On Feb. 20, new zoning text amendments regulating bars and restaurants in Sarasota to be addressed during final required public hearing

Measures win majority approval of City Commission on Jan. 16

This is one slide that the city Planning Department staff created to explain the proposed changes in the zoning text amendments. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

On Feb. 20, the Sarasota City Commission is scheduled to take its second, required votes on two ordinances that its Planning Department staff has championed as a means of simplifying the efforts of business owners to establish bars and restaurants in the city.

However, during nearly two-and-half-hours of staff comments and board member discussions on Jan. 16, Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch and Commissioner Debbie Trice indicated that further clarification in one zoning text amendment (ZTA) was needed.

Ahearn-Koch ended up voting against both amendments, while Trice joined the other commissioners in approving the second one.

Both Ahearn-Koch and Trice cited concerns about staff’s revised definitions regarding outdoor and indoor bars, saying that the location of the greatest intensity of people — and noise — should be the principal factor in determining the type of business, contrary to staff’s proposal.

That also was the ordinance that provided revised definitions for restaurants and nightclubs.

“Tying definitions to the state licensing is not a reliable way to determine how an establishment will operate,” Planning Director Steve Cover pointed out early on during the hearing. “We’ve run into issues with this before where, you know, some restaurants are considered or may be under the classification of nightclubs and vice versa. This really is going to be clearing up that situation from this point on,” he said of the proposed zoning text amendment.

The measures apply only to private property, not the public rights of way, Cover stressed, noting, “There was some discussion about smoking in the right of way. This does not address that at all.”

The amendment Trice joined her other colleagues in supporting involved the locations of “entertainment-oriented establishments (restaurants, bars, outdoor bars, nightclubs) based upon the intensity of the establishment, including elements such as live, amplified music and operating hours,” as the ordinance put it.

It also contains new standards for city approval of proposed businesses.

Although the Planning Department staff had proposed expanding the area where such establishments would be exempt, Commissioner Erik Arroyo called for eliminating that facet of the ordinance in his motion, based on board discussion.

Staff had suggested that the exemption area include redeveloping sections of the city such as those north of Fruitville Road and those east of U.S. 301.

This graphic shows the existing exemption area, outlined in blue, and the proposed new exemption areas, which are shaded. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues she could not support that second zoning text amendment because she does not believe that it complies with the primary standards of review that the commissioners should consider in approving new regulations. Among those is whether the measure is in the public interest and whether it will serve a valid public purpose. Another is whether it is consistent with the city’s goals, objectives and action strategies in the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which is called the City Plan. That document guides growth in the municipality.

This is one page of the backup agenda material showing proposed language in red and offering staff comments in yellow on various sections. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

A ’vibrant city’

Public comments offered by 10 individuals during the combined hearing were almost evenly split, with business owners commending the Planning Department’s work and others expressing concerns about the potential that the new regulations will lead to a proliferation of bars in downtown Sarasota.

Kareem Suwaity, a downtown resident, pointed out, “Sarasota’s demographic has changed since I was born [in Sarasota]. … Now it is becoming a much more younger, vibrant city. The new generations are coming in and they are taking over the town, and they are making it beautiful,” he continued. “They are making it fun. … I welcome these changes that you guys want to make. I think the town needs more restaurants; it needs more bars, more lounges,” Suwaity added. “It needs a little more life after dark.”

In contrast, Lance Disley, who said he has lived in the city for the past 20 years, stressed, “Sarasota is a small city.” He asked the commissioners about the amount of research staff undertook in regard to how bars and restaurants are regulated in other Florida jurisdictions, to determine the best practices. “I suspect zero,” he added.

Disley further inquired about the degree of participation in crafting the amendments that was accorded to “third parties” seeking to influence city staff. “I expect close to 100%,” Disley said.

