With 4-1 vote, City Commission rescinds 2022 ordinance that reclassified property near SRQ Airport so company could build apartment complex

City attorney had recommended action to eliminate legal challenges Airport Authority had filed

This week, the Sarasota City Commission formally rescinded a 2022 ordinance that changed the Future Land Use classification of a 25.58-acre site on Old Bradenton Road, near the Sarasota Manatee International Airport (SRQ), to enable the construction of a 372-unit apartment complex.

The property was home to the Sarasota Kennel Club. Then-Commissioner Hagen Brody emphasized last fall that the site had become blighted since greyhound racing ended at the start of 2021, following citizens’ approval in November 2018 of a Florida constitutional amendment banning the sport.

The goal of the April 3 City Commission vote was to end multiple legal challenges that the Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority filed against the city. Those came in the aftermath of the approval of that Future Land Use classification in the city’s Comprehensive Plan, plus the board’s November 2022 approval of the rezoning of the Old Bradenton Road property and a site plan to enable a Raleigh, N.C.-based company — Aventon Holdings LLC — to proceed with its plans for the apartment complex.

The owner of the land — the Jack G. Collins Sr. Revocable Trust, whose trustee is Barbara Collins — had informed City Attorney Robert Fournier that the trust wanted to see the land classification remain Community Commercial.

Additionally, the trust and Aventon have terminated their contract for Aventon to buy the property, as Fournier reported to the commissioners last month.

Only Commissioner Erik Arroyo voted “No” during the board’s regular meeting on April 3.

Initially, Mayor Kyle Battie opposed the rescission. However, after City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs recorded the 3-2 decision, Battie offered his apologies, saying his intent was to approve the ordinance.

City Attorney Fournier had explained to the commissioners on March 7 the facets of a “term sheet” drawn up among the parties to end the legal challenges. The terms included commission recission of the 2022 ordinance that changed the Future Land Use classification of the property from Community Commercial to Multiple Family-Medium Density. Moreover, he noted then and again this week, the Authority had agreed to cover its legal expenses for the two cases it had filed in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court over the commission’s votes.

During the April 3 discussion, Fournier also talked of his expectation that fighting all of the legal challenges the Airport Authority had pursued would be “potentially time-consuming and expensive” for the city. He added, [“I would] like to keep my budget down and save some on attorneys’ fees, quite honestly.”

Warnings of a dangerous situation

During discussions that began in mid-August 2022, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch stressed that a 2018 interlocal agreement between the city and the Airport Authority said that the city and the Authority “acknowledge their obligation … to adopt, administer, and enforce updated airport zoning regulations applicable to the airport hazard areas, and restricting the use of land adjacent to or in the immediate vicinity of SRQ to activities and purposes compatible with the continuation of normal airport operations including landing and takeoff of aircraft in order to promote public health, safety, and general welfare.”

The site where the apartment complex was planned by Raleigh, N.C.-based Aventon Holdings LLC is only about 1,500 feet from SRQ’s runway, Frederick “Rick” Piccolo, president and CEO of the Airport Authority, had pointed out.

Piccolo had voiced concern about the fact that the majority of the apartment buildings would be within what is known as the “65 DNL noise contour,” meaning that the average noise level of aircraft taking off and landing, day and night, over 24 hours, would be 65 decibels.

“Our residents can move out if they don’t like the noise,” Sean Flanagan, senior development director for Aventon, told the commissioners on Aug. 15, 2022.

Even though representatives of Aventon had stipulated that they would ensure that any prospective tenants be fully informed about the noise issue, Piccolo told the commissioners that, inevitably — based on his many years of experience at the airport — residents likely would call the airport staff to complain.

Moreover, he pointed out to the commissioners late last summer his anticipation that the stormwater retention ponds that were part of Aventon’s site plan would draw large wading birds, which could pose a significant threat to aircraft taking off and landing. Those two stages of flight, he stressed, are the most critical; a bird strike or a bird’s being sucked into an engine could result in crashes and loss of life.

Piccolo said that 49% of all aircraft accidents occur on final approach or climb.

Nonetheless, as City Attorney Fournier noted again this week, commissioners last year saw the addition of the new housing stock as a means to reducing steadily climbing rents in the city limits, which were pushing residents to find homes elsewhere.

Fournier had warned the commissioners of his expectation that the city would be sued if the land-use classification were changed and they allowed Aventon to proceed with its plans. The primary finding of fact he would have to use to support their decision, Fournier pointed out, would be the rent issue.

Yet, Flanagan of Aventon had acknowledged that the apartments at the complex probably would rent in a range from $1,600 to $2,200 a month — a level that prompted Piccolo to characterize the units as “luxury apartments.”

Steps in the process

During remarks prior to the April 3 vote, Fournier explained details that he had provided the commissioners in their agenda packet for the item that afternoon.

First, he pointed out that the change in the Future Land Use classification of the Old Bradenton Road property never had gone into effect, because of the Airport Authority’s initial response, which was to call for the city to participate in a dispute resolution process whose steps are outlined in Chapter 164 of the Florida Statutes. The airport also had filed a challenge to the Future Land Use change with the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH), citing the ordinance’s inconsistency with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, as well as two as the two Circuit Court cases.

Further, Fournier pointed out that the majority of the commissioners in November 2022 approved Aventon’s rezoning application and its site plan.

“I think that Aventon’s insistence on getting [that vote of approval] might have worked against them,” Fournier continued. “They lost the flexibility to make changes in the site plan that the airport might have approved of.” However, Fournier acknowledged, “That’s kind of informed speculation.”

Nevertheless, he said of the proposed apartment complex, “That project just isn’t going to happen,” as another company interested in building on the property would have had to use the same site plan.

Fournier also told the commissioners that he knew many of them felt the new housing units on the site would have been beneficial to the city. Therefore, he added, “You may have to [approve this recission of the 2022 ordinance] reluctantly.”

Nonetheless, he said, “It’s just acceptance of, and acknowledgement of, the reality of the situation.”

After Fournier concluded his comments, Commissioner Arroyo said he thought that Aventon had indemnified the city in the event legal challenges were filed.

“Well, no,” Fournier replied. In fact, he reminded Arroyo, Aventon was a party to those challenges. “They were not paying the city’s attorneys’ fees.”

During the Aug. 18, 2022 City Commission meeting — when the board members cast their first of two required votes on the change in the Future Land Use classification for the site near the airport — Flanagan of Aventon said, “We will indemnify the city against any complaints,” and tenants will have to sign leases that include an acknowledgement that they are aware of the noise situation and accept that.

Following the April 3 discussion, Commissioner Ahearn-Koch made the motion to approve the recission ordinance, and Commissioner Debbie Trice — who replaced Hagen Brody on the board — seconded it.

Other than Arroyo, no commissioner offered remarks before City Auditor and Clerk Griggs called the roll to record the votes.

It took the board members slightly more than 10 minutes to address the agenda item.