City Commission votes 4-1 to make change in land classification and to annex part of site into city
(Editor’s note: This article was updated late in the morning of Aug. 23 to correct the Area Median Income for Sarasota this year. The original version of the article contained the 2021 figure.)
With two votes this week, the Sarasota City Commission approved the annexation into the city of approximately 3.25 acres located at 5400 Old Bradenton Road, as well as an amendment to the city’s Comprehensive Plan to facilitate the development of a 372-unit apartment complex on the site of the former Sarasota Kennel Club.
City Attorney Robert Fournier told The Sarasota News Leader in an Aug. 18 email that he believes the second, final readings of the ordinances will be conducted during “the next regular City Commission meeting on Tuesday, September 6th.”
Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch was in the minority on both of the Aug. 15 votes, citing concerns about the compatibility of the project with the nearby Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport (SRQ) and worries that residents will suffer harm from the noise levels generated by both commercial and general aviation aircraft.
Frederick “Rick” Piccolo, president and CEO of the Airport Authority, stressed that the new luxury apartment complex would be only about 1,500 feet from the end of the runway, and noise readings taken for the Authority showed the maximum decibel level that residents of the development might experience outdoors would be 98.
He also noted that the airport is continuing to grow, which means more takeoffs and landings will be expected per hour in the future.
The development team has committed to taking steps to reduce the noise levels inside the complex by at least 25%.
The other commissioners focused on the need for workforce housing.
However, Sean Flanagan, senior development director of Aventon Companies, the developer, did make it clear that the plans do not include rents below 120% of the Area Median Income (AMI) for the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). (The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — HUD — sets the AMI each year for Metropolitan Statistical Areas.)
Nonetheless, Flanagan emphasized that the more dwelling units an area has available for residents, the more downward pressure on rents.
Aventon Companies envisions rents from $1,600 to $2,200 a month for occupants of the new apartment complex, he said. HUD puts the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton AMI at $90,400. Last year, the figure was $77,200.
Flanagan talked about the potential that the renters will include firefighters, teachers and nurses, for examples.
When Ahearn-Koch asked Flanagan to verify that the plans do not call for units to be rented below 120% AMI, he replied that that was correct. Financing for the project would not make it possible for Aventon to take that approach, he added. Nonetheless, he said, almost 94% of the units would fall within the 120% AMI level.
If two people sharing each three-bedroom apartment split the rent, Flanagan continued, then he believed all of the units would fall within the 120% AMI range.
Following Ahearn-Koch’s questioning, Vice Mayor Kyle Battie asked Flanagan, “How can we be sure, you know, that you’ll have actual affordable housing?”
Again, Flanagan replied that the company could not commit to such a plan. However, he explained, given the fact that the design calls for three-story buildings on 25 acres, with no elevators or parking decks, construction will not be as expensive as it would be if the concept included such features. “It’ll be a more affordable product,” Flanagan said, than apartments in downtown Sarasota.
In referencing the noise concerns, Commissioner Hagen Brody noted that he feels they will act as a governor in keeping down the rent. “This is moderately priced workforce housing,” Brody continued, “which … we need desperately.”
During the project team’s presentation, Flanagan talked about data showing that Sarasota’s rents have climbed almost 35% over the past year, and the fact that the city has “very low availability” of apartments — about a 2% vacancy rate. That is the lowest level in the state, he added.
If the commission turned down the application for the annexation and the change of the classification of the property from Community Commercial to Multiple Family-Medium Density, Flanagan said, the site “just continues to be a blighted property. … I don’t think there’s a lot of other alternatives that would be completely preferable to the neighborhood.”
He was referring to the other residential areas in the vicinity of the former greyhound track.
“We do need a spectrum of housing in the community,” Brody agreed.
Both Mayor Erik Arroyo and Commissioner Liz Alpert said they came into the meeting that morning unsure of how they would vote. They agreed to support the annexation and Comprehensive Plan amendment in the aftermath of the public hearing.
Piccolo of the Airport Authority made a very good argument, Alpert said. However, she continued, it “just makes no sense in terms of our planning” to forgo the opportunity for the new apartments, especially when so many other residential units are in the same general area.
“Our residents can move out if they don’t like the noise,” Flanagan of Aventon told the commissioners.