Chris Voelker. Image from the Downtown Improvement District website

Conversely, Chris Voelker, who owns State Street Eating House + Cocktails and who is chair of the Downtown Improvement District, praised the proposed changes. “I’ve personally gone through the nightmare of having to declare my first restaurant a nightclub when it was never intended to operate as such and never has,” she said, “and I’ve seen and heard the restaurants that have become nightclubs at night while still operating as a restaurant.”

She told the commissioners, “The definition of a restaurant … is reversed to what I thought a restaurant did.”

Voelker further commended the Planning Department staff members for their public outreach, saying that they had “actually heard the community’s concerns, and I believe those concerns are now reflected in the current version of the ordinance.”

Yet, attorney Dan Lobeck, who also is a city resident and a long-time activist in regard to city issues, told the commissioners, “Make no mistake: This proposed change would lead to a dramatic proliferation of bars and outdoor bars — now prohibited except as part of a hotel — and nightclubs throughout downtown and throughout many other parts of the city, including abutting neighborhoods.”

He promised the commissioners that, before the second hearings on Feb. 20, he would do his best “to let people know what’s going on here.”

Summing up the changes

During the opening presentation, the city’s chief planner, Briana Dobbs, showed the commissioners a chart created to help them identify quickly the differences between the business uses, as proposed in the amendments:

  • For a restaurant, the principal business “is preparing and serving meals selected from a menu” provided to customers during all operating hours. The amendment calls for a restaurant to be permitted by right. In other words, if the application for the business complies with all applicable city regulations and policies, then city staff can grant approval of the application, without the need for city Planning Board and/or City Commission review.

Although the commissioners did debate on Jan. 16 about whether meals provided by restaurants must be prepared on-site, the majority of the board members agreed to allow off-site preparation, as well.

  • For a bar, the principal business would be the sale of alcoholic beverages for consumption on the premises. The serving counter/bar would be located indoors. That is to be permitted by approval of a Minor Conditional Use application.
  • For an outdoor bar, the principal business is the sale of alcoholic beverages for consumption on premises, and the location of the serving counter or bar is outdoors. That would be permitted by approval of a Major Conditional Use application.
  • A nightclub would be any establishment — a restaurant or bar — that has amplified music after 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and after 11:59 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and on the days prior to a holiday. A nightclub also would be permitted by Major Conditional Use approval.
This slide provides information about the new definition of a nightclub for the city. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

As the City Code explains, the city Planning Board holds hearings on applications involving Minor Conditional Uses, though its decisions can be appealed to the City Commission. With a Major Conditional Use application, the Planning Board first conducts a hearing; then, the City Commission may affirm the Planning Board decision without a public hearing, or the City Commission may hold a public hearing to consider the application and then grant it or deny it.

Regulating people’s behavior

Erik Arroyo was the first commissioner to offer comments on the proposed amendments. After thanking the speakers and the Planning staff members for their outreach and for “everything that you do,” he asked, “How many nightclubs do we have in Sarasota?”

Commissioner Kyle Battie responded that the Gator Club is the only one he could think of.

“I wouldn’t say we have any nightclubs in the City of Sarasota,” Arroyo replied.

City Manager Marlon Brown pointed out that the only business deemed a nightclub under the current regulations is Duval’s.

“That is the problem,” Arroyo responded. The city has “such a loose interpretation” of nightclubs, he added, that none exists. “We figure out what a nightclub is, and then everything else falls into place.”

Arroyo noted public opposition to “certain types of behavior,” such as smoking in the downtown area. He especially hears such complaints about the Corona Cigar Co. on North Lemon Avenue, he indicated.

This post on the Corona Cigar Co. Facebook page for the Sarasota operation shows a presentation to Commissioner Erik Arroyo.

Providing a quote from a character on the network TV series Parks and Recreation, Arroyo continued, “ ‘The whole point of this country is if you want to eat garbage and balloon up to 600 pounds and die of a heart attack at 43, you are free to do so.’ To me,” Arroyo added, “That is beautiful. … Why are we trying to regulate people?”

