In response to public concerns, Sarasota city staff modifies controversial proposals designed to encourage construction of affordable housing

Representatives of neighborhood organizations still asking for more community meetings before measures approved, because of complexity of issues

On Sept. 10, Sarasota City Manager Marlon Brown and Ryan Chapdelain, general manager of the city’s Planning Department, tried to assuage concerns of city neighborhood leaders in advance of Sept. 19 City Commission hearings on controversial changes to policies regarding affordable housing.

However, during the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations of Sarasota (CCNA) meeting that morning, R.N. Collins of the Granada community stressed the fact that insufficient public outreach has taken place in advance of that upcoming commission session.

Collins also pointed out that an individual will have only 5 minutes “to talk about many, many, many concepts” during the hearings. It is impossible, Collins added, to cover every concern in that period of time.

Moreover, Collins told the men that city webpages devoted to the proposals, which were created in February, had not been updated as staff promised they would be, to reflect steps taken in the process.

Chapdelain replied that the website had been updated.

“Between February and August, it had not been updated,” Collins told Chapdelain.

“The Planning Department is failing to communicate,” Collins said. ‘There’s never an opportunity to have a full discussion,” he added.

The agenda for the Sept. 19 commission meeting was released on Sept. 8, Collins noted. From the latter date to next Monday, he stressed, is not enough time to make certain that people understand all of the details of the proposed city ordinances that would implement facets of a Comprehensive Plan amendment that the commissioners approved on May 16 for transmittal to Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) staff for formal review.

“I think it’s untoward,” Collins said, to expect members of the public to be able to understand the details of the proposals in 10 days.

Further, Collins said, he had seen a Sept. 8 email from a city planner to the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association in which the planner had written, “I have received permission” to email copies of the proposed ordinances to that organization prior to the release of the City Commission’s Sept. 19 agenda.

The Sarasota News Leader also read that email. It originated with David L. Smith, manager of long-range planning for the city.

No one needed permission to see those draft ordinances, Collins stressed to Brown and Chapdelain on Sept. 10; they are public records. Smith’s language in the email, Collins added, “is a basis for a lack of trust [that the city staff is] not acting in good faith.”

As the News Leader reported in its Aug. 26 issue, leaders of the CCNA and multiple, individual city neighborhood organizations had contacted the city commissioners and City Manager Brown, pleading with them to slow down the process for approving the policy changes. Those community leaders focused then, too, on the lack of city staff outreach.

Those emails followed city staff’s release of the commission meeting dates when approval of the proposed ordinances and related issues were scheduled. Oct. 17 public hearings will follow the ones set for next week. The final vote on the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment is scheduled for Nov. 7.

Following Brown’s and Chapdelain’s Sept. 10 remarks, CCNA Chair Lou Costa noted that two at-large city commissioners will be elected on Nov. 8. (Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch is seeking re-election. The other two candidates are Debbie Trice, past president of the Rosemary District Association, and attorney Dan Lobeck, president of the nonprofit Control Growth Now.)

Costa suggested that it would be more appropriate to delay the City Commission’s action on the changes until after the election.

“That’s going to be a policy decision on Sept. 19,” Brown replied. Any member of the public could ask the commissioners to wait until after the election, Brown added.

Representing the Arlington Park Neighborhood Association, Rob Grant also asked for the process to be slowed down.

“What you guys are trying to do is really complex,” Ron Kashden of the Laurel Park neighborhood told Brown and Chapdelain. Residents are concerned that, with the accelerated timeline for approving all of the measures, something important will be overlooked, Kashden added.

The proposed changes

The goal of the Comprehensive Plan amendment and the ordinances, Brown pointed out during the CCNA meeting, is to create attainable housing for people such as first responders, teachers, nurses, “your children [and] your grandchildren. [It] is an opportunity for them to be able to afford to live in this community.”

The only attainable housing anyone can find in the city, he said, is in District 1, which includes Newtown.

(Disputing that, Grant pointed out that many affordable homes are available in Arlington Park; however, Grant added, they are being replaced by million-dollar houses.)

Brown and Chapdelain did delve into changes that staff has made in the proposals since May, in response to public concerns.

Brown’s first example was the fact that extra height for buildings in downtown zoning districts no longer would be an incentive for a developer to include attainable housing units.

Further, in the proposal for redevelopment of aging commercial centers to include new attainable housing units, he said the base density would be up to 25 units per acre, instead of 50, as originally suggested.

Chapdelain added that close proximity of those commercial centers to public transportation, employment centers, and retail and neighborhood services would be a factor for approving plans for attainable housing units.

Moreover, the total density of a development, if it provided attainable housing, could be no more than three times the maximum base density as shown on the zoning classification of the parcel, Brown pointed out.

Further, because the public opposed the idea that city staff should be able to offer administrative approval of new construction that provides attainable housing, the relevant language has been modified to read “may” instead of “shall.”

“We want to hear from you what the community will tolerate” in terms of administrative review authority, Brown told the CCNA members. “If you oppose it and the City Commission agrees,” Brown continued, the possibility of any development approvals through administrative review would be eliminated.

