Judge upholds City Commission’s denial of building permit to Woman’s Exchange

Nonprofit’s CEO says it is ‘considering its options’

The Woman's Exchange is located on South Orange Avenue in downtown Sarasota. Image from Google Maps
The Woman’s Exchange is located on South Orange Avenue in downtown Sarasota. Image from Google Maps

A 12th Judicial Circuit Court judge in Sarasota has upheld the Sarasota City Commission’s April 11 split vote to overturn city staff’s approval of a building permit for the Woman’s Exchange. The downtown Sarasota nonprofit organization had sought to expand into a new structure on Rawls Avenue.

Writing in a Dec. 5 order, Judge Brian A. Iten found that the vote “followed the essential requirements of the law [and] … was supported by competent substantial evidence.” Specifically, Iten continued, “The Court finds that the Commission properly considered the non-expert, fact-based testimony of local residents regarding the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists in the area of the proposed site plan.” He cited two Florida Court of Appeal decisions and one from Louisiana as support for his decision.

Judge Brian Iten. Image from the 12th Judicial Circuit website
Judge Brian Iten. Image from the 12th Judicial Circuit website

In a Dec. 6 statement she provided to The Sarasota News Leader, Woman’s Exchange CEO Karen Koblenz responded, “Sarasota’s growth and economic health has always had at its foundation the fact that [the city] is the premier cultural center of Florida. The Woman’s Exchange has always been committed to that cultural presence and the belief that the arts enrich our way of life, as well as the economic health of our community. We will continue to pursue that objective, which was at the heart of our decision to purchase the adjacent property located on Rawls Avenue and design our expansion around it. The design of that expansion was approved by the City staff and found to meet all requirements of the Zoning Code, including providing a loading space meeting the City’s requirements.”

She added, “The Woman’s Exchange is considering its options.”

Karen Koblenz. Image from the Woman's Exchange website
Karen Koblenz. Image from the Woman’s Exchange website

The Exchange’s attorney — Robert Lincoln of Sarasota — has indicated in past comments to the City Commission and to the News Leader that a ruling against the nonprofit could prompt it to relocate. Because of the Downtown Core zoning of the nonprofit’s South Orange Avenue property, a future structure on the site could be as tall as 10 stories.

The Exchange provides hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in grants to arts and cultural programs in Sarasota and Manatee counties and in the form of scholarships to graduating high school seniors and college students.

The Laurel Park Neighborhood Association — whose appeals of the city’s issuance of the building permit led to the April 11 city vote — also was a defendant in the lawsuit. That was necessary because of judicial rules, Lincoln explained.

When asked for a response from the neighborhood association, Kate Lowman — who represented the organization during the appeals — wrote the News Leader in a Dec. 7 email, “Of course we are very happy with the judge’s decision and appreciative of the City Commission’s support for the neighborhood. We worked hard during the appeal process to present solid fact-based information about the area and the City’s zoning code. We always knew a court case was a possibility and worked to establish a firm record in case that should happen. We hope the Woman’s Exchange will develop a new plan for the site and that we can all remain neighbors for many years into the future.”

City Attorney Robert Fournier reported on Iten’s decision as part of his remarks during the City Commission’s regular meeting on Dec. 5. He added that he had received an email from the court late that morning. “The order’s pretty succinct,” he said, before referencing the points Iten had made.

“What does that mean?” Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie asked after he concluded his comments.

It means the City Commission’s April 11 decision stands, Fournier told her, unless the Woman’s Exchange decides to appeal Iten’s ruling.

Leading up to this point

An aerial map shows the Woman's Exchange property. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
An aerial map shows the Woman’s Exchange property. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

A dispute between the Woman’s Exchange and the Laurel Park Neighborhood Association began in April 2014, when the long-established nonprofit — which operates out of an historic building located at 539 S. Orange Ave. — announced its plans for expansion, including the creation of a loading zone at 526 Rawls Ave. The Exchange had purchased that property specifically for growth of its operations, with its representatives having spoken at length in public meetings over the past two years about the need, especially, to make the Exchange’s furniture consignment business more efficient. The property is zoned Downtown Core, a district which “is a very dense mixed-use urban area,” according to the City Code. “Non-residential uses are varied,” with ground-floor retail “allowed everywhere,” the code says.

After city staff issued a building permit to the Exchange in November 2015, the Laurel Park Neighborhood Association appealed that act first to the city’s Planning Board and then to the City Commission. Unlike the latter, the Planning Board unanimously supported city staff’s decision to approve the expansion.

The City Commission voted 3-2 on April 11 to prevent the Exchange from including the Rawls Avenue loading zone in its proposed 3,524-square-foot expansion. Mayor Willie Shaw and Freeland Eddie joined Commissioner Susan Chapman in Chapman’s assertion that testimony from neighboring residents and property owners made it clear that the construction would pose a safety hazard to the multitude of residents who walk, bike and even push baby carriages on Rawls Avenue. Several people talked of the dearth of sidewalks in the area.

