Individual public speakers get 5 minutes each as City Commission addresses Selby Gardens master plan

Commission rejects request of attorney for Bay Point Park Neighborhood Association to delay hearing to allow further review of new Selby Gardens compromises offered during city Planning Board hearing

A graphic shows the layout envisioned for Selby Gardens in the master plan it released in 2017. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

UPDATE: On Oct. 28, the Sarasota City Commission made it through the first day of its public hearing on the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens petitions. The meeting will continue at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 5, in the City Commission Chambers at City Hall.

Members of the public have been given 5 minutes each to address the issues the City Commission will consider regarding two applications related to the Marie Selby Gardens master plan.

That decision came during the board’s regular meeting on Oct. 21, after close to 40 minutes of exchanges about the upcoming hearing.

Additionally, at the recommendation of City Attorney Robert Fournier, the commissioners agreed to allow city staff 30 minutes to make the initial presentation on Oct. 28 about Selby Gardens’ requests. Then representatives of the Gardens will have 45 minutes. Both the latter and city staff also will have 15 minutes each for rebuttal at the conclusion of public comments.

Further, the commissioners agreed to Fournier’s suggestion that S. William Moore, the attorney representing the Bay Point Park Neighborhood Association, and attorney Robert Lincoln, representing the Hudson Crossing condominium complex homeowners, will have 25 minutes each. Finally, former City Commissioner Susan Chapman will have 10 minutes to represent herself.

During their evening session on Oct. 21, the commissioners agreed that if they cannot conclude the hearing on Oct. 28, they will continue it until 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 5.

On another point: Although Moore had sent Fournier a letter requesting a continuance of the Oct. 28 hearing, the commissioners took Fournier’s advice that such action was not necessary.

Moore’s primary contention for the request, Fournier explained, was that “Selby Gardens made unfair changes to its pending application, which was read into the record [of the final day of the city Planning Board hearing], and there were also changes to [the Gardens’] proffer statement.’

Moore said that moving the hearing from Oct. 28 to a later date would “allow sufficient time for those changes … to be evaluated by the city staff, the City Commission and by the neighbors themselves, their counsel and planner,” Fournier added.

This is the final segment of attorney William Moore’s letter to City Attorney Robert Fournier. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Having reviewed the record of the Planning Board hearing, Fournier continued, “I don’t believe that that is a serious concern.”

Moreover, Fournier said, he had consulted with the appropriate city staff members, and “they did not believe additional time would be needed; they said that they fully understood the proposed changes” and would be able to address them adequately on Oct. 28.

Among those changes and proffers, stated in an Oct. 7 email from Dan Bailey of the Sarasota firm Williams Parker, on behalf of Selby Gardens, to Moore were the following: The outdoor terrace that would be part of the restaurant atop the proposed five-story “Sky Garden” parking garage would close no later than 10 p.m.; the restaurant facilities would not be available for “buy-out events or parties more than five times per year”; all bars, “including portable bar, tap or other temporary service facility, shall be located indoors”; no outdoor amplified music will be permitted; no fireworks will be permitted; the minimum building setbacks from residentially zoned property would be 65 feet for greenhouses, 175 feet for parking garages or restaurants; and 35 feet for all other buildings; and the noise from mechanical equipment located within 100 feet of residentially zoned property “shall not exceed 55 [decibels] measured at the property line of the residentially zoned property.”

This is a diagram of the proposed Sky Garden parking garage. Image from the Selby Gardens website

More details about the issues and the parties

Because the two issues on the Oct. 28 agenda are of a legislative nature — involving Selby’s request for a city Comprehensive Plan amendment and a zoning text amendment — City Attorney Fournier explained to the commission on Oct. 21 that the Bay Point Park and Hudson Crossing groups, along with former City Commissioner Chapman, would not be considered “affected parties” for the hearing. However, he continued, Chapman and the other homeowners qualify as “affected persons” because of the proximity of their residences to Selby Gardens.

Ordinarily, in a hearing like the one planned for next week, Fournier explained, city meeting rules say the attorneys for the two groups and Chapman would have no more time to speak than any other member of the public. However, one reason he suggested the attorneys be allowed more time, he said, is that they will be representing multiple people. Their testimony potentially could reduce the desire of some of their clients to address the commission, he indicated.

