County’s fee schedule to undergo review

Residents and regular patrons in downtown Sarasota have watched the progress on the Gompertz Theatre renovations at Florida Studio Theatre near the corner of Cocoanut and First streets. Sarasota County officials say they want to make it easier for firms to negotiate the construction permitting process in the county. Photo by Norman Schimmel

The $500 fee for a formal determination on a zoning matter will be among those addressed when Sarasota County pursues a new study of its fee schedule, Rob Lewis, the county’s director of planning and development services, told about 20 members of the Siesta Key Village Association during their regular meeting on Aug. 7.

Lewis added that his staff also would recommend the County Commission maintain a 10% reduction in building permit fees that it authorized last year.

The fee study, Lewis said, “will be under way here in a few weeks.” He added, “Other governmental entities have done these studies,” so Sarasota County staff would be checking with them “to see if we can get a fix on the right firm to use [and] the right scope, and then from there, we’ll know what the cost might be.”

Still, Lewsi said, “common sense will tell you … it’s not likely we’re going to see increases in the fees.”

Siesta architect Mark Smith raised the matter of the $500 zoning determination fee. The current county practice, Smith said, is to charge that amount to a property owner who wants to be certain about whether a parcel under consideration for a project is zoned appropriately for the project.

Clients have asked him, Smith added, why it costs so much for “the zoning administrator to do his job.”

Generally, Smith continued, he prepares a detailed letter for any client that explains his interpretation of the zoning on a parcel. Then he submits that letter to the Zoning Office for verification.

Lewis replied that the cost probably reflected the complexity of the zoning code and how it was being applied to the property in question.

He has directed his staff, Lewis added, not to charge in a situation in which a person “picks up the phone and calls us to ask us what they want to know.”

Smith said, “I’ll get an ‘OK’ verbally, but to get anything in writing, it’s $500.”

For small business owners, especially, Smith said, “Five hundred dollars is a lot of money.”

Lewis responded, “Many times, if not most times, those determination letters [from the Zoning Office] are also reviewed by the County Attorney’s Office to ensure that they’re of the same mindset.”

That extra review adds to the cost, he indicated.

Still, Lewis said, the $500 fee would be reassessed.

“We want to [spur] economic development,” Jon Mast, general manager of business center operations in the Planning and Development Services Office, told the SKVA members. “If the fees can be lowered, numerous contractors will pay less,” he added, which should lead to more construction activity in the county.

Most of the construction firms in the county are small businesses, Mast pointed out.

The county has had steady revenue from building permits over the past year, Lewis said. “I wouldn’t say that we’ve seen tremendous peaks, and I wouldn’t say that we’ve seen tremendous valleys, either.”

However, Lewis cautioned the group that he is not an economist. All he can do is track the building and site permits, which come through his office, he said.