County commissioners pare list of proposed amendments to county’s land-use and zoning regulations through series of votes, so staff can proceed with formal review

Several privately initiated amendments dealing with the county’s Conservation subdivision regulations to be combined for staff analysis, with report expected in the fall

Commission Chair Alan Maio. File image

An April 7 Sarasota County Commission discussion that Chair Alan Maio said he had expected to last hours was wrapped up in less than 30 minutes. The topic: privately and publicly initiated amendments to the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC).

With a series of votes, the board members approved direction for staff to pursue research into several of the privately initiated amendments and all of those that staff had recommended as publicly initiated amendments.

Six of the privately initiated amendments dealt with the county’s regulations for Conservation subdivisions, Michele Norton, manager of the county’s Planning and Zoning Division — who soon will become the new assistant director of the Planning and Development Services Department — noted at one point. “But they’re all conflicting in the application.”

Therefore, she continued, staff recommended that the commissioners allow Planning and Development to undertake a thorough analysis of the proposed amendments and deliver a report on the findings to the board, “hopefully in the October time frame.”

Those proposals ranged from a call to increase the residential density allowed in Conservation subdivisions under certain circumstances (attorney William Merrill III of the Icard Merrill firm in Sarasota); to removing Conservation subdivisions “as [an] allowable development form from the land designated Rural on the [county’s Future Land Use Maps]” (Becky Ayech, a leader of the Miakka Community Club in the eastern part of the county); to a proposal seeking a minimum lot size of half-an-acre in Conservation subdivisions, along with two related measures designed to maintain residential densities in those subdivisions that preserve “rural lifestyles, agricultural activities and preservation of open space” (attorney Susan Schoettle-Gumm of Sarasota).

These are the majority of the privately initiated amendments regarding the Conservation subdivision. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Additionally, Norton explained, other private applications essentially were statements, not amendments. Seven of those sought the elimination of Conservation subdivisions, according to a chart in the board packet.

The other three statements covered diverse topics. One sought “to protect Siesta Key from mega hotels.”

A second, submitted by developer James Gabbert of Sarasota, said, “The County and the general public should be treated equally in their requirements or exemptions within the UDC.”

In August 2017, the commissioners voted 3-2 to deny Gabbert’s rezoning petition so he could build a construction and yard-waste recycling facility on one of the county’s “Quads” parcels adjacent to the Celery Fields. However, he did end up building a waste transfer station on property he had bought next to that parcel.

The last statement, submitted by Philip DiMaria of the Kimley-Horn consulting firm in Sarasota, dealt with a formatting request for the County Code.

As Maio explained at the outset of the discussion, the UDC contains all the county’s zoning and land-use regulations.

After the document was completed, Maio noted, “We decided, as a board — and the staff agreed — we would mimic the old days of zoning code amendments …” That would entail two cycles per year when modifications could be proposed to the UDC, though the board members could allow out-of-cycle amendments to be processed, as well, Maio added, just as it does with proposed Comprehensive Plan amendments.

Then, referring to two detailed charts staff had provided in the agenda packet, Maio explained, “There’s a couple of things that can get lost in all of this documentation. … We’re voting only on whether to keep [an] item in this cycle,” which will enable the necessary staff work and then an in-depth commission discussion.

“We’re not voting pro, con, the merits of [any amendment that day],” he stressed. “Just because a commissioner has moved an item forward,” he added, “that does not dictate” the commissioner’s final vote on that amendment.

The privately initiated amendments that can proceed

This is a privately initiated amendment proposed by attorney Dan Bailey of the Williams Parker firm in Sarasota. It won approval for staff processing. Image courtesy Sarasota County
This proposed amendment also was approved for staff processing. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In launching the discussion, Maio asked his colleagues which of the privately initiated amendments staff should process.

After each board member offered his or her selections, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger ended up making a motion to approve staff action on them, and Maio seconded it.

Even though Commissioner Nancy Detert named one proposed amendment that her colleagues did not cite, and she left out another one they listed, she joined them in unanimous approval of the motion.

Item E on the chart, which Detert alone had suggested should be processed by staff, involved a request from Sarasota attorney Brenda Patten, on behalf of a client. It called for allowing convenience stores with gas pumps and electric charging stations in the Main Street Overlay District (MSOD), with the board’s approval of a Special Exception. “Presently, no facility in the MSOD provides self-service gas and there may be only one charging station,” the proposal said. “The amendment will promote a mix of supportive land uses and economic revitalization consistent with [goals] of the Englewood [Community Redevelopment Area] Plan,” it added.

