Freestanding multi-family buildings to be allowed by special exception in mixed-use projects on Commercial General sites in Sarasota County

Commission approves zoning amendment after second required public hearing

A graphic shows the triangular site of the mixed-use Cassia Cay development (outlined in red that has been proposed. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The measure started out in association with a specific project proposed on South Tamiami Trail. Nonetheless a unanimous Sarasota County Commission vote on April 3 will make it possible for any developer to seek approval to apply it to any Commercial General zoning districts in unincorporated Sarasota County.

After the required second public hearing on April 3, the commission adopted a Sarasota County Zoning Ordinance amendment that will allow freestanding multi-family buildings and attached residential units in mixed-use developments on Commercial General property. However, the amendment makes it impossible for such structures to cover more than 30% of the project site, and a developer will have to win a special exception from the commission to apply the measure.

When the board held the first public hearing on the application for the zoning amendment — on March 1 — Brian Lichterman, owner of Vision Planning & Design in Sarasota, pointed out that Brenda Patten of the Sarasota law firm Berlin, Patten & Ebling won the Planning Commission’s unanimous approval of the measure last year. At that time, Patten was acting as the representative of Core Development, a Kansas corporation, which was planning a mixed-use project called Cassia Cay on 18.5 acres located on the southwest corner of U.S. 41 and Holiday Drive, at 7914 Tamiami Trail. Subsequently, Lichterman explained, Patten’s client chose not to pursue the amendment. (Patten told The Sarasota News Leader in mid-December 2016 that her client no longer was under contract to buy the Cassia Cay property.)

However, Lichterman said, the owner of that the South Tamiami Trail site — BMR Funding of Greenwich, Conn. —decided to seek board approval of the amendment.

Brian Lichterman. File photo

As he had during the March 1 hearing, Lichterman appeared before the County Commission on April 3 to point out the reasoning behind the request for the new measure. And, again, he was standing in for attorney Morgan Bentley of Bentley & Bruning in Sarasota, who was tied up in court on March 1, Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson noted during the initial hearing.

“Mixed-use development is a goal of the New Urbanism [planning philosophy],” Lichterman told the board on April 3, but building residential units above commercial property “in the suburban, unincorporated county has not worked very well at all.”

People want to live a short walk from restaurants and shops, he continued, but “they do not want to experience the noise, the trash, the odors and the customers of commercial uses in the same building where they live.”

Furthermore, he continued, developers are reluctant to construct residential units above commercial uses in the unincorporated parts of the county because of “operational, security and insurance obstacles …”

All those problems are eliminated, Lichterman added, if freestanding multi-family units are allowed. Those buildings can be connected to the commercial areas by bike paths and sidewalks, he noted, or by common walls or parking facilities. However, he said, the separation between types of structures enables a developer to create residential amenities such as pools and private gardens.

In preparing for the April 3 public hearing, Lichterman told the board, he thought of a couple of situations where such projects would have been appropriate.

A graphic shows the site just east of the Target shopping center on Fruitville Road that Lichterman provided as an example to the board. News Leader photo

For one example, he showed the board a map of property just east of the Target shopping center on Fruitville Road in Sarasota, where a multi-family development is under construction. That site was zoned Industrial, Light Manufacturing and Warehousing (ILW), he noted, but if it had been zoned Commercial General — and the proposed zoning amendment were in effect — the developer could have mixed freestanding multi-family housing with retail uses.

The second example was the site of the 233-unit DeSoto Road Apartments, located on about 18 acres at 5380 DeSoto Road. Although the property was zoned already for residential use, Lichterman pointed out, it just as easily could have been designated Commercial General.

Lichterman and Thompson both stressed that approval of the amendment would not lead to an increase in density in mixed-use projects on Commercial General property.

On two separate votes, the commissioners found the proposed ordinance consistent with the county’s Comprehensive Plan and then adopted the ordinance.

Morgan Bentley. Contributed photo

Making both motions, Commissioner Charles Hines told Lichterman he was happy to see the example Lichterman had provided regarding the construction on Fruitville Road. The board members, Hines said, had struggled to make that project comply with county zoning regulations, “knowing it was the right thing to do for that property.”

Hines also referenced the fact that the board will approve freestanding structures in mixed-use developments by special exception only. “We have control to make sure that [they are] site-specific,” he said — that they will fit in well with the surroundings.

Hines applauded the effort to make it easier for people to live near shops, restaurants and their workplaces, thereby reducing the need to drive.

Commissioner Mike Moran seconded both motions, saying he hoped adoption of the amendment would lead to “some alternative housing options with mixed use.”

In response to a request from the News Leader for comment on the board’s approval of the amendment, attorney Bentley wrote in an April 11 email, “I look at it like a long overdue housekeeping item. If the residential can be attached, why can’t it be separate on the same parcel? Just seems like a common sense fix.”