Former City Commissioner Susan Chapman. File photo

As for Chapman: Although she will represent just herself, he added, “out of deference to her past public service” and the time she has spent researching the issues, he felt she deserved to get 10 minutes to make her arguments.

“People may ask for extensions,” he also noted of Moore, Lincoln and Chapman. His recommendation on that point, Fournier told the commissioners, is “that you be liberal within reason.”

Fournier also suggested that the commissioners could decide on Oct. 21 if they wanted to give the other public speakers just 3 minutes each. “Your rules say 5,” but the commission could waive those and settle on 3, he explained.

Further, he pointed out, the commission will have to conduct a second hearing, as provided for by law, on the very same issues on the Oct. 28 agenda.

“I just thought that might give you a better process,” he added of his recommendations.

The first agenda item for the Oct. 28 special meeting asks the commissioners to decide whether to transmit to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity a proposed amendment to the city Comprehensive Plan to change the future land use classification of the Gardens’ property from Community Office/Institutional to Metropolitan-Regional. With the address of 926 S. Palm Ave., just outside downtown Sarasota, the Gardens sits on a parcel comprising about 14.73 acres, the agenda material notes.

The second item on the agenda calls for a commission decision on amending the city Zoning Code to include a new Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Zone District and identifying the uses that would be allowed in that district.

This graphic in the city staff report for the Oct. 28 meeting shows the proposed change in the city’s Future Land Use Map in regard to the Selby Gardens property. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

If the necessary supermajority of the commission — four of the five members — in in favor of the change in the future land use classification, Fournier pointed out, the resulting resolution will be transmitted, as required, to state officials for review before the commission takes a second and final vote on the amendment.

A debate

When Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch sought clarification about whether city staff members felt 30 minutes would be sufficient for their comments on Oct. 28, Fournier replied that he had checked with them and that they felt 30 minutes would suffice.

Then Ahearn-Koch first offered her recommendation for allowing each member of the public 5 minutes to speak during the public hearing. “I would not be in favor of limiting the public’s voice.”

Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch. News Leader image

She also suggested that Mayor Liz Alpert  announce — as Alpert routinely does before a major public hearing — that speakers who have signed up to address the board should not hesitate — if the situation warrants such action — to just say they agree with the comments of previous speakers, without feeling the need to elaborate on the same points.

“They never do that when you ask that,” Alpert replied, prompting a chuckle from Commissioner Willie Shaw.

“I would be in favor of limiting it to 3 minutes,” Commissioner Hagen Brody said. “I’ve found that 3 minutes is more than enough time to give your position on an issue.”

“I wouldn’t be opposed to 3 minutes,” Shaw added, “because of the number of individuals … we’re expecting.”

“I would be in favor of reducing it,” Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie said of the 5-minute period. With the commission settling this week on the hearing format, she pointed out, people would have plenty of notice to tailor their comments accordingly. Members of the public also can continue to email and call the commissioners with their thoughts on the issues, Freeland Eddie noted.

If 50 people show up to speak on Oct. 28, Alpert said, a 3-minute limit still would mean 150 minutes of public remarks, for a total of two-and-a-half hours, besides the comments of the attorneys, Chapman, staff and the Selby Gardens project team.

“This is not an easy project,” Ahearn-Koch stressed. “It’s complicated on all sides. … It’s our jobto listen to the community.”

She added, “If we have to sit here for two hours or two-and-a-half hours or four hours, or whatever it takes, our job is to listen to the public.”

The city’s Planning Board spent a total of 18 hours on the Selby Gardens applications, she pointed out.

As the debate continued, Freeland Eddie noted that the people represented by the two attorneys still could offer comments individually, giving those residents two opportunities to make their points.

Brody continued to insist on 3 minutes.

A staff graphic shows an aerial view of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Finally, Alpert said, “This is such a contentious issue that if we don’t allow 5 [minutes], the perception’s going to be that we didn’t allow people to speak on the issue.”

When Shaw suggested that he would make a motion for sticking with the 5 minutes allowed by city regulations, Fournier told him a motion was not necessary.

“I’m going to assume that it’s 5 [minutes] now,” Fournier added, given that the majority of the commissioners had made it clear that that was their preference.