Investment group moving forward with proposed zoning amendment to allow freestanding multi-family units in mixed-use developments

Unlike proposal linked to Cassia Cay last year, latest version has no tie to a specific development, owners’ representative says

The County Commission sits in session on Jan. 25. File photo

A proposal to allow freestanding multi-family residential units in mixed-use developments in Sarasota County districts zoned Commercial General that was pulled from the County Commission’s final agenda of 2016 resurfaced this week.

When the county’s Planning Commission addressed it on Nov. 3, 2016, the zoning ordinance amendment was linked specifically to the Cassia Cay development proposed on 18.5 acres on the southwest corner of U.S. 41 and Holiday Drive, at 7914 Tamiami Trail.

Brenda Patten of the Sarasota firm Berlin, Patten & Ebling won the Planning Commission’s endorsement of the amendment.

However, in late December, Patten told The Sarasota News Leader that her client no longer was under contract to buy the Cassia Cay mixed-use site, so she asked county staff to cancel the Dec. 14, 2016 public hearing.

On March 1, Brian Lichterman, owner of Vision Planning & Design in Sarasota, told the County Commission that the privately initiated zoning ordinance amendment “is now generic and is not related to any one individual property.”

Brian Lichterman. File photo

Lichterman was standing in for Sarasota attorney Morgan Bentley of Bentley & Bruning, the county’s zoning administrator, Donna Thompson, explained. Bentley was tied up in a trial, she added.

In response to a question from the News Leader, Bentley wrote in a March 1 email, “My client is a real estate investment group that has held the [Cassia Cay] property for some time.” Alluding to Patten’s client, he continued, “The [amendment] process was started by a contract purchaser but my folks decided that it should be completed so they picked up where the contract purchaser had left off. After having worked with the Zoning Code for the past few years, they felt that this was a reasonable change that might give some flexibility to both owners and planners.”

Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office records show that BMR Funding has owned the Cassia Cay parcel since 2009, when the firm acquired it through a foreclosure proceeding involving Bayonne Investments LLC. The manager of the latter corporation was Thomas LeFevre of Osprey, Florida Division of Corporation records show. Bayonne Investments had bought the property from Bayonne Development LLC for $16,766,600 in October 2015, county Property Appraiser’s Office records say.

BMR Funding lists its address in county records as 2 Greenwich Plaza, Suite 1, in Greenwich, Conn.

The ConnecticutCorps website says the firm is a foreign limited liability company whose manager is Silver Point Capital, also at 2 Greenwich Plaza in Greenwich, Conn.

As Lichterman described it during his presentation to the commissioners on the morning of March 1, the amendment “will create more workable, marketable, mixed-use commercial and residential development, allowing the developer to design quieter private areas with residential amenities, such as private gardens, that can be connected by sidewalks and bike paths to a more commercial area.” He added, “It will allow residential units to be attached to a commercial structure, but not necessarily upper-story [condos]. It just creates much greater flexibility for a developer.”

Morgan Bentley. Contributed photo

Thompson pointed out that the freestanding units would be allowed only by County Commission approval of a special exception. Therefore, she stressed, the proposed amendment “does not increase any density that is already allowed under the Commercial General district [zoning].”

The Planning Commission also stipulated in its recommendation that the freestanding units not exceed 30% of the total area of buildings in a mixed-use development, she added.

Because the law requires two public hearings on a zoning ordinance amendment, Thompson noted, a second hearing on the proposed change has been scheduled for April 3. However, at her recommendation, the commissioners unanimously voted on March 1 to waive the need for that second public hearing to be scheduled after 5 p.m.

For, against and questions

Lichterman explained to the commissioners that the county’s zoning code allows only certain types of residential units in the Commercial General (CG) district: live/work housing, upper-story residential, bread-and-breakfast businesses, assisted living facilities and hotel accommodations.

“Mixed-use development is a goal of the New Urbanism concept,” he continued, with the housing units above the commercial storefronts. However, Lichterman told the board — just as Patten had pointed out to the Planning Commission last year — “the concept has not worked particularly well, especially in this particular area.”

Most people, Lichterman continued, like the idea of living within walking distance of restaurants and service providers, but they do not want to live above them for a variety of reasons: noise; concerns about garbage and the related odors; and worries about customers finding their way into the residential structures.

Almost no commercial developers in this area want to incorporate residential housing into their designs, he said, because they have found little demand from homebuyers.

The problems would be eliminated by allowing freestanding residential buildings, Lichterman pointed out. The structures still could be attached to commercial buildings, he said.

Two speakers who addressed the board during the public hearing opposed the amendment.

Ruth Brandwein. File photo

Ruth Brandwein, who explained that she is chair of the Pelican Cove Ad Hoc Community and Government Liaison committees, approved of the recommendation for just 30% of the buildings in a mixed-use development to be freestanding multi-family housing. “However,” she continued, “I feel that the whole concept of CG is being distorted by allowing this change.”
The live/work design ideally incorporates more affordable residential units, she added. The proposed amendment, she said, would allow for “more expensive standalone units with pools and all the rest [of those types of amenities].”

The Pelican Cove community is just south of the Cassia Cay site, as Brandwein testified during the November 2016 Planning Commission hearing.

“We got involved in this [process for the amendment] because of Cassia Cay,” she told the County Commission. Her biggest concern, she said, continues to be traffic. She urged the board “to consider the totality of all the developments that you are looking at before you approve more and more and more.”

She cited the prospect that Benderson Development will construct its Siesta Promenade mixed-use development — with hundreds of residential units as well as a hotel and 140,000 square feet of commercial space — a short distance north on U.S. 41; new home construction in Gulf Gate; and a residential community as well as the mixed-use area proposed for Cassia Cay.

Anyone who drives on U.S. 41 in the vicinity of those project sites, she said, will find already that it “is a mess.”

A second speaker, Larry Grossman, referred to his background in planning and zoning. He called the zoning ordinance amendment “an outrageous request.” Even though the freestanding units would be allowed only by approval of a special exception, he added, “special exceptions become the norm rather than the exception.”

BMR Funding owns the property (outlined in red) where the Cassia Cay mixed-use development has been proposed. Image from the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office

In his rebuttal, Lichterman stressed the value of the special exception process. That will enable the County Commission to consider requests on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration the facets of each development proposal, he pointed out.

“As a planner,” Lichterman continued, “I believe this flexibility will allow the marketplace to create more mixed use, which we’re not getting right now.”

The only board questions came from Chair Paul Caragiulo, who asked about the amendment’s impact on the predictability of planning for development on CG parcels.

“The predictability is that … it allows a much better design on a property,” Lichterman replied.

Caragiulo still questioned whether the amendment would “welcome unintended consequences.”

Lichterman maintained that the special exception process would ensure that the freestanding units would be a good fit for a particular development.