County commissioners refuse to reconsider vote on proposed apartment complex on North Honore Avenue hours after denying application for land-use change

Developer’s representatives address board members at end of regular business on Jan. 31 agenda

Hours after the Sarasota County commissioners voted to deny a request to increase the residential density classification of property located at 2049 N. Honore Ave. in Sarasota, representatives of the applicant — CIG Communities LLC of Cincinnati, Ohio — pleaded with the board members to reconsider that vote and, instead, continue the public hearing until a later date.

None of the commissioners was willing to do so.

Concerns about the lack of affordable housing units within the proposed 66-unit apartment complex on the Honore Avenue site prompted the board’s unanimous vote earlier in the day to turn down the proposal.

The property is located north of 17th Street and just north of the Aviva Senior Living complex.

The request for the continuance took place just before the end of a nearly 10-hour-long meeting. (The board members also voted to deny a request for reconsideration of their “No” vote on another petition they had heard earlier in the day. That decision came after the plea from CIG Communities.)

As Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out during the Jan. 31 hearing on the CIG Communities application, the company planned to include 750-square-foot units in its apartment complex. However, the rent for those apartments would be market rate, as Christian Dial, vice president of development for CIG, had explained.

When Detert asked Dial how much rent the company was considering for those small apartments, he responded, “Our rents right now would be based off market rents in the area.”

The average for a 750-square-foot unit, he continued, would be around $1,500 to $1,700 a month.

Over the past two years in the Sarasota County market, Dial pointed out, “We’ve seen rental increases probably close to 25[%] to 30%, conservatively estimated,” because of the influx of new residents and the insufficiency of housing stock.

Then Detert asked him if he was aware that the board members voted several years ago to provide for increased density in housing projects if developers constructed 750-square-foot units in an effort to create more affordable homes in the county. (The board members also approved lower county building fees, including water and wastewater hookups, for those units, in a related effort to encourage developers to construct them.)

“Now,” she told him, “You’re just making [an apartment] smaller, and it’s not cheaper.”

“There’s a good explanation for that,” Dial responded. Over the past few years, he pointed out, labor shortages, the rising expense for materials and higher interest rates had resulted in projects costing about 50% more than they did in 2020.

As he was still speaking, Detert interrupted him to note that those factors make “it extra unaffordable” to construct new dwelling units.

Dial responded by referencing the fact that prices drop as demand for apartments drops.

Then Detert asked Dial how many of the 750-square-foot units CIG planned for the project, which was called Haven on Honore.

“It’s not set in stone,” he replied. The company would like for approximately 25% of the units in the complex to be that size, he added.

Then Commissioner Mark Smith told Dial, “My understanding is that the current zoning would allow three units,” instead of the 66 total planned.

“Correct,” Dial responded.

CIG’s application first sought a board vote to change the county Comprehensive Plan’s Future Land Use Map classification of the approximately 7.38-acre site from Moderate Density Residential, which allows two to five units per acre, to Medium Density Residential, which allows between five and nine dwellings per acre.

(The site is bound on the north by Park Club Drive, a private road, while another private road, Horn Boulevard, is on the southern and western boundaries.)

If its petition were approved, CIG then sought the board’s OK for the rezoning of the property from Open Use Estate, which provides for one dwelling for every 2 acres, to Residential Multi-Family-2 (RMF-2), which allows for nine units per acre.

“I have an issue with this,” Smith continued. “I don’t believe that you’re in compliance with Comprehensive Plan Policy 1.2.6,” Smith told Dial. That policy says, “Create more fully integrated neighborhoods through the development of Affordable housing units in neighborhoods that do not already have high levels of Affordable housing.”

The policy is included in Chapter 9 of the Land Use Element of the Comprehensive Plan.

(Later, Todd Dary, manager of the county’s Planning Services Division, explained that that policy was not relevant to the CIG hearing. Instead, Dary continued, it was related to specific types of developments in the county, including those within a Critical Area Plan.)

Personally, Smith told Dial, he would like to see 15% of the 66 units targeted to people making 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI) and remain at that rent level for 20 years.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sets the Area Median Income every year for each Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) in the United States. Sarasota is in the MSA with North Port and Bradenton.

