Board members agree change could create problems
Developers’ desire for certainty regarding the scheduling of public hearings on land-use issues prompted a Sarasota County Planning and Development Services staff review and report that went to the county commissioners in early January, Matt Osterhoudt, director of the department, noted during a Feb. 23 presentation to the commission.
The staff analysis was another facet of the board members’ desire to streamline the processing of applications submitted to Planning and Development, he pointed out.
Developers had asked specifically about the possibility that county staff would begin advertising both the Planning Commission and County Commission hearings at the same time, Osterhoudt explained, especially when those hearings involve rezoning or Special Exception petitions.
It took only about 8 minutes from the time Osterhoudt began his remarks until the commissioners affirmed their desire to keep the scheduling process as is.
As explained in the Jan. 3 written report to the county commissioners, Osterhoudt pointed out on Feb. 23 that staff reviewed the Unified Development Code (UDC), which contains all of the county’s land-use and zoning regulations. Staff took particular care in going over Article 5, which includes the outline of development review procedures, the report noted.
Section 124-36 of the UDC, which explains the rezoning and Special Exceptions process, requires that a Planning Commission hearing be advertised 10 days prior to the scheduled hearing date, after an application has been deemed sufficient, the report explained. “Applicants are responsible for mailing notices to property owners in the [affected] area at least 15 days prior to the public hearing,” the report said.
When staff schedules the Planning Commission hearing, it also sets a tentative County Commission hearing date, the report continued.
Further, staff members edit their reports on applications in the aftermath of the Planning Commission hearings, “to add key discussion points and the [Planning Commission] recommendation, which may include added/amended stipulations,” the report noted. “Moreover,” it said, “Binding Site Plans may also be amended from time to time,” based on the Planning Commission’s actions.
Following the Planning Commission hearing, the report continued, staff confirms the schedule for the hearing for the County Commission, ensuring sufficient time will be allowed “to meet processing requirements for the agenda.” Advertisements are then posted a second time for the County Commission hearing, and the applicant mails out notifications “within the appropriate timeframe,” the report added.
“The Florida Statutes do not preclude the advertising of both the [Planning Commission and County Commission] hearing dates together,” the report said.
In researching the relevant issues, the report noted, staff did find that other local governments “issue hearing dates upfront” for their planning and county commissions. Among the benefits of doing so, the report pointed out, are the following:
- The applicant gets more certainty about the public hearing processes.
- The need to advertise twice, for two hearings, is mitigated or eliminated.
- Costs and potential legal errors are reduced.
However, the report explained, logistical factors should be considered, as well. Those are as follows:
- A portion of the County Commission meeting calendar “would become ‘locked’” to accommodate the scheduling of hearings in advance. Yet, a limited amount of time is available during each meeting to cover a wide range of agenda items. As a result, Osterhoudt pointed out to the board members on Feb. 23, some jurisdictions have decided to set aside certain dates for their county commissions to conduct land-use hearings, with no other business planned on those days.
- Until a Planning Commission hearing has been concluded on an application in Sarasota County, staff has less certainty about how much time the County Commission will need to conduct its hearing. For example, Osterhoudt said, only five people may show up to address a specific application at the Planning Commission event.
At other times, as evidenced by recent hearings, more than 20 people may sign up to address the board members.
- “Lead times for the County’s agenda preparation process are limited,” the report said. “For a tighter process turnaround, the staff report may need to remain static, with the [Planning Commission] recommendations added as a supplemental component of the staff report [for the County Commission’s] consideration. Professional analysis and recommendations from the staff report and [Planning Commission] should not change; however, an updated memo can be attached to the staff report after a [Planning Commission hearing] with any additional comment for [County Commission] consideration. The findings of fact should steer the direction of the project as they are leally defensible.”
- Finally, the report pointed out that public hearings in Sarasota County typically are conducted both in North County and in South County. (The Planning and County commissions have not been meeting at the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice over the past year because of the construction of new 12th Judicial Circuit facilities at that location.)
During his Feb. 23 remarks to the County Commission, Osterhoudt also noted that staff for years has been using the “Presentations upon Request” process for public hearings. Unless a county commissioner wishes to hear staff or applicant remarks, no presentation is provided. Nonetheless, members of the public who wish to address the issue are afforded the opportunity to speak, as they are during any other public hearing.
Following his Feb. 23 presentation, Osterhoudt asked the commissioners for their guidance.
Commissioners agree to keep the process as is
“I think this started out as a good idea,” Chair Alan Maio told Osterhoudt. “But we’ve made significant changes [over time],” including the use of the Presentations upon Request process. Moreover, Maio noted, the commissioners formally gave themselves the ability to move a public hearing from their afternoon session to their morning session, if time allows.
“There are unforeseen consequences,” Maio added, to revising the public hearing process for land-use applications. For example, he continued, the Planning Division staff “can remand something back to the Planning Commission,” and the Planning Commission has the authority to continue a hearing to a later date. Both of those actions, Maio pointed out, would derail “the whole point” of the proposed change.
“As well intentioned as it is,” Maio said of the developers’ request for advertising both hearings at one time, he did not feel it is warranted.
“You just said what I was going to say,” Commissioner Nancy Detert responded. If, for example, the County Commission for some reason could not conduct its hearing on the “locked-in” date, then staff would have to re-advertise the hearing, she added. “We’re really saving no time and no dollars.”
“I agree,” Commissioner Ron Cutsinger told his colleagues. “I like the flexibility [in the scheduling of the two hearings]. I think it would be actually kind of restrictive to go to the single [advertisement].”
“I don’t see a pressing need for change,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler concurred. “I think that people will get upset and think we’re trying to adjust the rules.”