The company’s investment in the complex will be about $100 million, he said. If Aventon did not think the project would be successful, he continued, it would not have proposed it.
Any prospective tenants will be taken on a tour of the site, Flanagan explained, so they most likely will hear aircraft taking off and landing. They can decide for themselves, he said, whether they want to live there.
Moreover, Flanagan told the commissioners, “We will indemnify the city against any complaints,” and tenants will have to sign leases that include an acknowledgement that they are aware of the noise situation and accept that.
Piccolo countered the latter point. No matter how many papers tenants sign or warnings they receive, he said, “They will be complaining, because they always do.” He referenced the emails and calls that the commissioners often receive from residents who move to downtown Sarasota and then have to contend with noise from the bars and restaurants, even though the persons should have been aware of the commercial activity before they moved.
The noise and bird concerns
Ahearn-Koch did stress that a 2018 interlocal agreement forged between the Commission and the Airport Authority provided for “no [new] residential [construction in that area] unless we must have it.”
“I agree that there is a must,” Mayor Arroyo said. “I do support putting this [property] on the tax roll with a significant increase in value.”
Flanagan told the board members that Aventon would pay about $2 million annually in city property taxes.
Ahearn-Koch also referenced a section of the city’s Comprehensive Plan — which was noted in the staff report — that calls for the city “to achieve healthy and livable neighborhoods.” The apartment complex most likely would have children as well as adults, she pointed out, and studies have shown that constant exposure to excessively loud noise is bad for a person’s health.
“With all due respect,” Brody told her, “I find those comments to be hyperbolic. … I think it’s unfortunate that you would put that message out there,” that people would be unsafe in the new apartments.
Brody added that he believes the noise level indoors “will be very tolerable.”
Further, he continued, the city Planning Board members voted in support of the reclassification of the property in the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
“No, they did not,” Ahearn-Koch responded.
Brody looked at her and then said, “I’m comfortable overturning their decision. … I think the sound is annoying but not a health hazard.”
Vice Mayor Battie told his colleagues that he once lived close to the airport. People have been residing in that area “for generations,” he added. “To say that, you know, we’ve been putting people in harm’s way … it is rather a stretch, you know.”
Moreover, Battie stressed, it was not his role to tell people where they may or may not live.
Ahearn-Koch reminded him that the other residential communities near the airport were built in the 1970s and early 1980s, prior to the implementation of federal regulations that prevent local governments from imposing their own restrictions on noise levels in the vicinity of airports.
The city staff report noted that half of the site would be located within the airport’s “65 DNL noise contour.” The document explained that “DNL” refers to “Day-Night Average Sound Level,” which represents the total accumulation of all sound energy distributed uniformly over a 24-hour period. “DNL is the standard noise metric used for all Federal Aviation Administration studies of aviation noise exposure in airport communities.”
Joel Freedman of Freedman Consulting & Development LLC in Sarasota, who is part of the project team, pointed out, “The amenity areas have all been planned west [of the 65 DNL contour].”
Further, Flanagan referenced data that SRQ had provided to the Federal Aviation Administration showing that the airport averages only 5.5 flights per hour.
Piccolo of the Airport Authority responded that that figure pertains only to commercial aircraft. About 80% to 85% of the flights taking off and landing involve general aviation, he said, referring to private or corporate aircraft, which can include jets. “So you have thousands of flight per month.”
During his remarks, Piccolo also voiced concerns that the site plan Aventon has proposed, with new retention ponds, could induce more wading birds to the property. Such birds pose a significant danger to aircraft, he said.
The two most dangerous parts of flight, he explained, are takeoff and landing. Aircraft will be on their final approach or climbing out in the vicinity of the new apartments, Piccolo pointed out, noting that 49% of all aircraft accidents occur on final approach or climb.
Flanagan rebuffed the concern, saying his experience is that big birds typically stay clear of a developed area.
He also showed the commissioners aerial maps that made clear that residential units are in close proximity to the airports in Orlando and Miami. The latter facility is one of the busiest in the country, he added.
The project team members were surprised by the SRQ Airport Authority’s objections, Flanagan indicated.
“I think [SRQ] has a much bigger concern,” he told the commissioners, with ponds already in place near the end of the runway.