City attorney wins board’s approval to work with staff on potential Zoning Code amendments to enable the nonprofit to pursue an alternate means of expansion
Just before the Sarasota City Commission voted 3-2 on June 20 to memorialize its April 11 vote denying a permit for a Woman’s Exchange’s addition with a loading zone on Rawls Avenue, the attorney for the nonprofit organization warned the board members that they would be putting city staff in “a horrible position” if they approved the document.
Their April actions, Robert Lincoln told the commissioners, “are not legally justified.” They violated the City Code and the city’s Comprehensive Plan, he argued, “and they will be overturned, I trust, by a court.”
The June 20 vote on a resolution prepared by City Attorney Robert Fournier mirrored the April 11 decision: Mayor Willie Shaw joined Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie and Commissioner Susan Chapman in approving it, while Commissioners Suzanne Atwell and Liz Alpert were in the minority.
Prior to the vote, Chapman requested two additional clauses in the resolution. One was to improve the logical flow of the wording, she indicated, while she said she felt the other was needed because the document “almost makes it look like that was an arbitrary decision [to deny the permit].”
Fournier acceded to the first request, which was incorporated into the motion the board approved. However, he advised the commission not to have him make the second change. “I think you just have to read the whole document.”
“OK,” Chapman replied.
The Woman’s Exchange has 30 days from June 20 to file an appeal of the commission’s action, Fournier noted.
During his public comments, Lincoln referenced “totally subjective and imprecise language” the commissioners cited in April before voting to deny the permit that city staff had issued in November 2015. The board’s action “totally backed the Woman’s Exchange into a corner,” he added.
If any chance remains for the Woman’s Exchange to stay on its South Orange Avenue property, he continued, the board must act “very, very quickly” on changes to the Zoning Code that Fournier has suggested.
On June 20, Fournier won unanimous commission approval to work with appropriate city staff on potential changes regarding streets designated as “primary,” which prevents loading zones on them. After a draft of the amendments are prepared, Fournier explained, the Planning Board will address them and then the City Commission will review them for a vote.
During discussions of the Woman’s Exchange case with the City Commission on May 2 and again on June 20, Fournier explained that the amendments are necessary to enable the Woman’s Exchange to expand at its location at the intersection of Oak Street and South Orange Avenue. On June 20, he stressed the need to make it clear that the April vote was to deny the loading zone on Rawls Avenue, not to prevent the Woman’s Exchange from expanding on-site at 539 S. Orange Ave.
However, Lincoln pointed out on June 20 that no guarantee exists that Fournier and staff would be able to win City Commission approval of those Zoning Code changes “in a timeframe that works [for the Woman’s Exchange].” In that event, he pointed out, the Laurel Park Neighborhood Association — which fought the loading zone proposal — “will have won a total Pyrrhic victory, resulting in the loss of a “very well functioning, long-established nonprofit business [in] one of the key historic buildings that remains in downtown …” In fact, he said, if the Exchange leaves, a a new building as tall as 10 stories could take its place.
Kate Lowman, the Laurel Park Neighborhood Association (LPNA) representative who urged the commission in April to revoke the Woman’s Exchange permit, told the board she hoped Fournier’s work on the Zoning Code changes would lead to the nonprofit’s expansion on South Orange site. “That would be really wonderful for everyone.”
Lowman failed, though, in an attempt to seek the incorporation into the June 20 resolution a summary of 22 facts she and Mike Taylor, the retired general manager of the city’s Neighborhood and Development Services Department, presented during their testimony in April. In reading the draft resolution Fournier had prepared, she continued, “to us, it wasn’t entirely obvious how you had reached the conclusion that you did.”
While Fournier called the offer of those facts “well intended,” he pointed out to the board that it was not necessary from a legal standpoint “to enumerate every single piece of competent substantial factual evidence that supports the [April] decision that is in the record.”
Those issues would be addressed “if and when,” he said, the Woman’s Exchange files a Petition for Writ of Certiorari, seeking to overturn the board’s vote. “I think I know what I’m doing.”
Lowman explained that her list included issues such as standards of the Laurel Park Overlay District, safety concerns, the potential for traffic and parking problems, and historic preservation.
The nonprofit’s representatives called the loading zone a necessity to create more efficiency for its furniture consignment business. The feature would have been part of a proposed 3,524-square-foot expansion of the Woman’s Exchange into Rawls Avenue property it had acquired.
However, because of stipulations in the Laurel Park Overlay District, the neighborhood association was able to appeal city staff’s decision to award the permit. Laurel Park representatives were opposed to the loading zone because they said it would increase traffic intensity on a neighborhood street, endangering people on foot and on bicycle.
In a memo he provided to the commission in advance of the June 20 meeting, Fournier explained that the city Zoning Code prohibits loading areas on primary streets. “It may be possible for the Woman’s Exchange to accomplish its proposed expansion with a new conforming loading area located on the South Orange Avenue parcel as an alternative [to the Rawls Avenue plan],” he wrote. In that event, he continued, “the most likely area for the new loading zone would be directly to the south of the renovated non historic south addition.”
However, Fournier pointed out, Oak Street is a primary street, which would make that loading zone prospect impossible, unless the City Commission removed the primary street designation from that portion of Oak.
Another potential alternative, he wrote in the memo, is to amend the Zoning Code to allow an adjustment for a new loading zone at the intersection of Oak Street and South Orange Avenue “because the [Woman’s Exchange] property fronts on two primary streets.” The Zoning Code allows such an adjustment for a lot with frontage on three primary streets, he noted in the memo.
If the Woman’s Exchange ends up leaving its historic building in downtown Sarasota, Fournier pointed out, its representatives will need to be able to explain to a buyer what to expect in terms of access.
In regard to whether the Woman’s Exchange will file suit against the city, Fournier told the commissioners that its representatives have “played their cards pretty close to their chest.” If they showed any interest in the proposed Zoning Code changes, he continued, he would request expedited consideration of the amendments by the Planning Board and the commissioners.
Lincoln did not return a Sarasota News Leader inquiry about his plans on behalf of the Woman’s Exchange.