet and any vehicle towing a trailer would have had to continue to use the nonprofit’s parking lot at the intersection of Orange Avenue and Oak Street.
“If there ever was a situation that is incompatible with the neighborhood use,” Chapman said, “this is it.”
Shaw, too, voiced his desire to preserve the character of the Laurel Park neighborhood.
However, Atwell told her colleagues, “What we’ve got here is dueling code interpreters, and I don’t like that.” She was referring to Mike Taylor, the retired city employee, and Tim Litchet, director of the city’s Neighborhood and Development Services Department, who issued the permit last fall. In such a situation, Atwell continued, “I tend to go with the [current] staff, and in this case, absolutely.”
Speaking to Kate Lowman, who represented the Laurel Park Neighborhood Association, Atwell said, “There are times when a neighborhood or someone needs to lie down in front of the bulldozer, and I respect that.” This was not one of those cases, Atwell added.
“It’s been a very difficult issue” for more two years, Alpert said, referring to the submission to the city of the Woman’s Exchange’s original application for the expansion. The building the nonprofit occupies is a historic one, Alpert pointed out. “One of the things I think would be a terrible loss for the neighborhood would be to lose that building and to lose those beautiful oak trees right along Oak [Street].”
Taylor earlier had said the Woman’s Exchange could erect a “liner building” along Oak Street, where those trees stand.
Alpert also noted that when the Sarasota Herald-Tribune operated on the Rawls Avenue site years ago, the truck traffic “was much more invasive than the 12 vehicle trips in nine hours out of the day” that the Woman’s Exchange had agreed to with city staff.
Furthermore, Alpert said, people had commented to her, “‘If we cannot count on the city codes in the expansion of our businesses, then how can we plan our businesses?’”
Freeland Eddie made no comment immediately before the vote was taken, though she asked City Attorney Robert Fournier questions during the board discussion in regard to what should be considered “substantial competent evidence” among certain parts of the testimony, including whether the Planning Board’s decision met that test.
Fournier had told her, “That’s open to challenge, of course, [but], yes, you could make that argument …”
In response to a Sarasota News Leader request for comment, Karen Koblenz, CEO of the Woman’s Exchange, wrote in an April 14 email that the nonprofit’s staff “is deeply disappointed that the City Commission ignored the clear facts that were established in the hearing: putting a loading zone on the Rawls Avenue site, especially with the conditions imposed by City Staff, creates fewer impacts on the neighborhood and Rawls Avenue than any other option available that also allows the Woman’s Exchange to expand.”
Koblenz added, “The clear message [of the City Commission decision] is that you cannot rely on the City’s Zoning Code to guide your decisions about how you may use your property. Instead, any improvement or development is subject to a political veto based on a popularity contest.”
She concluded, “The Woman’s Exchange will be considering all of their options.”
The process on April 11
Lowman and Taylor once again represented the Laurel Park Neighborhood Association — the latter speaking by phone, as he lives out of state and had to leave after the first part of the quasi-judicial hearing, held on April 4. They pointed to various sections of the City Zoning Code, making their case that because the city implemented the Laurel Park Overlay District in 2013, city staff had to consider a wider range of the Comprehensive Plan in considering whether to issue the building permit. The Downtown Core zone in which the Woman’s Exchange lies allows buildings up to 10 stories, Taylor noted.
That overlay district requires developer consultation with the neighborhood association before any new buildings are constructed adjacent to the residential area.
In her comments to the News Leader, Koblenz wrote that during a community workshop held in October 2012 to discuss the Laurel Park Overlay District, Lowman said, “I think there’s a basic misunderstanding. We are not proposing to change anyone’s property rights; we are only proposing to change the process.” Nonetheless, Koblenz pointed out, “in the case of the Woman’s Exchange, the first to go through the Laurel Park Overlay process, that’s exactly what happened. Lowman argued that the Overlay imposed new but undefined standards on the Woman’s Exchange building permit.”
Multiple times on April 11, Lowman voiced concerns for the safety of pedestrians and people on bicycles, who use Rawls Avenue regularly in traversing the neighborhood. No sidewalk exists on the street, she pointed out. And while the Kanaya condominium complex and a Michael Saunders & Co. real estate office in the immediate area both constructed sidewalks on their land, the Woman’s Exchange — as was its right — never built one on its property.
(The Woman’s Exchange building abuts the street, its representatives have noted, so no room is available for a sidewalk.)
Lowman also contended that the conditions staff imposed on the use of the loading zone “are unenforceable.”
The public was watching the proceedings, she told the commissioners, to find out whether the City of Sarasota’s “motto about ‘small town feeling’ means anything.”
The Woman’s Exchange team disputed Taylor’s interpretation of the city code.
Attorney Brenda Patten of Berlin, Patten and Ebling in Sarasota also told the city board that the neighborhood association was wrong in its assertion that if the City Commission agreed that the city building permit was valid, the Woman’s Exchange would continue to allow people to use a loading zone near the front of the building. That loading area “doesn’t meet the dimensional standards of your code,” Patten pointed out. It also overlaps parking spaces and creates safety concerns in the nonprofit’s parking lot.
“Those problems are all eliminated by the Rawls loading zone,” Patten said.
In her email to the News Leader, Koblenz explained that the city’s Zoning Code required the nonprofit “to provide a new, fully conforming loading zone” to expand, and the code necessitated that loading zone be accessed from Rawls Avenue. “The assertions to the contrary by Ms. Lowman and Mr. Taylor are contradicted by the plain language of the Zoning Code, as the City’s Director of Neighborhood and Development Services, Tim Litchet, testified,” Koblenz continued.
As for Taylor’s suggestion that the Woman’s Exchange construct a liner building, Patten explained on April 11 that the U.S. Department of the Interior does not allow new structures to be placed in front of historically designated buildings, such as the one the nonprofit occupies.
As for the loading zone’s compatibility with the neighborhood, Patten continued, a loading zone was used in the same area of Rawls Avenue from 1926 into the 1980s, and it was “in harmony with the neighbors.” Rawls is an urban street, she added, “meant to be shared with commercial uses.”
Joel Freedman of Freedman Consulting & Development in Sarasota — a member of the Woman’s Exchange team — also explained to the City Commission — and presented a chart — making it clear that a 10-story structure could be erected on the Rawls Avenue property the nonprofit owns. The most intense development the City Code would allow on the site could generate as many as 50 daily trips, he said, compared to the maximum of 12 allowed in the conditions for the loading zone.
Yet, among the five affected residents living within 500 feet of the property who testified on April 11, the common concern again was safety.
Nancy Richardson told the city commissioners that it was not a matter of “an accident waiting to happen” with a vehicle using the loading zone, because residents have witnessed numerous “near hits” through the years on Rawls Avenue.
“The mix of backing trucks, children and the elderly is a frightening prospect and bad government,” Daniel Harris said.
As the city commissioners discussed the matter prior to their vote, Vice Mayor Atwell stressed that “a lot of inference, conjecture [and] assumptions” had been voiced during testimony. “We have to look at the larger picture here.”
Conversely, Chapman told her colleagues that if the City Commission vote affirmed the Planning Board decision, then “there is a loading dock coming through to a neighborhood near you.”