(In a related discussion that day, Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, pointed out that 80% of the 2022 AMI for a family of four in the county would be $69,050, which would allow for a maximum monthly rent — including utilities — of $1,726. HUD has not yet released its 2023 AMI tables.)

Digging into the affordable housing issue

Following Smith’s remarks, Commissioner Joe Neunder — who, like Smith, won his seat in the 2022 General Election — said that, as he understands the county provisions for developments, two 750-square-foot units count as one regular dwelling for density purposes.

The proposed site plan, which Sarasota consultant Joel Freedman, the agent for CIG, had shown the commissioners, was based on the zoning change to RMF-2, Dial said. However, the total number of units could vary, depending upon the final design. If CIG built nothing but 750-square-foot apartments, Dial added, the total would be 131.

In response to another question from Detert, Dial said he was not aware of any discussions about restrictive income housing for the property.

Further, Dial acknowledged that he was uncertain how county regulations define “affordable” housing.

“As long as it’s economical for us to build,” he continued, “we’re willing to go to a lower AMI to make that [inclusion of affordable housing units] work.”

Higher residential density can make a project more economical, he indicated, which would allow for affordable housing units.

“Aren’t you asking us for a higher density?” Detert asked.

“Yeah,” Dial replied.

“If we’re going to give you something, you should give us something,” Detert told him.

Then Dial explained, “We feel like we got a really good price on [the land],” which — he noted — had been on the market for some time. Nonetheless, he added, “Our numbers are really tight on this project.” Given construction costs and the higher interest rates over the past months, Dial said, “There’s a pretty slim margin [for profit].”

The property is owned by Saint James United Methodist Church, the county staff report noted; CIG has a contract to purchase the site from the church. Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office records show that the church has owned the parcel since May 1987. The market value of the land and the church on it was $3,492,400 last year, the Property Appraiser’s Office record says. Out of that total, the structure was valued at $2,832,400.

Commissioner Michael Moran said that while he was “far from telling the applicant what to do,” he was not certain that the petition was ready for a vote. “Might be worthy of a continuance to a date certain,” Moran added.

At that point, Deputy County Attorney Joshua Moye explained that, because of a change in state law a couple of years ago, the county would have to fully offset the cost of any affordable housing units it required a developer to build. He did acknowledge that “fully offset” was not defined in the statute.

“We’ve gotten clear direction on that,” Chair Ron Cutsinger assured Moye.

Nonetheless, Detert reiterated her earlier points about the 750-square-foot units having been included as a county housing option with the intent that they would be priced as affordable.

She told Dial, “You’re taking advantage of the system that we put in place to help our residents get a roof over their head,” at a time when Sarasota County has among the highest housing expenses in the United States.

Cutsinger voiced concern at that point that the board members were trying to legislate policy from the dais.

Moran called the discussion one of the top five on his list of what he would consider the most awkward discussions he ever had been involved in during his six years on the commission and during his years of county Planning Commission service prior to that.

He added that while he felt the site would be a “great place” for the project, “I’m not so sure I’m comfortable with the way this is being presented.”

“It’s not our job to tell ’em, ‘Hey, come back later with a better presentation,’ ” Detert responded. “They should figure that out for themselves.”

Finally, Detert made the motion to deny the application for Haven on Honore, and Neunder seconded it. The vote was unanimous.

Back at the podium

Close to 8 p.m., at the conclusion of the public hearings listed on the day’s agenda, Dial returned to the podium, explaining that he had pushed back his plans to return home and had booked a hotel room for the night. He then asked the commissioners to continue the CIG hearing, noting that he had put “a lot of time and effort into the application thus far.”

He pointed out that a delay would affect Saint James United Methodist Church, as well, though he was not certain about the church’s next steps if CIG bought the property.

Commissioner Moran noted his earlier comment about continuing the hearing. “Never seen anything like it,” Moran added of the situation with Dial’s late-day plea.

He had no interest in offering a motion to reconsider the vote of denial, Moran said.

Chair Cutsinger agreed.

Detert proposed that Cutsinger go ahead and adjourn the meeting, which he did.