Voting ‘No,’ Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch cites Zoning Code and concerns about more traffic accidents as drivers have to use alternate routes
Almost exactly three hours and 30 minutes after Interim Sarasota City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs read the agenda item, the City Commission voted 4-1 to vacate the 800-foot-long right of way on School Avenue that bisects the Sarasota High School campus.
The affected segment is bound by Hatton Street to the north and Tami Sola Street to the south.
By count of The Sarasota News Leader, 19 people had addressed the commission on the issue during the public hearing. The majority of the speakers were residents of neighborhoods surrounding the school, and they were staunchly opposed to the Sarasota School Board’s request for the vacation.
On March 13, the city Planning Board voted unanimously to recommend the City Commission deny the petition, citing inconsistency with the city’s Zoning Code.
Nonetheless, during the May 6 City Commission meeting, only Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch voiced her support for the Planning Board’s position. She made a motion to deny the School Board request, but it died for lack of a second.
Commissioner Hagen Brody then made the motion to approve the vacation, noting that the School Board has committed to spending up to $3 million “on a western pedestrian/bicycle path and improvements on the eastern portion of the [Sarasota High] campus as a way to mitigate any potential impacts the closure of the street may have,” as the staff report for the meeting put it.
Even then, Brody — a Sarasota High alumnus — said of the School Board’s offer, “That’s really secondary to what we’re doing here. … All of the data is supportive with vacating this street when you weigh and counterbalance the need for the student safety.”
Kelly Klepper, senior planner and project manager for the Sarasota-based Kimley-Horn and Associates consulting firm, also explained to the commissioners on May 6 that the district has committed in writing to the fact that it will not build any structures on the vacated portion of the road and that it will maintain the “drivable surfaces.”
“I think it’s something that we have to do,” Mayor Liz Alpert concurred with Brody about the vacation. “I don’t want to be the one that is responsible if something did happen because we voted not to vacate this today,” Alpert stressed. “I don’t know how I could live with myself.”
Moreover, she pointed out, the School Board also has committed to giving the right of way back to the city if, in the future, Sarasota High is moved to another location.
“I understood all of the safety issues,” Ahearn-Koch said. “It’s my first priority, as well.”
However, she continued, she had learned that the intersection of Tami Sola Street and Bahia Vista Street is No. 5 on the list of city intersections with the greatest number of traffic accidents. With the vacation, she said, vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists will have to take alternate routes. “You’re going to be making connectivity much more difficult.”
She reminded her colleagues that plans are underway to extend The Legacy Trail to Payne Park, the Sarasota Orchestra is seeking to relocate to that park, a new residential development is being built on School Avenue north of Sarasota High, and the Sarasota Museum of Art — in the historic 1920s Sarasota High structure that has been renovated on U.S. 41 — will be drawing numbers of patrons, adding to increased demand for that connectivity.
Closing part of School Avenue, she continued, is “going to put choke points and pressure points on this.”
Conversely, Alpert had voiced her support for the rerouting of traffic to Shade Avenue. “It’s a safer way for people to drive. There’s no traffic light at Bahia Vista and School Avenue, so that’s an extremelydangerous intersection.”
Pleas from both sides
Unlike the situation with the Planning Board meeting in March, the City Commission hearing began with comments from Sarasota County Schools Superintendent Todd Bowden; he was absent from the advisory board hearing.
Noting that he is “the proud father of a Sarasota Sailor” — referring to the Sarasota High mascot — Bowden thanked the city commissioners for all the time and effort they had put into addressing the vacation request, and he commended the city staff members who had worked on the issue.
“I want to own the fact that the city didn’t put a road through the middle of our campus,” Bowden continued. “Our campus grew to be on both sides of the road.”
Sarasota High Principal David Jones called the road’s bisection of the campus “a huge vulnerability.” The street vacation will not be a panacea, he told the commissioners, but it will enable district staff to create a higher level of safety for the approximately 2,100 students.
Tim Enos, chief of the district’s police department, also spoke, talking of the fact that he has testified before the commission convened to review the Parkland shooting on Feb. 14, 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, during which 17 people were killed.
“Everything has changed [since the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo.],” Enos added. “It has to be the entire community that has to come together to keep our kids safe.”
As long as the 800-foot-long segment of School Avenue remains open to the public when school is not in session, he continued, “I can’t secure that school.” A person could leave something at a campus facility after the street reopens at 10 p.m. on school days, or on the weekends, so the person could retrieve it later and try to harm students, he pointed out.
(In May 2018, the City Commission approved a revised interlocal agreement with the School Board, closing the 800-foot-long section of School Avenue from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. when school is in session.)
Further, Enos said, “We know that if kids aren’t safe, they don’t learn.”
Among those who urged the commission not to vacate the portion of the street was James Portman, vice president of the Alta Vista Neighborhood Association. He said he believes that much of the criticism that has been directed at residents opposing the vacation has been framed in terms of their resenting the inconvenience. That is a false argument, Portman added.
He read from the portion of the city’s Zoning Code related to street vacations.
“We have rules,” Portman continued. If the City Commission were to vote to approve the vacation, he said, that would seem “inconsistent with the whole point of having the rules and [having] the Planning Board [make its recommendation to the City Commission].”
In contrast, Sarasota High student Baylee Stepina told the commissioners, “Change is something everyone fears.” Yet, “No harm is attached to [the street vacation]. … Which is more important — our safety or your convenience?”