Split Planning Board recommends approval of attainable-housing change for project bordering Laurel Park

Developer continues to propose 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, after a split Sarasota Planning Board recommended approval of the developer’s request to forgo a zoning stipulation for attainable housing.

Oaktree Development, which has a county-owned, 0.8-acre parcel under contract for purchase, wants to build 17 townhomes on the property. But the development team — including nationally known firm David Weekley Homes — has proposed several changes before the project can commence.

In a 3-2 vote Wednesday, the city’s Planning Board recommended the City Commission approve the most significant one: a Comprehensive Plan amendment to remove a site-specific requirement for “attainable housing units” at 1938 Laurel St., according to city documents.

The City Commission has final say on that change, as well as on an additional rezone request the developer has proposed.

Under the current Comprehensive Plan zoning for the property, development is limited to 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, wants to make a $250,002 contribution to an affordable housing trust fund the city has established.

A map shows the Laurel Park Overlay District. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
A map shows the Laurel Park Overlay District. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

During Wednesday’s meeting, Planning Board members Vald Svekis and Patrick Gannon cast the “No” votes on the Comprehensive Plan change. The other three board members are Robert Lindsay, David Morriss and Chris Gallagher. Svekis is the chair.

Before the vote, Svekis voiced his objections, noting that about 60 percent of Sarasota residents fall in the “attainable housing” income bracket, and there is a significant shortage of such units being built in the city. “I am talking about affordability for a large segment of Sarasota,” Svekis said.

Attainable housing is classified differently than affordable housing, according to city documents. “Attainable housing” is described as units that meet the needs of those working residents who earn between 60 and 120 percent of the area median income.

A graphic shows the site of the proposed development. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
A graphic shows the site of the proposed development. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The developer’s proposal to remove such housing from plans for the 1938 Laurel St. property and contribute to the affordable housing trust fund — which is designed to support low-income housing for those whose earnings fall below the median income, as well as provide subsidies and funding for dwellings for the homeless — shifts resources, Svekis pointed out. “Those are different needs,” he said. “‘Affordable housing trust’ is not the same as ‘attainable housing trust’… We are taking ‘attainable’ and shifting it to ‘affordable.’ I find that objectionable.”

Svekis continued, “What I also 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.”

He added, “That location on Laurel Street is next to public transportation; it is an ideal situation for attainable housing. And attainable housing was enshrined into the Comprehensive Plan, and now it is being raided out to be put in a lump sum. So I do have a problem with this.”

The developer’s proposal

In an interview last week with The Sarasota News Leader, Michael Infanti, who manages Oaktree Development, said, “The City Commission has made it known they are committed to affordable housing, and we have made it known we are committed to affordable housing.”

However, when it comes to fulfilling the “attainable housing” requirement, at least one significant hurdle has arisen, Infanti pointed out: Which agency would oversee those affordable dwellings and ensure they remained affordable? When the city attached the attainable housing stipulation to the property, the Community Housing Trust Fund was designated as the manager of the attainable units constructed on the site. But with changes to that trust having taken place, Infanti noted, “there is no government agency that has been funded to administer or run affordable housing.”

For that reason, the attainable housing requirement stipulating that the Community Housing Trust manage the units is outdated and should be changed, so his client’s project can move forward, consultant Don Nue, who represented the development team during the Nov. 18 Planning Board meeting, told the members. “They are not in business anymore,” Nue, pointed out of the Community Housing Trust. “They have no staff anymore. It is not a functioning organization that would take on something like this … It is impossible to move this project forward with the existing land zoning.”

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

Nue said the city would have flexibility in choosing how to utilize the developer’s $250,002 contribution. “We think the contribution furthers the strategy towards the city’s direction,” Nue added.

Members of the development team have met with city commissioners to discuss their plans, the Planning Board discussion indicated, including the financial contribution in lieu of attainable units.

But board members questioned how the developer came up with the $250,002 figure.

Infanti replied that that was more of a placeholder number calculated on the basis of The DeMarcay condominium project on Palm Avenue in downtown Sarasota, a which included an affordable housing donation.

“A lot more details, when it comes to the contributions, will come after the rezone process,” Nue told the board.

Oaktree Development also proposes to vacate a portion of Cherry Lane and rezone the parcel from Office Professional Business (OPB) to Downtown Edge (DTE). That rezone will be voted on at a later date.

Bordering Laurel Park

Because the Oaktree project falls within the Laurel Park Overlay District, the developer has spent the past few months meeting with Laurel Park residents to ensure the plan is compatible architecturally and in scale with the existing homes.

The Laurel Park Neighborhood Association sent a letter to the city on April 16 of this year, expressing support of Oaktree Development’s proposed zoning change.

Laurel Park homes have a distinctive style. File photo
Laurel Park homes have a distinctive style. File photo

Nue told the planning board members the project team worked “very closely” with Laurel Park representatives, and “we believe that’s why they are supportive of this change.”

Nue noted that the developer is limiting the property to residential use.

Kate Lowman. Photo courtesy Sarasota County
Kate Lowman. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

“We think it is a more appropriate use, on the residential side,” he added. “We believe it is a lot more compatible, with Laurel Park being only residential.”

Kate Lowman of Laurel Park, the sole member of the public to speak at Wednesday’s meeting, reiterated the residents’ support of the project as a compatible neighbor.

Lowman noted that, at one time, Sarasota County entertained the option of giving the .8-acre property to a children’s support agency, which had plans for an affordable housing project on the site. Those plans never came to fruition, she pointed out. But, Lowman explained, that is the reason the city’s Comprehensive Plan has a stipulation for attainable units on the site. “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.”