Commissioner Smith fails in new attempt to revive in-person Neighborhood Workshops on land-use applications

None of his colleagues comments on his proposal

Commissioner Mark Smith. Image courtesy Sarasota County Government

During the Jan. 30 Sarasota County Commission meeting, Commissioner Mark Smith revived a discussion on which he failed to gain support in 2023: requiring developers to host in-person Neighborhood Workshops regarding land-use applications.

Following a June 2023 discussion, Smith was the only board member in favor that idea, even with a provision that hybrid workshops could be conducted, meaning that representatives of the applicant could offer a virtual option along with the in-person session.

As part of his report to his colleagues during their regular meeting on Jan. 30, Smith broached the topic again, saying, “I think this board should seriously consider opening up Neighborhood Workshops to the public. The experiences that I’ve heard from folks” who attended the two virtual sessions, in early January, on proposed hotels for Siesta Key, had reported to him that those events “were less than satisfactory.”

In fact, Smith pointed out, he understood that one of those workshops “went silent for 15 minutes,” and the public interaction with the presenters during those sessions “was restrictive.

Smith added, “I just think we’re disenfranchising our neighborhoods. … I’m just bringing that up as an opinion.”

With no other commissioner signaling to Chair Michael Moran that he wished to comment, Moran told Smith, “OK. Thank you.”

The Neighborhood Workshops are mandated as part of the application process, to allow affected residents and property owners to learn about a proposal and to ask questions about it early on, before formal Planning Division staff review of the application gets underway.

After the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, the County Commission amended the county’s regulations to provide for virtual Neighborhood Workshops, as a means of protecting the public from contracting the coronavirus.

During the March 7, 2023 commission meeting, Smith explained that he had received emails asking for the switch back to in-person meetings. He added that he had met with residents in Desoto Acres,” who had expressed their displeasure with a workshop they recently had participated in via Zoom.

During that March 2023 discussion, Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, pointed out that the Zoom workshops as a rule had gone well. However, he did acknowledge that couple of them recently had been plagued by technical glitches, including the one involving the Desoto Acres residents.

This is an image presented during the Jan. 8 Neighborhood Workshop on Benderson Development Co.’s proposed Comprehensive Plan and Unified Development Code amendments planned to enable it and other developers to construct high-rise hotels on Siesta Key. News Leader image

Smith also noted that, prior to his November 2022 election, he had participated in a Zoom meeting with the county’s Planning Commission, “and some of [the members] didn’t’ even turn their cameras on … If you think there’s … a disconnect with government to the citizens, do a Zoom meeting and [the members of the body conducting the proceeding] don’t even turn the cameras on.

“I believe it’s really important,” Smith added, to require in-person workshops once again.

“I would agree,” Commissioner Nancy Detert responded. “COVID’s over. I think we at least owe the public the courtesy of having an in-person meeting,” she added. “A lot of people aren’t great at technology,” Detert continued, “and we can’t be over-dependent on it.”

(Detert died unexpectedly in early April 2023.)

During that March 2023 discussion, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger was the only member of the board to oppose Smith’s recommendation. He said he wanted more information first, including statistics regarding participation of county residents in workshops conducted in-person prior to the pandemic and in those conducted virtually since then.

The commissioners ended up voting 4-1 — with Cutsinger in the minority — to direct staff to bring back to them an updated version of the resolution that the board members seated in 2020 had approved, allowing for the virtual workshops.

Then, on June 13, 2023, after Detert’s death, with Gov. Ron DeSantis having appointed Neil Rainford of Sarasota to serve out her term as the District 3 commissioner, Michele Norton, assistant director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, presented the board members a revised resolution, as they had requested in March.

However, both Rainford and Commissioner Joe Neunder began talking about the fact that many types of meetings are conducted virtually. “This is the 21stcentury,” Neunder noted. “We’re all using computers” and other modern technology as a means of communicating with people.

Moreover, Neunder said, people had pointed out to him that Neighborhood Workshops “can get a little heated, if you will,” but no law enforcement officers are present, and no other form of security is provided.

Rainford added, “I’d say 90% of business meetings are held [virtually these days].”

One concern about in-person meetings, Rainford continued, is “that a large majority of people are uncomfortable in a public speaking setting.” Individuals are more willing to offer comments or ask questions during virtual sessions, he indicated.

Commissioner Joe Neunder makes a point during the Jan. 30 County Commission meeting. News Leader image

Neunder and Rainford also concurred that virtual workshops make it possible for “snowbirds” to participate in the discussions.

Commissioner Moran noted that many of the workshops are held in the evenings; yet, a number of individuals do not like to drive after dark, and the workshops “can last for hours.”

When Smith went ahead and made a motion to adopt the revised resolution that Norton of Planning and Development had included in the agenda packet for the meeting, it died for lack of a second.

Neunder ended up making a motion to take no action on the issue that day, and Moran seconded it. The resulting vote was 4-1, with Smith in the minority.

Since that vote was taken, The Sarasota News Leader has read numerous Facebook posts in citizens’ groups, and it has received comments from various members of the public who have complained about the lack of in-person Neighborhood Workshops. Leaders of the Siesta Key Association often have expressed concerns about problems with the virtual sessions and bemoaned the fact that the County Commission majority refused to revert to the in-person protocol

2 thoughts on “Commissioner Smith fails in new attempt to revive in-person Neighborhood Workshops on land-use applications”

  1. Thank you Commissioner Mark Smith – for caring about what the residents think and for actually wanting their input. County residents need to realize that whatever decisions made concerning unlimited density for instance, affect the ENTIRE County – not just Siesta Key.

  2. The obvious solution is to have both. Many groups offer both. It’s ideal for those who shouldn’t drive at night or are out of state and those who prefer in person.
    As Neunder said “It’s the 21st century and we all use computers”. True. It’s also Sarasota with a large elderly population who use computers but don’t, or shouldn’t drive, especially at night.

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