New ‘sidewalks to nowhere’ prompt County Commission rebuke of staff over failure to follow board’s direction

Commissioner Hines emphasizes need for staff to waive requirement for sidewalks that will be far removed from any other developments

Commissioner Charles Hines. File photo

Driving around South County over the 2019 holiday season, Sarasota County Commissioner Charles Hines was angry when he spotted two new examples of what he and other board members have called “sidewalks to nowhere,” he said during a recent board meeting.

“I thought we were past this situation,” he pointed out on Jan. 14. “Since I’ve been on this commission,” he told his colleagues, “an area of frustration for me in our building codes” was the stipulation for sidewalks to be constructed as part of new developments, even when that new construction would be nowhere close to any other sidewalks. Hines called such a scenario “an absolute lose, lose, lose situation,” because the sidewalks to nowhere inevitably get turned over to the county for maintenance, and if staff does not maintain them, the county could encounter liability issues.

Instead of allowing more sidewalks to nowhere, Hines stressed, staff should be following the commission’s direction to allow a developer to contribute to a fund used to fill in sidewalk gaps.

“If our staff does not believe that what’s currently written in our code gives them the authority to have creative thinking about sidewalks to nowhere,” Hines emphasized, “they better bring back a code amendment …”

As a result of Hines’ Jan. 14 remarks — and concurrence of Commissioners Nancy Detert, Alan Maio and Michael Moran — County Administrator Jonathan Lewis indicated that he would work with staff to ensure the board’s wishes were carried out.

Detert and Maio also offered examples of sidewalks that were not needed. “That’s why we have to bake in some more commonsense into our codes,” Detert pointed out.

“If we see this [situation] continue,” Hines said, staff members “are either being negligent, or they are purposely avoiding or not following the policy that’s been set by this board.”

Commissioner Nancy Detert. File photo

“I don’t think there’s any reason staff should have confusion about the opportunities available,” Lewis said, to allow a developer to choose whether to include sidewalks in a project. Staff needs to inform anyone working through what is called the “site development” stages of constructing a project that the county regulations no longer require sidewalks, Lewis added, when those sidewalks will be well removed from other sidewalks.

Detert also noted, “Nobody knows the flaws [of the county regulations] better than the people who work [with them] every day.”

As staff members recognize issues that are problematic,” she continued, they should “bring ’em to us. We’ll change [the code], make it more sensible.”

The email chain

Hines first renewed his frustrations with the issue in a Dec. 22, 2019 email to Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, and Spencer Anderson, director of the Public Works Department. Hines asked whether they “could provide [him] or point [him] to the section in our development code where it sets forth the Board’s policy of avoiding [the construction of] more sidewalks to nowhere with new developments?”

Additionally, Hines asked who on staff is responsible “for looking at the plans to avoid the creation of a sidewalk to nowhere [during the review of development plans].”

Further, Hines inquired about who on staff works with developers for the payments “into our sidewalk fund in lieu of building a sidewalk that does not connect to any other sidewalk or will not do so in the foreseeable future?”

On Dec. 23, 2019, Osterhoudt responded, noting that Section 124-253 of the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC) — which contains all the land development and zoning regulations — “contains the primary requirements relating to sidewalks …”

Matt Osterhoudt. File photo

Then Osterhoudt explained that the county’s “Development Review Coordination (DRC) team, which is the technical review staff, reviews each Site Development proposal for consistency with the UDC based on the specifics of the project. If there is a proposal that needs attention, staff from Planning and Development Services/Land Development reviews along with Public Works/Transportation staff and then jointly discuss the proposal with the applicant,” Osterhoudt continued. “If there is to be a waiver (which includes the payment) or deferral as the code references, the Administrator makes that determination, which for this section of the Code has been delegated to the County Engineer or their designee.”

In response to a request for further clarification from Hines, Paula Wiggins, the county’s transportation planning manager, wrote in a Dec. 26 2019 email, “As to developers paying funds into the Sidewalk CIP [Capital Improvement Program] in lieu of constructing sidewalks, that does occur. Additionally, Patrick Lui is part of the Transportation review process in making determinations as to whether or not it feasible to have the developer 1) construct the sidewalk, 2) pay into the Sidewalk CIP or 3) construct sidewalk in another location.”

Lui is coordinator of the county’s Bicycle, Pedestrian and Trails Program.

On Jan. 1, Hines replied to Wiggins: “With the sidewalk policy of the [County Commission] having been set forth in our Code, along with how our staff handles this policy with new developments having been explained, (discouraging sidewalks to nowhere), the construction of new sidewalks to no-where should be a rarity these days and money should be coming into the program to fill gaps.”

If these “sidewalks to nowhere were continuing to be built, Hines added, “there would be a solid reason” that staff did not discuss with the developer the option not to undertake that construction.

Then, on Jan. 8, Osterhoudt wrote another email to the commissioners, whom staff had been copying on the earlier correspondence.

“To clarify the County Code relating to sidewalk requirements,” Osterhoudt began, “the effective date of the Unified Development Code (UDC) was January 1, 2019. As such, any site development projects that were authorized prior to the UDC being effective operated under the former Land Development Regulations, which did not provide the same construct for evaluating development projects and their associated sidewalks. The UDC now has provided a much more streamlined process and consistency through the criteria added.”

Paula Wiggins. File photo

Osterhoudt continued, “To briefly summarize the current standards, the installation of sidewalks is required by the UDC as a baseline. The UDC then gives the ability to grant a deferral or a waiver via a request. As such, the first part of this process is for the applicant to make such a request if they assert that the [sidewalk] is unessential. … Ultimately, the UDC promotes sidewalks at the development locations, but staff recognizes that gaps may be temporarily created in many areas of development, but as more development comes forward or improvements are made, those gaps will fill in.”

Every project undergoes the review, Osterhoudt added, and staff considers the specific characteristics of each site plan. “For those [applicants] who do make a request and obtain a waiver [not to build a sidewalk], payment is now required [by] the UDC, which was not mandated in the previous Land Development Regulations.”

Osterhoudt concluded his email, “Staff will continue to monitor implementation of these newly updated sidewalk requirements and report back to County Administration issues that may need attention.”

The following day, Jan. 9, Hines responded to Osterhoudt.

“I am struggling with this interpretation and passive position of our staff on our Board’s goal of eliminating the [long-time] problem of sidewalks to nowhere,” Hines wrote.

As he understood Osterhoudt’s email,” Hines continued, “what you are saying is, it’s all upon the developer to come forward with their request for a waiver before [staff takes a look at a site plan]. This does not make sense to me considering the lack of funding and the massive need for sidewalks … in our county.”

Hines added, “I must have wrongly assumed that our transportation department and sidewalk coordinator would constantly be hunting for funds to use toward filling in gap sidewalks and that our development and field services staff would look for ways to avoid the problems of liability, maintenance and no public benefit,” which result from the construction of sidewalks to nowhere.

“It’s my belief, that as part of the development review process,” Hines wrote, “our staff should be actively looking for situations where these are going to be created and offer up to a developer the idea of not having to build them.”

“I’m sorry that this was not made clear,” Hines added, referring to commission discussions about the sidewalks policy over the past several years. “To say that it’s only now as of January that this is coming into effect … is troubling.

“This appears to be a situation where staff Is not following or supportive of the Board’s policy and direction,” Hines wrote, “and is continuing to allow the lose lose lose situation to occur throughout our community versus finding the very easy win win win … to avoid these unnecessary sidewalks.”