Rezoning of Fruitville Road site clears way for Sarasota Orchestra’s new performance center

Attorneys for Sarasota Crossings shopping center and Orchestra work out plan for connecting their parcels

Because of a proposal submitted just the day before the Jan. 18 public hearing, collaboration among the Sarasota Orchestra’s attorney, the attorney for the Sarasota Crossings shopping center and Sarasota County’s Transportation Planning Division manager was necessary before the Orchestra won unanimous County Commission approval for the rezoning of the site where the Orchestra plans to build its new performance hall.

The vote also permitted the Orchestra facility to be taller than 65 feet and to have indoor entertainment after 10 p.m. The requests for those facets of the proposal came in the form of Special Exception petitions, the relevant county staff report noted.

Formally, the county commissioners voted in favor of the rezoning of the approximately 31.7 acres located at 5701 Fruitville Road. The site fronts on Fruitville Road between Sarasota Crossings and the Sam’s Club facility. The Orchestra will purchase the property from Wal-Mart Stores East LP, as Sarasota attorney Dan Bailey of the Williams Parker firm pointed out during the Jan. 18 public hearing.

As noted in its application, the Orchestra plans to construct a performing arts hall encompassing 245,000 square feet.

The Orchestra “is proposing a state-of-the-art facility to provide entertainment opportunities to Sarasota County and surrounding areas, centrally located with access to two (2) main thoroughfares, Fruitville Road and I-75,” the application says. The music center would have 1,800 seats in the concert hall and 700 in the recital hall, “with the future opportunity for an ancillary/complementary use building (approximately 40,000 [square feet] east of the main structure,” the application adds.

Both a surface parking lot and a parking garage with a maximum proposed height of 60 feet are part of the plans, the application says.

“This property was previously identified … for a Wal-Mart; however, changes in market conditions, etc., have resulted in this property remaining vacant for [an] extended period of time,” the application points out.

The Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s website shows that Wal-Mart has owned the site since late March 2005, when the company paid the Sarasota Herald Tribune Co. $13.7 million for it.

After Chair Ron Cutsinger opened the Jan. 18 public hearing, attorney Bailey explained that the representatives of Sarasota Crossings recently asked for a pedestrian connection to be put in place between the Orchestra’s site and the shopping center’s property. However, Bailey continued, the Orchestra’s Binding Development Concept Plan showed only a connection to the east, to the Sam’s Club site.

Although Paula Wiggins, the county’s Transportation Planning manager, had indicated that she had no objection to a connection to the west, to Sarasota Crossings, as well, Bailey said his concern was that representatives of the Orchestra “had engaged the residential neighbors to the north for an extended period of time” about the plans for the new performance hall. “We’re a little bit nervous,” Bailey added, “about a last-minute change [in the concept plan] without having consulted with those neighbors.”

Bailey did note that he did not anticipate any objection from those neighbors. If the County Commission decided to impose a stipulation that the western connection to the shopping center be part of the plans, he added, “We’ll explain that to the neighbors.”

Bailey also pointed out that the owners of Sarasota Crossings would have to pay to bridge the 50-foot county drainage canal between its property and the Orchestra’s land. “It will be an extensive and expensive proposition to bridge that,” he said, “so we’re not prepared to pay for that.”

His other primary concern, he continued, was that the closing for the Orchestra to purchase the land located at 5701 Fruitville Road was coming up very soon. “We really need to get this [application] approved today.”

In response to those comments, Commissioner Michael Moran said, “I don’t want any delay on this, either, whatsoever.”

Then Moran asked for clarification that, as long as the Orchestra’s closing on the land was not delayed, and the Orchestra did not have to pay for the bridge, the Orchestra did not object to the western connection.

Bailey replied that representatives of the Orchestra just did not want to have to apologize to the neighbors to the north for having agreed to something “behind their back.”

The Sarasota Crossings proposal, in detail

At that point, attorney David E. Gurley, whose eponymous firm also is located in Sarasota, stepped to the podium as the representative of Sarasota Crossings.