As long as a business is operating lawfully under city regulations and not interfering with another person’s property or personal rights, he said, “There should be no friction there.”

Commissioner Battie took the opportunity to refute an assertion that attorney Lobeck had made: that Battie had talked in a YouTube video about St. Petersburg, with its numerous nightclubs, being a more vibrant city than Sarasota. “I mentioned nothing about proliferation of bars,” Battie stressed. “I was just talking about vitality and so on.”

Then Battie pointed out that the commissioners “can sit here and try to legislate these matters … but at the end of the day, the market is going to determine, you know, what is to come in and what is not.”

“Do you see a proliferation of bars flooding our downtown?” Battie asked the Planning staff members seated in front of the dais.

“No,” Ryan Chapdelain, general manager of the Planning Department replied, explaining — as Senior Planner Dobbs had earlier — that bars would not be allowed to open by right; applicants would have to go through the Minor Conditional Use process.

The question of intensity

During her first exchange with the Planning staff members after the discussion began, Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch explained, “When you think about intensity, I think about activity, and those activities determine what the intensity is of the use.”

She added that she has “heard a lot of input and pushback” in regard to the proposed definitions of indoor and outdoor bars. Ahearn-Koch called the use of the location of the counter as the determining factor of whether a bar should be deemed an indoor or outdoor establishment an inaccurate reflection of the circumstances. The focus, she emphasized, should be on “where things are happening; that’s going to determine the impact.”

For example, Ahearn-Koch continued, people may go inside to order drinks from the counter, but 500 customers could be outside the establishment. “So for me,” she said, “it’s a very easy solution”: An outdoor bar should be defined as such on the basis of where the alcoholic beverages are served and/or consumed.

This slide discusses additional standards for outdoor business settings, including those of bars, in Sarasota, as provided for in the new zoning text amendment. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Planning General Manager Chapdelain reminded her that city regulations require patrons to vacate outdoor areas by 11 p.m.

At one point, as Ahearn-Koch was talking about staff’s efforts to separate the types of businesses on the basis of their intensity, City Manager Brown said the city “might as well have a definition for ‘Outdoor Restaurant’ as well.”

Senior Planner Dobbs interjected that the definition of a restaurant says it can be indoors or outdoors.

Referencing Arroyo’s earlier comments about regulating people’s behavior, Brown pointed out that some city residents’ perception is that an outdoor bar will have “people who are falling all over each other,” plus noise. “What happens in an outdoor restaurant?” he asked. “They could be drinking. “Should we have a definition for ‘Outdoor Restaurant’ and have the same conversation about where the location of the service is?”

Ahearn-Koch reiterated her earlier point about trying to making certain that the definitions accurately reflect the expected intensity of activity. “If the activity is outside,” she said, “that is a more intense use because it’s more impactful … than it is inside with every door and window closed.”

Commissioner Trice told the Planning staff that she shared Ahearn-Koch’s concern in regard to the area where alcoholic beverages are consumed at a bar. “So I see just changing the standards from the location where the drinks are served to the location where the drinks are consumed would be more appropriate for a definition of an outdoor bar.”

In response to other questions that Trice posed, Chapdelain acknowledged that making some determinations about the type of business “is challenging and somewhat subjective.”

“The physical location of the counter,” he said, is clear. “When getting into activity,” he continued, in regard to whether the majority of patrons will be inside or outside, “It’s hard to really get into that and try to administer [the regulations] because there is a level of subjectivity to it.”
“Isn’t that one of the issues that the citizens and petitioners are concerned about?” Trice asked, referring to the subjectivity inherent with the proposed zoning text amendments.

“We’re trying to eliminate that with respect to the … location of the counter but also regarding the regulation of the additional use standards of the outdoor areas,” Chapdelain told her. “So that helps to provide some predictability.” Customers can be outside until the specified time in city regulations, he added, and then they have to vacate the outdoor area.