Vice mayor wins unanimous support for School Board to provide assurance that, after completion, pathway will remain open at all times
On a 4-1 vote this week, the Sarasota City Commission approved an interlocal agreement with the Sarasota County School Board and the Ringling College of Art + Design regarding plans for a bicycle/pedestrian pathway on the west side of Sarasota High School, as well as pedestrian and bicycle improvements on the east side of the school.
The Sarasota County School Board approved the agreement last month, with Chair Jane Goodwin signing it on July 16.
Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch cast the “No” vote during the commission’s regular meeting on Aug. 19 after raising concerns about whether the pathway would remain open at all times following its completion. She also voiced worries that the School Board would not have enough money left over for the bicycle-pedestrian pathway after finishing the east-side projects.
Ahearn-Koch stressed the importance of the pathway to nearby residents in the wake of the commission’s decision to vacate the section of School Avenue that runs through the Sarasota High campus.
The commissioners approved the first reading of the street vacation ordinance on May 6, with Ahearn-Koch again in the minority. She cast another “No” vote when the board conducted the second reading of the ordinance on Aug. 19.
Just before that vote this week, Mayor Liz Alpert acknowledged, “Keeping the [transportation] grid open is an important thing under normal circumstances, but we’re not talking about normal circumstances here.” Alpert added, “This is a matter of safety, I think for our students … A grid is not more important than a student’s life. … With all of the mass shootings we’ve been having, I think we need to do what we can to minimally keep our students safe on campus.”
The portion of School Avenue the city agreed to vacate splits the high school campus. That situation long has been a focal point for security concerns for the School Board, district staff, parents and students. School shootings — especially the 17-victim incident on Feb. 14, 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland — exacerbated those worries.
Nonetheless, residents who live in the vicinity of Sarasota High have complained that School Avenue is vital to the city’s transportation grid, pointing out that it is one of the city’s few remaining, extensive north-south routes.
In May 2018, the City Commission approved longer hours for the closing of the street through the school campus when school was in session.
Ahearn-Koch has supported the residents who have opposed the permanent street vacation.
As for the interlocal agreement regarding the plans for the pedestrian and bicycling improvements, Ahearn-Koch said during that Aug. 19 discussion, “I think the priorities are flipped.” The west side improvements should come first, she added.
Ryan Chapdelain, general manager of the city’s Planning Department, explained that the results of the traffic study undertaken in conjunction with the street vacation necessitated that the east side improvements take top priority. They are planned to eradicate problems that would hinder public access under the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), he explained.
Nonetheless, he expressed confidence that the improvements would not require all the $3 million the School Board has committed to the projects on both the east and west sides of the Sarasota High campus.
(During the discussions, the commissioners, as well as city and school district staff, referred to the pathway as a Multi-Use Recreational Trail, or MURT.)
Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown also stressed that the MURT is a priority, voicing the belief that the pathway could be completed with the School Board funds. He indicated a worst-case scenario would be the necessity of waiting for the addition of canopy trees for shade and amenities such as benches.
The MURT will be 10 to 12 feet in width, city and school district staff noted.
Ahearn-Koch did win her colleagues’ unanimous support on Aug. 19 in calling for the School Board to provide the commission with a Memorandum of Understanding saying that the MURT would remain open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in perpetuity after its completion.
“I don’t think we would have a problem with that whatsoever,” said Jody Dumas, acting chief operating officer for the Sarasota County Schools. (Dumas was serving as executive director of the Facilities, Planning and Construction Division of the school district prior to the School Board’s June 18 vote on his new role.)
During public comments on the proposed interlocal agreement, Mary Anne Bowie, a certified planner representing the Arlington Park Neighborhood Association and the City Coalition of Neighborhood Associations, referenced comments school district staff had made earlier about the MURT plans. Unless the right of way for the MURT were dedicated to the city, Bowie said, putting the city in charge of the pathway, the School Board could close the MURT whenever the School Board chose to do so. “You have to understand that things change.”
Chapdelain told the City Commission that, in negotiations with the School Board and Ringling College, Deputy City Attorney Michael Connolly had ensured the city would not own the right of way. “The city is not interested in maintaining or being liable for it,” Chapdelain said.
Additionally, Deputy City Manager Brown pointed out that the issue of potential closings of the pathway had centered on a previous route for the MURT.
Concerns about collaboration
At the outset of the Aug. 19 City Commission discussion of the proposed interlocal agreement with Ringling College and the School Board, Chapdelain told the commissioners, “Staff and the attorneys on both sides worked diligently all summer long — I don’t think that’s an exaggeration” — to create the document.
Nonetheless, Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie talked of changes she felt would be important in it. The City Commission was unable to address them before the School Board approved the agreement, she added.
For example, she said, the document calls for the construction of the west side MURT to begin within 24 months after the second reading and adoption of the School Avenue street vacation ordinance, with completion expected within 36 months of the date of the ordinance’s adoption.
Freeland Eddie asked for a 36-month deadline for the project to be finished, omitting the 24-month language.
Likewise, she called for a 36-month deadline for completion of the east side improvements. “I think there needs to be a hard deadline for these improvements to take place.”
Moreover, Freeland Eddie requested language modifications to ensure that the city would be a partner in the design of the MURT, instead of acting in an advisory capacity.
“This is your pathway we’re going to build,” Dumas of the school district told Freeland Eddie. He added that the School Board has the funds in place to begin the work. However, it will have to coordinate facets of the project with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), Dumas added. If that collaboration goes smoothly, Dumas continued, then the School Board would be able to complete the MURT ahead of the timeline in the interlocal agreement.
Chapdelain said his reading of the agreement indicated that city staff would be working collaboratively with school district staff. For example, he pointed out, “All those improvements [on the east side] are going to take place on city right of way. … So, by default, the city’s already involved.”
Moreover, referencing Dumas’ comment about FDOT, Chapdelain said unforeseen circumstances could slow down the MURT project. “We purposely left a little bit of flexibility in [the agreement].”
“Are you comfortable with the language in this?” Commissioner Hagen Brody asked Chapdelain.
He was, Chapdelain responded.
A better MURT
During the public comments, city resident Mike Lasche, representing Bicycle/Pedestrian Advocates, explained that research he had undertaken showed that the School Board has full ownership of the 21.5 feet between the curbing on U.S. 41 and the original Sarasota High School, which Ringling College has transformed into the Sarasota Art Museum.
He noted that Ringling College has installed a serpentine fence on the U.S. 41 side of the museum, and the fence veers into part of the 21.5-foot-wide area in some places.
In an email he wrote the commissioners on Aug. 19, he pointed out, “The fence could easily be altered so that none of [it] or [new] shrubbery extends further west than 21.5 [feet].”
He asked the commissioners to negotiate with the School Board for full use of the 21.5 feet in creating a safer bicycle-pedestrian path for the public.
When Ahearn-Koch asked city staff about Lasche’s request, Assistant City Engineer Daniel Ohrenstein said his understanding was that Lasche wanted to ensure that the MURT would be at least 10 feet wide. That will be a facet of the design, Ohrenstein added.
“Is there anything impeding us from asking for 21 feet?” Ahearn-Koch responded.
“Ringling College has put up their shrubs and fences,” Ohrenstein told her. The width narrows from 21.5 feet just in some areas, he added. “You definitely want some kind of physical barrier between you and the cars [on U.S. 41],” he added of the fence.
“We’re vacating an entire street,” Ahearn-Koch replied. Therefore, she continued, it did not seem to be a problem to her to ask the School Board for the full 21.5 feet.
“We have a very good working relationship with the School Board staff,” Chapdelain interjected. “I think we’re going to get where you want to be.”