“We are here in full support of the applicant’s [proposal for the rezoning of the Fruitville Road site], and we urge the County Commission to vote today [to approve the requested action],” Gurley said. However, he also wanted the board’s approval of a stipulation “which will enhance and improve the application for the benefit of the entire community at no cost to the Orchestra.”

He explained that the owners of Sarasota Crossings wanted an easement to allow access to the shopping center to be part of the formal county Site and Development process for the Orchestra’s property. Gurley added, as Bailey had, that the Crossings would pay for the bridge.

The connection would keep motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists “from having to go out onto Fruitville Road” to reach the Orchestra site from the shopping center, Gurley stressed.

That would be consistent, he said, with the county’s Fruitville Corridor Plan, which focuses on connectivity.

After Gurley concluded his remarks, Chair Cutsinger offered the standard 5 minutes of public hearing rebuttal time to the Orchestra.

Bill Conerly, a licensed engineer with the consulting firm Kimley-Horn then stepped to the podium.

Another concern, Conerly said, is that the project engineers had not evaluated the proposed connection to the Crossings. “The Orchestra property does not directly abut the shopping center,” he pointed out. He was worried about the potential that the Orchestra ultimately might not be able to comply with the stipulation, if the commissioners included it in a resolution approving the application.

Nonetheless, Conerly said, representatives of the Orchestra would work with the Crossings, county staff and the neighbors to try to make the connection work.

Commissioner Mark Smith asked, “Would a bridge over this canal even be permittable?”
Wiggins, the Transportation Planning manager, told Smith, “It would have to go through the permitting process,” so the county’s Stormwater Division staff could review the proposal and offer any comments.

After a bit more discussion, Chair Cutsinger told Deputy County Attorney Josh Moye that he was concerned about Bailey, Gurley and Wiggins trying to craft a stipulation during the hearing.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis stressed that county staff did not receive the Crossings proposal until the previous day, Jan. 17.

“I really hate when we’re negotiating at the board table and the fact that we only received this yesterday,” Commissioner Nancy Detert said. “It’s a longer discussion than we’re going to spend on this today.”

Yet another concern, Bailey emphasized, was that the Orchestra wanted to avoid having to come back to the commission in the future to seek a modification to the Binding Development Concept Plan that would show the connection. (He did not mention it, but attorneys and commissioners in the past have talked about the expense of applying for such later changes and having to pursue a subsequent hearing.)

Finally, the board members agreed to continue the hearing until later that morning, so the attorneys and staff could work on the wording of the proposed modification.

A workable solution

Later, following another public hearing, Cutsinger reopened the Orchestra’ public hearing, and Bailey returned to the podium.

He explained that, after consulting with Gurley and Wiggins, the decision had been made to substitute the Binding Development Concept Plan that Gurley had proposed for the one the Orchestra had submitted.
Gurley’s version, Baily said, had arrows on it showing where the connection would be made between the Orchestra’s site and the shopping center.

“Then, if a bridge can be built over [the county’s canal] at some point,” Bailey added, “it would be a completed network. We, of course, would be exchanging … easements.” That revised Development Concept Plan “would be in lieu of a stipulation,” Bailey noted.

Wiggins of Transportation Planning assured the commissioners that that new plan, with the potential access shown, would satisfy staff’s concerns.

After Chair Cutsinger closed the public hearing,Commissioner Detert made the motion to approve the Orchestra’s rezoning and Special Exceptions application, with the updated Binding Development Concept Plan. Commissioner Moran seconded it.

“Glad we finally got that done,” Detert said, “and look forward to [the Orchestra’s] start and their finish [of the new performance hall].”

“It came down to two big green arrows,” Moran added, with a laugh. “I appreciate the reasonableness to this.”

“This is an exciting development,” Cutsinger said of the Orchestra’s new facility. He added that he “can’t wait” to see it completed. “I love the Orchestra.”

Then the motion passed unanimously.

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