The proposed amendment Detert’s colleagues added to their lists was submitted by Robert “Bo” Medred of Genesis Planning and Development in Bradenton, who often represents petitioners during land-use matters. It called for elimination of the limitation on the number of gas pumps in the Commercial Neighborhood (CN) zoning district. “CN allows Convenience Stores with a maximum of four pumping stations as a permitted use,” the amendment proposal said. “This provision is almost 40 years old … There has not been a convenience store with only four pumping stations constructed in [Sarasota County] for well over 30 years. The County has more than doubled in size from [200,000] residents to over [400,000] and the areas where CN districts are located are within the Urban Area core where infill and redevelopment opportunities should be encouraged. … The concern over intensity of use is overstated because convenience stores are permitted in CN & used by surrounding neighborhoods due to their convenience and should be encouraged not restricted. Hybrid cars in CN should also be encouraged,” the proposal added.

This is the section of the County Code regarding the CN zoning district. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Eliminating other privately initiated amendments

Following that first vote, the board members took a second one — on a motion by Commissioner Michael Moran, seconded by Commissioner Maio — to confirm that staff should not pursue the other privately proposed UDC amendments at this time. Three of those were submitted by Brian Lichterman, who served for 22 years as a senior county planner. Lichterman started his own land-use consulting firm, Vision Planning & Design, in 2005.

During the Open to the Public comments period at the start of the April 7 meeting, Lichterman urged the board members to allow the processing of one of those amendments. It called for the Office, Professional, Institutional (OPI) zoning district to allow hair and nail salons and stylists.

“With the reality of COVID, the demand for office space in the OPI … District will continue to decline, as more and more employees work from home,” Lichterman’s proposal said. “This new work dynamic will inevitably continue in the future. As an opportunity to repurpose and enhance vitality of existing office spaces, professional hair and nail stylists should be a permitted use by right in the OPI District. Both of these professions require licensure by the Florida Department of Business Regulations and there is no reason why this group of licensed professionals should be prohibited from operating legitimately in the OPI District. These uses are similar and no more retail in nature than all other medical and chiropractic offices that are permitted by right. The professional services offered by a Mental Health Specialist and a Dermatologist for mind and body treatments are essential, and are no different than the services provided by a professional hair and nail stylist.”

This privately initiated amendment was one of those that failed to win board support. Image courtesy Sarasota County

At various times over the past few years, Chair Maio has bemoaned the reduction in the amount of OPI space in the county, as properties that were zoned OPI have been converted to other uses, with the board’s agreement.

The publicly initiated amendments

With the publicly initiated amendments, the commissioners voted unanimously to accept staff’s recommendations. For example, two of those regarded the need to correct typos in the UDC.

Among the others, one called for adding language to the UDC regarding “the remanding of petitions … to Planning Commission based on added criteria such as but not limited to a significant change in a binding site plan, a revision to or a proffered stipulation that was not discussed at the Planning Commission”; another sought a review of the mural regulations; a third called for review of sign regulations, including political and temporary signage; and one submitted by the Public Works-Transportation staff called for consideration of amendments related to resurfacing and driveway offsets that could allow the county engineer and the fire marshal to decide when to reduce county separation requirements. That proposal said, “The three hundred (300) foot separation may be reduced when the County Engineer and Fire Marshal jointly determine that the separation adequately addresses fire protection, public safety, traffic, [stormwater] management and other Sarasota County standards. In making such determinations, the County Engineer and Fire Marshall shall use best professional judgment taking into consideration the following factors: (1) visibility; (2) number of lanes; (3) lane width; (4) speed limit on road; (5) curvature of road; etc.”

Commissioner Moran made the motion to allow staff to proceed with the publicly initiated amendments, and Commissioner Cutsinger seconded it.

“I had no problem with any of these,” Cutsinger said. The other board members concurred.

This is a section of the publicly initiated amendments, which staff will process. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Norton of Planning and Development told the commissioners that staff likely would bring back the final proposals for the publicly initiated amendments in batches of two or three, starting with what she characterized as “the easier ones.”

She added that she was not certain how staff would handle the privately initiated ones.

Finally, in response to a question from Maio, Norton said the UDC cycle for the amendments the board addressed on April 7 opened on Oct. 16, 2020 and closed on Oct. 30, 2020. The next cycle will be opened in September, she noted. However, she said, staff had not determined whether that “window” would last a couple of weeks or a month.

In the future, she added, staff has agreed that the two annual UDC amendment cycles will be opened in March and September.

The reorganization of Planning and Development

Michele Norton addresses the board on April 7. News Leader image

At the conclusion of the agenda item, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis talked about the coming changes in Planning and Development. He said he had been concerned about Matt Osterhoudt, who has led the department for a little more than four years. Indicating that Osterhoudt often responds to other staff and the commissioners in emails written as late as 9 p.m. or 10 p.m., Lewis added, “I don’t want him to get burned out.”

Therefore, Lewis continued, Osterhoudt had proposed a reorganization of the department, with Norton agreeable to assuming the new role of assistant director and taking responsibility for specific functions of Planning and Development.

“Obviously, [Osterhoudt] keeps his hand in all of it,” Lewis pointed out of the department’s activities.

More details would be presented later to the commission, Lewis said, with some changes requiring board approval as part of the 2022 fiscal year budget work.