Comprehensive Plan amendment to be processed outside normal cycle to enable rezoning of Gardens property
With a unanimous vote this week, the Sarasota City Commission has accelerated the proposed timeline for the implementation of the new master plan for Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.
On a motion by Commissioner Willie Shaw, seconded by Commissioner Hagen Brody, the board agreed to allow staff to process a proposed amendment from Selby Gardens to the city’s Comprehensive Plan outside the annual cycle for such projects. That will shave about six months off the normal schedule for adopting such an amendment, the city’s chief planner, David Smith, told the board.
The regular Comprehensive Plan amendment process begins in May, Smith told the commissioners on Oct. 16. However, the board has the discretion to authorize start on such an initiative at any point in the year.
Noting that the leadership of Selby Gardens recently completed the proposed master plan, Smith said, its goal is to begin work as soon as possible.
Early this month, Selby Gardens released details about the master plan, which is estimated to cost $67 million.
The Gardens’ site — which is approximately 14.73 acres, located at 926 S. Palm Ave. near downtown Sarasota, is zoned Residential Single Family 1, Residential Multifamily 1 and Residential Multifamily 3, Smith added. Selby Gardens wishes to change the designation of the property on the city’s Future Land Use Map from Community Office/Institutional to Urban Edge and then seek the rezoning of the land to Downtown Edge, Smith added.
The current zoning, he explained, “doesn’t really allow for some of the uses that they are proposing in their master plan.” For example, he said, one new amenity will be a parking garage. Another will be a standalone restaurant that would serve the public, not just visitors.
The Gardens’ news release said the garage would have space for more than 450 cars and the restaurant would be on the rooftop. With the garage in place, the Gardens could confine vehicular traffic to one area on the northwest corner of the property, “away from residential neighbors,” the release noted.
In seeking the earlier start of the Comprehensive Plan amendment process, Jennifer Rominiecki, president and CEO of Selby Gardens, told the city commissioners that the number of visitors has increased by 36% over the past two years, to more than 200,000, and membership is up by 29%, representing 12,000 households.
During the Marc Chagall Exhibition — which began in February and closed at the end of July — “we turned away more than 200 cars on peak days,” she said, “and we don’t like sending people away.”
The Gardens has two primary challenges, Rominiecki pointed out: protection of its collections and improving its ability to accommodate its growing visitor base.
“We have the best scientifically documented collection of orchids in the world right here in Sarasota,” she said, but “right now, they’re housed in decaying structures on the ground in the flood zone. Recently, Hurricane Irma really put an exclamation point on our need to address this.”
Referring to the membership, she added, “We are now the largest member-based attraction in Sarasota.”
Making the case for the amendment
Chief Planner Smith referred to maps included in the commissioners’ packets as he discussed the flood zone issue. “A lot of their existing uses are on the ground floor, and they are in danger of flooding if there’s s storm event.” The proposed new buildings, he added, would be elevated to conform to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) height requirements for flood zone construction.
The master plan will enable the Gardens to tackle its problems and increase its green space by 50%, Rominiecki told the board. Green-building technology would be employed in the new construction, she pointed out: “rainwater harvesting, solar energy and green roofs.”
The Gardens has a $6.4-million annual budget, she continued, and its economic impact on the community is more than $12 million. With just the completion of the first phase of the master plan, she said, the economic impact would rise to about $40 million per year; just the construction would generate nearly $1.8 million in local government revenue. “No doubt, this is a rewarding undertaking.”
Phase I — estimated at $35 million — would involve a new Welcome Center, the parking structure and rooftop restaurant, a sky garden and “an institutional home for the Gardens’ library,” as well as its administrative offices, according to the material provided to the City Commission.
Phase 2 would entail “new state-of-the art conservatories, the central garden, the learning pavilion, and a center for botany research and interpretation featuring the spirit lab and the herbarium along with horticulture and operations facilities.”
The final phase would include restoration of the historic structures on the property and the re-routing of the paths around the grounds, Rominiecki noted.
“We need a phased approach,” she explained, so the Gardens can remain open while work is underway. The completion of all the master plan probably will take 10 years, she said.
“It’s a big deal to change the Comp Plan,” Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch told Rominiecki. Ahearn-Koch added that she wanted to be certain the appropriate land use was designated for the Gardens, “so that there’s no conflict later on.”
Chris Cianfaglione of Kimley-Horn and Associates, which is working as a consulting firm on the project, explained that he and Gardens representatives have been working with city staff on the proposal for the past couple of months. The city staff recommendation, he said, is that the Downtown Edge zoning is “what made the most sense.”
When Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie asked about the timeline for the Comprehensive Plan amendment process and opportunities for public involvement in it, Smith explained that Gardens representatives were scheduled to appear before city department leaders during the Oct. 18 city Development Review Committee meeting to hear comments and suggestions. A community workshop probably will be held in November, he added, with every property owner within 500 feet of the Gardens’ property receiving formal notification in advance. All members of the public will be welcome, nonetheless, he noted.
The amendment most likely would be filed in January, Smith continued. April 11 probably would be the date the city Planning Board would address the issue, he noted, with the first City Commission hearing likely in May.
Because of the nature of the amendment, he pointed out, it would have to be provided to state staff for review — if the City Commission approved it. Providing no major concerns arose at the state level, Smith said, the second City Commission public hearing would be set for August.
Cianfaglione explained that, additionally, Selby Gardens has scheduled two informal meetings with residents of neighborhoods near its property, to give them an opportunity to learn about the plans.
In response to a question, he said minutes of those workshops would be taken and video recordings made. He would be happy to share that material with the commission, he added.
“How’s the fundraising going?” Commissioner Hagen Brody asked Rominiecki.
“We only just completed the master plan,” she replied. Although the Gardens already has secured 10% of the money it needs for the first phase, she continued, “we’ve not finalized a campaign.”
She did note that longtime contributors have come forward to offer their support. The goal is to raise the majority of the money from the private sector, she pointed out.
After the board members approved the processing of the Comprehensive Plan amendment outside the normal city cycle, Rominiecki told them, “Thank you so much!”