Sarasota City Commission approves attainable-housing change for project bordering Laurel Park

In lieu of attainable units on the site, the developer plans to make a $250,002 contribution to an affordable housing fund

Renderings show examples of the Oaktree Development townhomes. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
Renderings show examples of the Oaktree Development townhomes. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Plans for a townhome project on the edge of Laurel Park moved a step forward this week when the Sarasota City Commission unanimously approved the most significant of several proposed zoning changes: a Comprehensive Plan amendment to remove a site-specific requirement for 12 “attainable housing units” on the property.

Oaktree Development, which has a county-owned, 0.8-acre parcel under contract for purchase, wants to build 17 townhomes on the Laurel Street property; it is partnering with nationally known firm David Weekley Homes on the project.

The vote on Monday, Jan. 4, sets in motion a change to the city’s Comprehensive Plan zoning for the parcel, where development is limited to the 12 attainable dwelling units, along with non-residential uses restricted to no more than 23,500 square feet of office space. In lieu of building the attainable units, Oaktree Development proposes making a $250,002 contribution to an affordable housing trust fund the city has established. The developer has also agreed to limit the development to residential structures, a concession that earned the support of the Laurel Park Neighborhood Association, whose members’ homes border the site. Laurel Park residents have expressed the desire for less intense development adjacent to their homes.

The vote Monday clears the way for Oaktree to proceed with the project without the attainable units on the property.

Dan Bailey, a lawyer representing Oaktree, told the commissioners the development team worked to design a project that is compatible with the adjacent neighborhood. He added that he felt the $250,002 contribution was fair.

“It is a pretty reasonable amount of money, but there is no science to it,” Bailey said.

City Manager Tom Barwin. File photo
City Manager Tom Barwin. File photo

There were, however, some discussions that led to the figure. The development team’s representatives worked with the city manager and city staff to come up with the number. City Manager Tom Barwin told the commissioners the formula they used calculated a contribution that would be roughly equal to the expense of building 2.5 attainable units, at a cost of $100,000 a unit. The 2.5 number was used, he added, because that equates to 15 percent of the townhomes the developer wants to build, and 15 percent is a benchmark often used nationally to set aside affordable units as part of a project.

Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell said she believed the $250,000 would be a useful tool as the city addresses the lack of affordable housing.

Commissioner Liz Alpert agreed. “I think it is a much better solution than requiring the units be there on site,” Alpert said.

Having attainable units on the property has become problematic because a local agency equipped to oversee such units no longer exists; therefore, no entity can ensure the units remain attainable permanently, Oaktree representatives have said.

Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie also applauded the developer’s effort to make a financial contribution to the city’s affordable housing initiatives. That’s the best approach, Freeland Eddie said, until the city establishes “rules of engagement” as well as a policy for building and overseeing attainable units.

The need for a strategy

A schematic shows more project details. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
A schematic shows more project details. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

During a meeting in November, two of the city’s Planning Board members did question the zoning change. At the time, a split 3-2 Planning Board recommended approval of the developer’s request to forgo the zoning stipulation for the 12 attainable housing units. However, Vlad Svekis, one of the Planning Board members who voted against removing the stipulation, said, “What I … find objectionable is where we had a chance for attainable housing, we now have a lump sump that can’t build much of anything and is just going to be thrown in a pot.”

During Monday’s City Commission meeting, Commissioner Susan Chapman, who voted for the Comprehensive Plan change, was less enthusiastic than her colleagues.

“I am resigned to supporting this,” Chapman said. “There is no mechanism in place to maintain permanent affordability, and without any such mechanism to maintain permanent affordability, those units will be flipped” and sold at market rates.

City Commissioner Susan Chapman. File photo
City Commissioner Susan Chapman. File photo

Chapman added that she believes the city commissioners need to get serious in their thinking about, and discussion of, a strategy for affordable housing in Sarasota, and that means “we have to put it on the agenda.”

Jude Levy, president of the Laurel Park Neighborhood Association, told the commissioners residents of the neighborhood were “very happy to have residential on our border.”

Levy pointed to the developer’s efforts to discuss the plans with neighbors and incorporate a transitional buffer of two-story townhomes, which will border the existing single-family houses. The remainder of the units will be four-story units.

“I see this as an excellent project,” Levy said.

The history

During the November Planning Board meeting, Kate Lowman of the Laurel Park Neighborhood Association noted some of the background on how the zoning stipulation for the 12 attainable units came to exist in the Comprehensive Plan. At one time, Sarasota County entertained the option of giving the 0.8-acre parcel to a children’s support agency, which had plans for an affordable housing project on the site, Lowman explained. Those plans never came to fruition, she pointed out. “The language was part of that whole process,” Lowman said. “The economy fell apart, and the agency ended up building elsewhere. That project went away. But the language that had gone in to change some of the zoning is still in there …”

Lowman continued, “This parcel has been a potential problem area. It is zoned for a use different than the neighborhood. There is a house that goes about 6 feet to the property edge.” She added, “The fact that the [site] might become residential is something we welcome.”