On Nov. 21, City Commission to vote again on transmitting Comprehensive Plan changes to the state

Without pursuing the state’s formal process of updating the document, city attorney says no other amendments to the plan will be possible

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

Because of what Sarasota City Attorney Robert Fournier characterized as “a little bit of confusion” on Oct. 3, the Sarasota City Commission next week once again will take up the issue of transmitting an amended Comprehensive Plan to the state for review.

If the board does not bring its Comprehensive Plan into compliance with new state policy that has been enacted since the plan last was updated in 2008, Fournier explained on Nov. 7, Florida Statute 163.3191 will not allow the commission to amend the plan in any other way. That could jeopardize a settlement the city has reached with owners of the Ringling Shopping Center, he noted.

The Nov. 21 agenda also will include a quasi-judicial hearing on rezoning the approximately 9.73-acre site of that complex on the south side of Ringling Boulevard — adjacent to the Lime Avenue intersection. The owners filed a claim against the city in February 2015, arguing that the City Commission’s vote in February 2013 to prevent them from adding a 98,000-square-foot Walmart to the site was a violation of the Bert J. Harris Jr. Private Property Rights Protection Act.

The owners want to rezone the site from Commercial Shopping Center Neighborhood and Residential Single-Family 3 to Downtown Edge and Downtown Neighborhood Edge. The background material provided for that hearing says, “There is no site plan or specific development program or timeline” tied to that action.

The deadline for submitting the proposed Comprehensive Plan changes to the state is Dec. 1, Fournier pointed out.

On Oct. 3, the city commissioners voted 3-2 against the transmittal. However, that was pegged to a proposed shift in the way the city requires developers to pay for transportation improvements necessitated by new projects. Differing views have arisen about how the city best can deal with that situation. Residents — including those comprising a new group, STOP! — have increasingly complained about congestion prompted by new construction, especially in downtown Sarasota.

A map shows the locations of transportation projects on the city's Capital Improvement Program list. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
A map shows the locations of transportation projects on the city’s 2014 Capital Improvement Program list. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Mayor Willie Shaw, Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie and Commissioner Susan Chapman were in the majority on that Oct. 3 decision.

The motion was made by Commissioner Liz Alpert, seconded by Commissioner Suzanne Atwell, to transmit the proposed amendments to the Comprehensive Plan to the state’s Office of Economic Opportunity — as required by law.

In spite of the looming deadline, Fournier made it clear on Nov. 7 that it was moot to discuss the issue in-depth that afternoon unless one of the board members indicated a willingness to make a motion to rescind the Oct. 3 vote. Atwell responded that she would be happy to do that on Nov. 21.

If the commissioners approve the transmittal step next week, Fournier continued, then they still will be able to address the amendments that have been proposed. Those would come back to them in the form of ordinances, he pointed out.

The transportation side of the issue

A chart explains level of service designations for two-lane highways. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
A chart explains level of service designations for two-lane highways. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

During his remarks about the Oct. 3 situation, Fournier also spoke at length on Nov. 7 about the 2011 Florida Legislature’s shift regarding transportation concurrency.

“Concurrency” refers to the efforts of local governments to require developers to pay for transportation improvements that would be necessary to make sure the completion of a new project did not lead to greater roadway congestion.

The Legislature in 2011 decided that developers should pay only their “proportionate share” of the expense of any improvements needed to mitigate just the impacts of their new projects on roadways, a city staff memo points out.

As a result of that, Fournier said, many communities have been implementing mobility fees, which can be used for a broader array of government projects designed to deal with new construction. Among those may be bicycle lanes and sidewalks, city staff has pointed out.

“In my opinion,” Fournier said, with transportation concurrency having become optional for local governments, “its effectiveness as a means to delay or impede development … was pretty well … taken away by the Legislature …”

Fournier noted that in 2008, the city’s Comprehensive Plan was amended to call for a citywide mobility study. That was the beginning of the shift from traditional transportation concurrency in Sarasota, he continued.

A map shows the operating levels of service for city thoroughfares in 2015. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
A map shows the operating levels of service for city thoroughfares in 2015. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

He recalled as long ago as the period when the Ritz-Carlton was planned that the commission considered whether to add an extra left-turn lane from northbound U.S. 41 onto Gulfstream Avenue, he said. (The hotel opened in 2001.) The board finally decided it did not want that intersection to look like the one at U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road, he added.

In January 2012, Fournier continued, the City Commission approved a change to the Comprehensive Plan that incorporated a Multimodal Transportation Impact Fee (MMTIF) ordinance. The fees went into effect in 2014; staff has been working on the first update of them, a report included in the Nov. 7 agenda packet explained. That matter is expected to come back to the board in early 2017.

The Nov. 7 agenda packet report says, “Basically, the higher a jurisdiction’s MMTIF rates are … the more likely it is that a developer’s MMTIF obligation will be greater than their proportionate fair share … and the more developers will contribute to offset transportation impacts, even when their projects do not have significant adverse [level of service] impacts on specific facilities (as determined by a traffic impact study).”

Fournier also told the board that it needs to revise its five-year Capital Improvement Program (CIP) to reflect current levels of service on city roads, so the city potentially could collect more money from developers in their proportionate shares of the cost for transportation improvements.

After taking that action, Fournier continued, “you could lawfully deny approval of a project” if it were going to degrade the existing level of service and the developer did not want to pay for improvements.

Conversely, he said, if the board did not adjust road levels of service, “you’d be legally required to fund and construct all of the transportation capacity-related improvements that are in the existing [Capital Improvement Program].” The 11 projects total about $85 million, he added.

Yet, as City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw pointed out, over the past five years, “we had very few people [during public meetings] asking for road-widening projects.” In fact, she said, over the past 20 years, city staff has removed from the CIP plans that once called for widening 17, 12th and Eighth streets and Lime Avenue, for example.

“So we’re just recognizing [existing levels of service] and legalizing [them]?” Commissioner Liz Alpert asked.

That is correct, DavisShaw replied. If the city essentially pretended that it had improved congested roads before a new project was approved for a site, she added, that would help the city in its effort to collect funds from the developer.

A map shows existing and potential multimodal projects. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
A map shows existing and potential multimodal connector projects. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Most of the city’s primary roadways, DavisShaw pointed out, are operating at the “D” level of service. (On the state scale, A is the least congested level.) Staff is proposing that U.S. 41 be downgraded to an E, she continued, and that all other roadways in the city be graded D. In fact, DavisShaw noted, the only city roads functioning at the level of service C are actually county roads, and the Sarasota County Commission has indicated no plans to upgrade them in the near future.

Even if the city wanted to improve the level of service on U.S. 41 in downtown Sarasota, DavisShaw pointed out, “we don’t have a lot of area” for widening the road, because buildings are so close to the right of way.

City Manager Tom Barwin also stressed to the board that if it adopted a mobility fee approach for development, the city would have “maximum flexibility” in how it used the revenue.

The city would not be precluding the widening of roads, DavisShaw noted. The goal would be to enable the City Commission to direct the revenue to the best options, she added, concurring with Barwin.

The state has 60 days to review the changes after the Comprehensive Plan is transmitted to the Office of Economic Opportunity, Fournier told the commissioners. After it comes back, he advised the board to spend time in February or March on a discussion of potential changes to the CIP.