Special City Commission meeting set for 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 28 for Selby Gardens Master Plan hearing

Board members agree on 9 p.m. ending, with continuation of hearing to be scheduled, if necessary

City Attorney Robert Fournier (far left) and Acting City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs (second from left) join City Manager Tom Barwin (second from right), Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown (far right) and the commissioners at the dais on March 4. File image

With concerns about the length of the upcoming public hearing on Selby Gardens’ proposed Master Plan, the Sarasota City Commission voted 4-1 this week to conduct the hearing from 1:30 to 9 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 28.

The motion, made by Commissioner Willie Shaw, included a dinner break from 5 to 6 p.m.

He also was clear about “no extending” of the session if it appears it will need to go past 9 p.m.

If the hearing cannot be concluded on Oct. 28, the commissioners decided, then, as Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch put it, the board members would “cross that bridge.”

Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie cast the “No” vote.

On Sept. 16, as part of their Consent Agenda No. 1 of routine business items, the commissioners unanimously approved the scheduling of the special meeting on Selby Gardens’ petitions for 6 p.m. on Oct. 28.

However, at the conclusion of the business items that night, Mayor Liz Alpert announced that she had meant to pull the item from that agenda to ask for a change in the scheduling. On a 4-1 vote — with Commissioner Hagen Brody in the minority — the commissioners approved her request to reconsider that Consent Agenda item.

“I don’t want to be here until midnight or 1 [a.m.]” on Oct. 28, Alpert told her colleagues after they agreed to discuss the issue. “All of you know that the Selby Gardens Master Plan is going to have a tonof public comment.”

“If we start at 6 o’clock at night,” she added, she proposed that the board end the session at 9 or 10 p.m. and then schedule a continuation of the hearing.

The city’s Planning Board already had reserved a second date for its hearing on the master plan. Its first special meeting was conducted on Sept. 18, beginning at 6 p.m. Just before 11 p.m., after hours devoted to the presentations by the Selby Gardens project team and city staff, the board members’ questioning of both those groups, plus a vetting of parties claiming affected persons status — so they could be afforded longer comment periods than members of the general public — the hearing was continued. It will resume at 1:30 p.m. on Sept. 25.

The city staff report for the Planning Board meeting explained that Chris Cianfaglione of the Kimley-Horn and Associates consulting firm in Sarasota, who is serving as the agent for Marie Selby Botanical Gardens for the hearings, “has petitioned the city for a Comprehensive Plan Amendment for property totaling [approximately] 14.73 acres.”

A graphic shows the Selby Gardens property with the proposed new zoning designation, as well as the zoning of surrounding property. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The request is for the city to change its Future Land Use Map classification of the Gardens property from Community Office/Institutional to Metropolitan/Regional to allow Selby Gardens more flexibility “to fully implement the Master Plan” Selby’s board of trustees unveiled in 2017.

Among the more controversial proposals in that master plan is a five-story parking garage designed for 480 vehicles, which would replace the current 275-space surface parking lot.

During the Planning Board presentation, Jennifer Rominiecki, Selby Gardens’ president and CEO, emphasized that the term for that facility is Sky Garden, as it will have plants growing on its exterior.

Selby Gardens’ board also wants the structure to encompass a ground-floor plant and gift shop, as well as a rooftop restaurant and outdoor terrace.

The retail shop would be open during the Gardens’ normal hours — 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. However, the restaurant and parking deck would be open later, to the public, “to provide evening entertainment,” as the city staff report notes. “(Final operating hours have not been disclosed as of the date of this staff report),” the backup agenda material said.

This is a diagram of the proposed Sky Garden. Image from the Selby Gardens website

The Planning Board hearing also involves a request to rezone the Selby Gardens property, as well as a review of the site plan for Phase I of the master plan. Along with the parking garage/restaurant/shop, Phase I includes a 34-foot tall Welcome Center/Plant Research Building that would encompass 27,930 square feet, the staff report says.

Making her case

On Sept. 16, Mayor Alpert explained her request for reconsidering the timing of the City Commission’s public hearing on the Selby Gardens Master Plan.

“Everybody knows … we’ve gotten hundreds and hundreds of emails,” Alpert said. Thus, she continued, no one could predict how many people would sign up to speak at the hearing. “But I don’t think we could do it in one evening.”

She initially proposed a 9 a.m. starting time on Oct. 28.

Further, Alpert said, “I almost think we need a second or third date, to tell you the truth,” for continuing the hearing.

Mayor Liz Alpert. News Leader image

A chorus of “No’s” met that comment, with Commissioner Shaw adding, “Unh-uh.”

“I think it makes more sense just to do it in the morning,” Alpert said.

“You’ll still be here at night, starting in the morning,” based on the number of speakers she expects, Shaw told her.

Then perhaps they should agree to stop at 5 p.m., Alpert replied, if they started at 9 a.m. “It’s going to be a really, really tough and long meeting, and I know it’s hard on me to be here till midnight …”

She added that she knows late hours are a strain for her colleagues, too, as well as for city employees who have to be at work at 8 a.m. the next day.

Alpert then proposed a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule, with public notice making it clear that a second day likely would be necessary to conclude the hearing.

Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch suggested the 1:30 p.m. start, with 9 p.m. as the ending time.

“I could go along very easily with the vice mayor,” Shaw said.

Ahearn-Koch also proposed the dinner break.

Commissioner Freeland Eddie pointed out that she has suggested in the past that the commission schedule controversial public hearings on Saturdays. “When you push something back to 1:30 in the afternoon,” she said, “that means we have three meetings for that month …”

Additionally, Freeland Eddie told her colleagues, “We’re not going to stop when we say we’re going to stop.”

City Attorney Robert Fournier. File photo

However, City Attorney Robert Fournier pointed out that a Saturday meeting would not be possible for the portion of the hearing on Selby Gardens’ petition for the Comprehensive Plan amendment. If the commission votes to approve it, he said, the amendment must be transmitted to state officials for formal review before it can be adopted. Referencing the applicable Florida Statute, Fournier read that the hearing “‘shall be held on a weekday …’”

After further discussion about whether to switch the hearings to a Friday, Shaw proposed the 1:30 to 9 p.m. schedule for Oct. 28, with the dinner break. He was adamant that the board members not extend the session beyond 9 p.m.

Commissioner Brody then suggested the commissioners try to get all their questions for staff answered in advance of the meeting. “That would cut down on [the length of the hearing].”

Alpert responded that she already had intended to bring up that suggestion during her board report that night. Having those answers in advance of the hearing, she added, would cut out some of the meeting time.

“Sometimes it’s a filibuster and not actually people asking questions” that leads to long discussions, Brody replied.

“That’s every meeting,” Commissioner Freeland Eddie responded.

Brody seconded Shaw’s motion, and then it passed 4-1.