County staff to follow new recommendations on construction staging areas

Extra measures being taken with Siesta-Casey keys water project

Ashton Lakes residents’ complaints about long-term use of one staging area has prompted County Commission action. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

Given that only three construction staging areas have been the focus of complaints out of the 111 capital improvement projects Sarasota County has pursued over the past couple of years, the County Commission has agreed not to amend the zoning code to address problems.

Instead, the commissioners agreed by consensus with suggestions for their Public Works staff that Commissioner Joe Barbetta proposed.

The first was that staff attach to any request for proposals a list of all the staging areas used over the past several years in the county, with a date next to each site to show the last time it was used.

The goal is to ensure no site is utilized more often than every three years.

Public Works Director James W. Harriott Jr. earlier had noted that county legal staff had recommended against incorporating the three-year stipulation into bids.

Barbetta’s second suggestion was that Public Works staff work with representatives of the county’s Neighborhood Services program in an effort to prevent staging-area problems from occurring.

“These [Neighborhood Services] people are outstanding, and they are a resource that I think your team needs to start taking advantage of,” Barbetta told Harriott during the commission’s regular meeting on July 11.

Barbetta added that he felt it was unwise to amend the zoning code, because “we would never be able to forecast all of the particulars that we would have to put in an ordinance …”

He said he was concerned that the ordinance would become so burdensome that the cost of capital improvement projects would rise significantly, “at the expense of the taxpayers, and that’s not right, either.”

The staging area issue first was discussed at length during the commission’s May 9 regular meeting. It had arisen out of complaints from residents of Ashton Lakes. Commissioner Nora Patterson noted during the July 11 discussion, “After two-some years of [almost continuous use of a single site for staging], the neighborhood rebelled.”

The construction was part of the ongoing sewer-system installation in the Phillippi Creek Basin.

At the outset of his presentation, Harriott pointed out that he and staff had met with contractors in a session the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange had helped organize, and they had met with representatives of the Homebuilders Association and local chambers of commerce.

Staff also had reached out in late May to the Sarasota County Coalition of Neighborhood Associations, Harriott said.

Except for CONA, he said, the groups had had the same general response — that procedures had been working pretty well, so the commission did not need to amend the zoning code to add any new specifications.

However, Harriott said, CONA provided some suggestions late on July 10.

Among its recommendations, he said, were the following:

• Let neighborhoods know in advance where contractors plan to put their equipment, so residents can have the opportunity to notify county staff about any potential problems with the staging areas.

• Make sure contractors do not start too early or finish up too late in the day, unless they have prior agreement from the neighborhood for a specific schedule.

• Make sure contractors are not allowed to leave piles of debris in neighborhoods and that they clean up trash daily. Other debris should be covered in some way, so it cannot blow throughout a neighborhood.

“Much of that is included in the zoning code as it is right now,” Harriott said. However, he conceded, the language is “very vague,” especially regarding contractors’ work hours and screening of materials.

During the public comment portion of the July 11 meeting, Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck addressed the staging area issue, criticizing “business interests” and contractors for not wanting any new prohibitions in the zoning code.

Lobeck pointed to a comment from a participant in one of the focus groups Public Works had organized: “Let [neighborhoods] suffer.”

Another comment, from a member of the Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce, was that “some people just enjoy complaining,” Lobeck said.

He called those two responses, “callous indifference for this legitimate neighborhood concern,” adding that he had talked with CONA President Lourdes Ramirez, and CONA “very strongly [urges] that you adopt protections for the neighborhoods.”

Communicating with neighborhoods

When Commissioner Carolyn Mason asked whether the zoning code addresses contractor meetings with neighborhood residents before projects begin, Harriott said it did not, but the county has an outreach program that involves communications with neighborhoods before work starts.

Depending upon the project, some of those outreach efforts “are very intensive,” Harriott said.

For example, he noted that work was getting under way that week on the installation of a new watermain line between Siesta and Casey keys. During a Public Works meeting held July 9, he said, staff discussed the need to reach out to residents on North Casey Key Road.

“If you’re familiar with [that road], it’s not very [wide],” Harriott said. In some places, he added, it is as narrow as 12 to 14 feet.

Nonetheless, the contractor would have to send trucks up that road to deliver the pipe for the project.

Because of the impact on residents, Harriott said, county staff would be going door-to-door “from Blackburn Point Road to the northern tip of the island, talking to the property owners and explaining exactly what’s going to happen.”

Staff also would videotape and photograph the work, he said, “so we can track damage. That’s a very intensive public outreach not done on every project.”

‘Doing nothing’

“Based on what Mr. Harriott has told us,” Mason said, “all of the concerns [will be] addressed in some form or another” in county practices.

Still, Chairwoman Christine Robinson said, she was wary of having anyone characterize the board’s decision not to amend the zoning code as “doing nothing,” because Public Works staff would be following Barbetta’s recommendations.

Any time the commission can improve upon a process, Barbetta responded, “I don’t consider that a ‘do nothing’ …”

He continued, “There are ways that we can better write these bid specifications … so that they have the terms [that neighborhoods] frankly deserve. … It is unfair to expect one group of homes to endure a construction site for year after year after year.”

“I can pledge my staff, myself,” Harriott said.

“We will be out there working with these neighborhoods and resolving … issues,” he told the commission. “It is much easier to work them out many times with the contractor standing right there in the room with you.”