Representatives of the Exchange pointed out that because of stipulations in the city’s Zoning Code, it had no choice but to put the loading zone on Rawls. Both Oak and Orange are considered “primary” streets under the code, Fournier has explained, and the code prohibited loading zones on primary streets.

In October, the City Commission approved Zoning Code amendments to prevent any further situations such as the one the Woman’s Exchange encountered in creating its expansion site plan.

The Woman's Exchange group at a Planning Board meeting presented this rendering of the loading zone. File photo
The Woman’s Exchange group at a Planning Board meeting presented this rendering of the loading zone. File photo

On April 11, Commissioners Suzanne Atwell and Liz Alpert sided with the city staff members who had issued the building permit to the nonprofit. The staff had taken that action, testimony made clear, after Woman’s Exchange representatives had demonstrated how their delivery truck would use the loading zone. The Exchange also had agreed to proffer six conditions “to address compatibility and enforcement concerns” and to limit the hours of its deliveries. Tim Litchet, director of the city’s Neighborhood and Development Services Department, also had reduced the number of deliveries from 16 per day to 12 in one of those proffers.

The court case

On July 29, the Exchange filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari in the 12th Judicial Circuit, arguing that the split City Commission decision was politically motivated.

In his response, City Attorney Fournier wrote, “This segment of Rawls between Laurel Street on the north and Oak Street on the south is narrow, with only 20 feet of right of way, 18 of which is paved.” Eighteen residences on the Laurel Park side of Rawls — primarily in the Spanish Oaks Apartments — date to the 1920s and have insufficient on-site parking, he added. “Consequently, many of the residents are forced to park on Rawls Avenue.” Fournier continued, “Because Rawls Avenue is often ‘fully packed’ with cars belonging to [these residents], this further narrows the space available for the passage of motor vehicles.”

City Attorney Robert Fournier. File photo
City Attorney Robert Fournier. File photo

Among specific segments of public testimony he cited, Fournier included the statement of Jodi John, who told the City Commission her property is one-and-a-half blocks from the site of the proposed expansion, and she walks and drives Rawls Avenue daily. “I encounter walkers, joggers, dog walkers, young mothers with their baby carriages and even bikers,” John told the City Commission.

Another, Rachel Mann, said her “only means of vehicular egress from her [Dolphin Lane home] is Rawls Avenue,” Fournier wrote, and she “characterized Rawls Avenue in an email as ‘an active, narrow, pedestrian thoroughfare.’”

Questioning the ruling

In her statement to the News Leader, Exchange CEO Koblenz wrote, “We are disheartened to learn that vocal activists are permitted to over-ride the City’s Zoning Code and determine the fate of property owners trying to use their property in compliance with the Zoning Code. It is a sad day for the City when property owners cannot rely on the Zoning Code as it is written to protect their financial interests.”

As the board members debated the testimony before their April 11 vote, Commissioner Liz Alpert told her colleagues that people had commented to her, “‘If we cannot count on the city codes in the expansion of our businesses, then how can we plan our businesses?’”

Koblenz continued in her Dec. 6 statement, “We are obviously disappointed in Judge Iten’s brief ruling, that appears to support the City Commission’s elevation of the personal fears and opinions of neighborhood activists over the expertise of its own professional staff. We continue to strongly believe that the City Commission failed to read, apply and enforce the binding language of the City’s Zoning Code, and disrespected the hard work of its own excellent staff.”

In his Sept. 14 response to the Exchange’s petition, Fournier argued that even if the city’s Zoning Code were interpreted to require that the Woman’s Exchange incorporate a code-compliant loading zone in its proposed expansion on Rawls Avenue, the nonprofit “is not entitled to expand at its present location unless it can demonstrate that all of the relevant criteria found in [Section] IV-506 of the Zoning Code have been satisfied.”

Robert Lincoln. Image from his law firm's website
Robert Lincoln. Image from his law firm’s website

Fournier contended that the loading zone on Rawls would not have met Zoning Code stipulations regarding safety and compatibility with the neighborhood.

In her Dec. 6 statement, Exchange CEO Koblenz added, “Unfortunately, the Court’s Order contains no analysis or explanation as to how the City Commission’s decision complied with the essential requirements of the law, its own Zoning Code. In fact, the Judge’s Order does not cite … any provisions of the Zoning Code. We are further disappointed that Judge Iten did not grant our counsel’s request to be heard in oral argument before ruling.”

On Oct. 4, Exchange attorney Lincoln had filed a motion with the court, seeking oral arguments in the case.

Koblenz continued, “The City placed the Woman’s Exchange in an impossible situation by demanding a code-compliant loading zone and then denying the Exchange’s site plan with the loading zone demanded by the code. We are simply not able to discern the Court’s reasons for upholding that decision.”