During the May 16 public hearing, city Planning Director Steve Cover talked of the fact that developers wanted the administrative review approval process because that would speed up their work — and decrease their expense, compared to the time they have to invest in participating in Planning Board and City Commission public hearings.

Finally, at City Commission direction in August, the Comprehensive Plan amendment will incorporate “inclusionary housing” options. As proposed, Action Strategy 3.15 says, “As another potential means to achieve a greater supply of attainable housing, the City may evaluate the use of an inclusionary housing land development regulation consistent with Section 166.04151 [of the] Florida Statutes. In exchange for a developer providing attainable housing required by such land development regulation, the City shall provide incentives to offset costs to a developer for the affordable housing contribution as required by the Florida Statutes. … Once the City has identified the costs of a mandatory attainable housing contribution and determined the incentives it can offer, the City must then calculate the value of the incentives granted and confirm that those incentives offset the costs associated with utilizing the inclusionary land development regulation …”

Section 166.04151 of the Florida Statutes states, “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a municipality may adopt and maintain in effect any law, ordinance, rule, or other measure that is adopted for the purpose of increasing the supply of affordable housing using land use mechanisms such as inclusionary housing ordinances.”

Following Brown’s comments, Chapdelain stressed that construction resulting from the changes to city policies and regulations — if the City Commission approves them — likely would take decades to materialize. “This is a long-term vision.”

He also pointed out that, based on a report from the Realtor Association of Sarasota and Manatee, the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton Metropolitan Statistical Area had the third-largest jump in average rent in the nation from June 2021 to June 2022.

One member of the public who has created a website with details about the modified changes shared the address with the News Leader for use of its readers:

On Sept. 14, the News Leader learned, Kashden, the Laurel Park resident, sent an email to the city commissioners. “A ton of work has been done by staff to revise the comp plan proposals addressing the city’s current and future housing needs,” he wrote. “The city has also listened to residents, outside experts, and commissioners to improve the initial document. Some of these revisions were done after the transmittal to the state.

“As I’m sure you’ve seen,” he continued, “the documents to be discussed on September 19th represent a still evolving set of guidelines and practices. Notes have been added to planning narratives. Ordinances reflect now obsolete text. In some cases (e.g. site plan administrative approval outside of the downtown zones), the ordinances do not match commission direction in May or what is described in the staff report. In essence, this complicated package reflects a work-in-process.”

Kashden concluded the email with the following: “You have the opportunity to use Monday as a working session to come to a consensus, to consolidate all the ideas, and streamline the comp plan.

“Then on Monday you can vote to ‘continue’ the ordinances to provide time for staff to incorporate the changes and create comp plan ordinances that can serve as the blueprint guiding the subsequent [Future Land Use Map] changes and zoning text amendments.”

‘Mud-slinging’ and proposed changes

At the outset of his presentation to the CCNA members on Sept. 10, Brown referenced “a lot of mud-slinging and distortion” alleged of city staff members in the process involving the proposed Comprehensive Plan changes.

“These are hardworking public servants,” he emphasized. “There is no place — there’s no place — in this community to call people names. … If you think you have an issue with any of them, I am the one to be held accountable.”

Then Brown explained that an advisory committee appointed to work on ideas to spur the development of affordable housing stock came up with recommendations in 2018 that led to the City Commission’s approval of the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment on May 16. (Commissioner Ahearn-Koch cast the lone “No” vote on transmitting that draft to the Department of Economic Opportunity in Tallahassee.)

In 2021 votes, Brown added, the commissioners had authorized staff formally to craft appropriate changes to the Comprehensive Plan and city regulations. During a special meeting conducted on Feb. 14 of this year, he pointed out, the commissioners discussed the conceptual Comprehensive Plan polices related to attainable housing. Three days later, Brown continued, the CCNA’s Executive Board talked about some of those changes with city staff.

He presented a timeline that showed the dates of discussions and presentations that also were open to the public prior to the May City Commission meeting, to underscore his emphasis on public outreach.

For example, the slide said that the CCNA Executive Board met with city staff on March 2 to discuss elements of the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment, including administrative review.

Next, the slide noted, a community workshop was held on March 24, followed by another session on March 30 that focused solely on staff’s recommendation for a new “Missing Middle Overlay District,” which would see a pilot program launched in the Park East community east of downtown Sarasota. That would encompass a mix of housing types such as duplexes, fourplexes, cottage courts and small, multi-dwelling structures, as noted in city documents.

The overlay district would encompass an area from north of Ninth Street to Fourth Street, and from east of Washington Boulevard to just east of North East Avenue.

On May 4, Brown’s slide also said, the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association Board was given a presentation on the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment, followed by a presentation of it to the CCNA on May 7.

Still — as city residents had pointed out during the May 16 public hearing — one CCNA member talked of the fact that his neighborhood association met the criteria for notification of one of those staff-conducted meetings; yet, many of the residents received no notice of it.