County staff rebuked over delay in work on affordable housing initiative

County Commission chair talks of embarrassment that it could be close to two years before the county is ready to offer significant new incentives to developers

Allen Parsons. News Leader photo
Allen Parsons. News Leader photo

After almost six-and-a-half hours of review, discussion and public comments — the vast majority of which were critical — the Sarasota County Commission on July 6 voted unanimously to transmit to the state a draft of its first revision of the county’s Comprehensive Plan since 2006. Following that state review, the document will be back before the board in late October for final adoption, Planning Division Manager Allen Parsons pointed out.

However, the document will undergo further changes in the aftermath of the state review as a result of commission requests for refinement of the language in various sections. In response to board members’ concern about whether those subsequent revisions would pose a problem, Deputy County Attorney Alan Roddy said that in years past, when the state scrutinized comprehensive plans more closely, that might have been a cause for worry. “Nowadays,” he continued, “the state isn’t saying much. … I think to continue to refine this and ask for more information is entirely appropriate.”

One significant portion of those subsequent changes is not expected to be ready for the board to incorporate into the document it approves in October, the commissioners and Parsons agreed this week: As directed by the board at its December 2015 retreat, county staff will work intensively with community leaders and the public in developing a better way to create incentives for affordable housing in Sarasota County. Parsons explained that staff had been discussing the scope of work and how best to engage the public in the process.

Based on the timeline Parsons provided on July 6, Chair Al Maio and Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out that it could be March 2017 before affordable housing incentives are available to developers.

“At our [board] retreat the first week of December 2015,” Maio told Parsons, “we put [affordable housing incentives] down as the third or fourth highest priority [for staff to tackle], and I know you have been busy, [but] five of us are looking at a TV camera, saying, ‘We’re getting to it, should have something by March 2017.’ … I’m embarrassed … From December 2015 to March 2017 and to-date, nothing.”

“Our community is dying for affordable housing,” Hines said.

When Maio asked Parsons whether he felt staff could accelerate the staff work, Parsons replied, “I think we can absolutely speed it up.”

Tom Polk, director of the Planning and Development Services Department, told Maio, “I understand the angst this commission has …” But having talked with community leaders who have been involved with efforts to provide more affordable housing, Polk continued, “I don’t think we’re going to get an easy answer to this.”

Many people do need to be involved in the discussions, Polk noted — employers, bankers, even representatives of the Sarasota County School District, for example.

But when he originally broached the board’s retreat priority to community residents, Polk said, people acted as though it were some type of competition, joking with him about what the grand prize would be. Therefore, he added, he had come to the conclusion that the affordable housing changes in the Comprehensive Plan would be “a good start.”

“I just think it takes too much time to get some of this kick-started,” Maio replied. And while he never used the word “contest,” Maio continued, he envisioned engineers and designers and architects in the community taking an interest in proposing ideas. “To the people who mocked [the idea],” Maio asked, “what have they delivered in the meantime?”

A June 24 memo from staff to the County Commission outlined the facets of the affordable housing initiative. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A June 24 memo from staff to the County Commission outlined facets of the affordable housing initiative. Image courtesy Sarasota County

‘We’ve got to be bold’

Andy Dorr. News Leader photo
Andy Dorr. News Leader photo

Among the speakers who addressed the board on the morning of July 6 — before the Comprehensive Plan review began — Andy Dorr, senior vice president of Githler Development in Sarasota and a division chair for the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, explained that the Chamber board voted in February to set up an affordable housing task force. Its members have been meeting regularly with representatives of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and county Planning and Development Services Department staff, he added, as they works on the “critical problem that faces the nation and our region. Our focus is on low-cost, non-subsidized housing. … There’s really no housing being built [in the county] where you don’t use subsidies.”

Dorr pointed out that the task force members have been contacting bankers, financial advisers and developers. “We can’t keep doing the same thing and get the same result,” he told the board. “We’ve got to be bold.”

Dorr noted that 40 percent of the residents in Sarasota County need affordable housing.

Ideas and suggestions

Building on discussion about the affordable housing section of the draft Comprehensive Plan that ensued during the commission’s June 10 public hearing, Parsons offered several suggestions and clarifications on July 6.

The Sarasota County Planning Commission had recommended one change that would allow a bonus housing density up to 400 percent of the upper limit within each type of land use designation as an incentive for affordable dwelling units, Parsons explained. However, staff suggested 120 percent as the figure in the version of the Comprehensive Plan going to the state for review.

“What the Planning Commission really wanted to do was to attempt to move the needle — make the incentives significant enough [to entice a developer to incorporate them into a project],” he told the board.

Commission Chair Al Maio. File photo
Commission Chair Al Maio. File photo

Another modification the Planning Commission proposed would allow densities up to 100 dwelling units per acre under specific circumstances, Parsons continued. For example, he noted, a Critical Area Plan is required for mixed-use developments calling for residential densities higher than 13 units per acre, but such a plan sets 25 as the upper limit. The revision would substitute 100 for 25, but one requirement would be for at least 50 percent of the units to be affordable.

Another proposed Planning Commission change to land use policies would allow up to 100 dwelling units per acre if 50 percent of the residences qualified as affordable housing, with no less than 10 percent of the total units affordable to people making 80 percent of the Area Median Income, as calibrated for family size or less than that.

The median annual household income in Sarasota County in 2015 was $48,717, according to the Florida Department of Health, based on U.S. Census Bureau data.

Parsons said Planning Commission members talked about developments underway in the Rosemary District in Sarasota, where density up to 75 units per acre has been allowed by the city.

However, staff wants to evaluate the Planning Commission recommendations further, Parsons added, as part of the overall board initiative.

“I think the more intense [developments with] 75 units per acre are going to happen in what we have in the way of urban core” in the cities, Maio told Parsons.

Dorr returned to the Commission Chambers that afternoon with photos showing different types of developments with varying densities. He had been listening to the meeting at his office, he told the board, and felt compelled to offer the examples. Among the photos were those showing a three-story townhouse development representing 34 units per acre and another with a four-story townhouse project representing 41 units per acre.

If the County Commission chose to stay with the staff proposal of allowing an incentive of 120 percent of the base density in a particular zoning district as an incentive for affordable housing, Dorr continued, that still would mean a maximum of 28 dwelling units per acre.

“You can’t build the four-story [projects]; you can’t build the three-story [units],” he added, given that 120-percent limit.

William Merrill III. File photo
William Merrill III. File photo

In response to another speaker’s comments about unwelcome affordable housing projects in New Jersey, Dorr told the board, “The idea that we’re building New Jersey, that we’re going to build future slums … Come on!”

Sura Kochman, a Pine Shores resident who lives just off Siesta Key, argued that it is “so important to protect established neighborhoods.” Explaining that she has lived off and on in New Jersey, Kochman told the board she had had to deal with state-mandated affordable housing that led to unwelcome levels of density.

However, Bill Merrill III, a partner with the Icard Merrill law firm in Sarasota, was on Dorr’s side of the issue. Merrill urged the board to approve better incentives for affordable housing. “I believe it does need to be an increased density in the 50-75 range,” he added, but without the existing requirement that encourages “green” development — “which increases the cost” — and a call for a jobs/housing balance study to justify the developer’s request.

Dorr urged the commission to set a deadline for staff to complete its work on new affordable housing incentives. Nonetheless, given the time it will take for that staff undertaking — plus county and commission steps to amend the Comprehensive Plan to reflect the recommendations the initiative produces — Dorr estimated it would be at least two years before the incentives could be put in place. In the meantime, he added, “40 percent of our people” will continue to struggle to find affordable housing.