Laurel Park Neighborhood Association supports zoning amendment to change some street designations from ‘primary’ to ‘secondary’
By consensus on the afternoon of May 2, the Sarasota City Commission agreed to allow City Attorney Robert Fournier and staff members of the city’s Neighborhood and Development Services Department to meet with representatives of the Woman’s Exchange to explore options for a new loading zone on the nonprofit organization’s South Orange Avenue property in downtown Sarasota.
During about 30 minutes of discussion, Fournier characterized the session as a means potentially of keeping the Woman’s Exchange from filing one or more legal complaints over the City Commission’s 3-2 decision on April 11 to reverse staff’s issuance of a building permit for an addition with a loading zone on Rawls Avenue. The Laurel Park Neighborhood Association (LPNA) had opposed the loading zone plan, citing concerns about safety to residents who regularly use Rawls for walking and riding their bicycles.
Fournier told the commissioners on May 2 that he anticipated reporting back to them in June on the results of the discussions.
In the meantime, Fournier noted, Robert Lincoln — the Sarasota attorney representing the Woman’s Exchange — has filed a Request for Relief as provided for in the Florida Statutes in regard to government “taking” of property. In that document, Lincoln seeks a settlement with city over the denial of the building permit. The petition says “the City Commission’s application of the Laurel Park Overlay District … interfered with the existing uses and the reasonable, investment backed expectations” that the Woman’s Exchange would be able to use the Rawls Property.
Lincoln told the commissioners on May 2, “I have to absolutely hold out the idea that talks could be beneficial.”
Fournier said he felt the filing of the petition was premature, as the board has not approved a formal resolution denying the building permit.
Kate Lowman, a representative of the Laurel Park Neighborhood Association, urged the city commissioners to allow Fournier to hold the discussions, and she asked them to consider an amendment to the City Code that would modify the zoning on some downtown streets to make them secondary instead of primary streets. As testimony during the quasi-judicial hearing regarding the Woman’s Exchange building permit made clear, no loading zones are allowed on primary streets.
City staff had approved the new Woman’s Exchange loading zone as part of the expansion on Rawls Avenue because Rawls is a secondary street, city documents show. Woman’s Exchange representatives explained in their application for the building permit that they need the extra room — and, especially, the loading zone — to improve overall efficiency in their consignment business, especially as it relates to the handling of furniture.
Lowman pointed out on May 2 that, several years ago, “boutique zoning” was suggested as a means for the city to deal with potential situations such as the one that has arisen with the Woman’s Exchange. She pointed to consultant Andres Duany’s proposals regarding development and redevelopment on the periphery of what Lowman cited as Sarasota’s “walk-to-town” neighborhoods, among which are Gillespie Park, Laurel Park and the Rosemary District. Duany called for city staff “to ensure functional and aesthetic compatibility,” she added, saying she was reading from his plan.
The nonprofit would prefer an alternative to its existing loading zone, Lincoln pointed out, which is nonconforming and “shoe-horned into the parking lot.” If that loading zone were modified to handle truck traffic, he continued, it would block traffic in the parking lot. “This was a great reason for relocating the loading zone in the first place,” Lincoln said.
“I can’t guarantee that we will be successful,” Fournier said of staff meeting with Woman’s Exchange representatives. If the discussions are fruitful, though, he added, “we won’t have years of litigation ahead of us.”
“Nobody wants to litigate this,” Lincoln told the commissioners. “But backing the Woman’s Exchange into a corner on this” makes that a possibility, he added.
Under the law, the Woman’s Exchange will have 30 days after the City Commission approves a resolution memorializing its denial of the building permit to file a Writ of Certiorari asking that the 12th Judicial Circuit Court overturn the decision, Fournier explained. The board cannot delay a vote on that resolution indefinitely, he pointed out. Therefore, he said, the discussions should be completed this month, with the hope of averting a lawsuit.
Trying to pre-empt legal action
As he explained in a memo to the board that was included in the backup agenda material for the May 2 meeting, Fournier told the commissioners this week that while he wanted to explore ways to keep the city from legal action filed by the Woman’s Exchange, “I’m not talking about in any way revising the decision” the board made on April 11 to deny the building permit. (Mayor Willie Shaw joined Commissioners Susan Chapman and Shelli Freeland Eddie in voting in support of the Laurel Park Neighborhood Association, while Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell and Commissioner Liz Alpert were in the minority.)
“What is it you are going to be telling the Woman’s Exchange they cannot do?” Fournier said. If it is to keep the loading zone off Rawls Avenue, he explained, the nonprofit has to be able to use an alternate loading zone. Referencing Lincoln’s petition, Fournier added, “I would be constrained to agree” with the attorney’s assertion that the denial of the building permit makes it impossible for the Woman’s Exchange to enjoy reasonable use of the Rawls Avenue property it purchased in 2012.
Yet, Fournier continued, it does not appear the Laurel Park Neighborhood Association will stop opposing a loading zone on Rawls Avenue.
Therefore, he said, city staff and the commission could work to make it permissible for the nonprofit to use a loading zone on South Orange Avenue by removing the primary street status for South Orange Avenue and Oak Street. “In some places, perhaps, too many streets were designated with this ‘primary street’ designation,” Fournier added.
The situation also could prove problematic, he continued, if someone in the future proposes to build 50 condominiums on the property owned by Michael Saunders & Co. to the north of the Woman’s Exchange; it is used as a parking lot, but the city has indicated no plans to purchase it.
While the Zoning Code would allow condos on that site, Fournier explained, two of the streets on which the property would front are designated “primary”: Morrill on the north and South Orange Avenue. The ingress and egress for the complex would have to be on Rawls Avenue, he noted. Yet, “knowing how the neighborhood reacted to one loading space on Rawls, I just wonder how they’ll react to ingress and egress for 50 condominiums on that same site.”
“I think it is wrong and unfair to let this fester and hang out there,” he said of the situation. He added, “A big part of Downtown Core [zoning] was sold to the development community on predictability. Yet … unseen consequences are present.”
The Woman’s Exchange property is also zoned Downtown Core. The city’s Zoning Code says that district “is a very dense mixed-use urban area,” generally with residential dwellings in tall, multi-family structures. The maximum density is 50 dwelling units per acre. The code adds, “Non-residential uses are varied and include department stores, entertainment facilities, restaurants, offices and lodging uses.”
Commissioner Chapman told Fournier that she argued against designating Orange Avenue as a primary street when Mike Taylor, the city’s former general manager of the Neighborhood and Development Services Department, proposed that years ago. (Taylor represented the Laurel Park Neighborhood Association in the appeal to the City Commission.)
Commissioner Freeland Eddie said she was in favor of the discussions. She already had worried, she added, about other potential zoning questions arising after the board voted to deny the building permit to the Woman’s Exchange. “It’s presently a zero tolerance [situation],” she pointed out of the fact that loading zones are not allowed on primary streets. “My concern is that we get it right from a [Zoning] Code perspective, so that we’re not being reactive .…”