With Ahearn-Koch voting ‘No,’ City Commission gives final approval to controversial attainable housing measures

Staff makes late change regarding maximum additional density in downtown zoning districts 

Once again this week, the Sarasota City Commission spent hours debating measures that the city’s Planning Department staff had created in an effort to spur the development of more affordable/attainable dwelling units.

And, once again, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch cast the solitary “No” vote on most of those amendments to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, as she did during their first readings on Sept. 19.

Her only “Yes” response came after the second reading of the amendment creating a “Missing Middle” overlay zoning district. That would allow an increase in residential density when a portion of the extra units are considered “attainable,” based on their cost, and it would encourage a wide range of housing types. A pilot project has been envisioned in the Park East area of the city, which is generally east of North Washington Boulevard, south of 10th Street, north of Fourth Street and west of North Tuttle Avenue.

Among the other staff proposals that the board members addressed again on Oct. 17 was a Comprehensive Plan amendment enabling city Planning Department staff to approve attainable housing projects administratively, if those proposals comply with all of the city’s relevant policies and regulations.

The administrative approval process has been controversial among residents for years. Although City Commission discussion with staff this week made it clear that an individual who objects to staff’s approval of a project can appeal the decision to the City Commission, Ahearn-Koch pointed out that proposals for new construction can be improved through developers’ engagement with affected residents.

Knowing they would not have to go through a public hearing process to gain final approval, she contended, developers would be less likely to work with residents on details.

Ahearn-Koch cited the eight-year-long process involving a development proposed next to her neighborhood, which resulted in a project that the residents ended up supporting.

Commissioner Liz Alpert expressed dismay over the length of time that took. “You drug it out for over eight years?” Alpert asked.

“It was a different project,” Ahearn-Koch responded. Each time the city Planning Board denied a version of the application, she explained, the developer would revise the plans to create a “completely new project.” Eventually, she continued, the developer understood the residents’ points about compatibility with the neighborhood, and the project won approval.

“Most people would run out of funds before they could ever make something happen,” Alpert replied, referring to the eight-year timeline.

The commission’s goal is to make “the major land use decisions, with the input of the public,” Alpert pointed out. Then developers can work more quickly, given the predictability of the process, she emphasized.

Planning Director Steve Cover — and speakers who have addressed the commissioners — have pointed to the fact that even leaders of nonprofit organizations advocating for attainable housing have called for the administrative approval process to speed up developers’ timelines.

Nonetheless, during the public comments on that amendment to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, attorney Dan Lobeck, a candidate for one of the two at-large seats open this year on the commission, stressed that conducting public hearings on land-use applications is being “responsive to neighborhoods.”

Lobeck added, “You can have affordable housing consistent with the legitimate rights of existing homeowners, but you don’t get that with staff.”

Moreover, Lobeck referenced community members’ comments about construction that has taken place in the downtown area over the past several years through the administrative approval process. “Are we all proud of The Vue crammed right up against the street with minimal sidewalks?” he asked, referring to the condominium complex at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue.

“Are we proud of South Palm Avenue with the administrative approval [process] that has crammed condo buildings up next to each other? That’s what you get with administrative approval,” Lobeck said.

Alpert pointed out later that South Palm residents are comfortable with those new buildings.

Debbie Trice, past president of the Rosemary District Neighborhood Association, who is the third candidate for City Commission on the Nov. 8 General Election ballot — Ahearn-Koch is seeking re-election — also addressed administrative approval. She characterized it as the issue she finds most problematic of those related to the affordable housing amendments.

“We’re talking about the great unknown,” Trice told the commissioners. “People are afraid, especially, say, with the Urban Mixed-Use corridors,” she added, referring to another amendment that was crafted to encourage the construction of attainable housing units in aging shopping centers.

Trice also noted that the city’s director of Development Services, Lucia Panica, “said at a previous meeting, ‘Staff can’t say, “No” to ugly.’ And there’s a fear,” Trice continued, “that we’re going to have strips of ugly corridors entering Sarasota.”

Commissioner Hagen Brody later responded to Lobeck’s remarks about The Vue and Palm Avenue by pointing out that the city’s Building Code governs the construction. “That’s how buildings have to be built,” Brody said.

Taking the opposite view from Lobeck, land-use attorney William Merrill III of the Sarasota firm Icard Merrill emphasized that going through the administrative approval process in the city “is a regulatory gauntlet. It is very difficult. It is very time-consuming, and it takes a lot of time, effort, and money to get through that process.”

Some clarifications

Before opening the first hearing, Mayor Erik Arroyo asked for comments from City Manager Marlon Brown, noting an understanding that a few changes had been made since the board members’ last debates, during their Sept. 19 meeting.

Brown explained then that staff had modified the maximum density allowed for three zoning districts — Urban Edge, Downtown Core and Downtown Bayfront. For each of those classifications, he said, the extra density allowed with attainable housing units could be no greater than four times the base density.

(Also approved on second reading this week, that amendment additionally allows for one extra floor — for a maximum of 11 — in buildings in the Downtown Core if they include a certain percentage of attainable units; staff has not settled on that percentage yet. However, that 11th floor would not be an option for structures that “provide additional public parking,” the amendment notes.)

Further, Brown said, Ahearn-Koch had pointed to a problem with one word in the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment that adds the new Urban Mixed-Use Future Land Use classification. On page 8 of the proposed amendment, Brown continued, part of the last paragraph read as follows: “One means to encourage the provision of attainable housing that will be utilized is to establish a base density for development containing only market rate dwelling units …”

Ahearn-Koch had asked that the “only” be removed, Brown explained.

“For me,” Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues, “that meant that they could develop onlymarket-rate [units].”

City Attorney Robert Fournier responded that he had discussed that issue with staff; no one had a problem with that recommended change.

Following Brown’s comments, Fournier pointed out, “There is another important [change since the Sept. 19 meeting].” That involves the revision of city Action Strategy 3.15.

He had passed out copies of the proposed modification that will be part of the Housing Chapter in the Comprehensive Plan, which guides growth in the city.

Fournier explained that the earlier version of the language created “some confusion.” The modification, he continued, lists the tools or means the city could utilize to increase the supply of the attainable housing units.

The first item on the list was “Awarding bonus density above the base density within certain zone districts for attainable housing units.”

The second said, “Creating new implementing zoning districts that require the provision of attainable housing.” Owners of property may decide to request a rezoning to one of the new districts, Fournier noted. As the amendment puts it, that action would be necessary to “obtain the right to develop mixed use, or residential uses, or higher density residential uses, with attainable housing as a required component of the development.”

Fournier reminded the commissioners that that was part of the “inclusionary zoning” presentation that Ahearn-Koch made to them in August; they agreed to incorporate that element into the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment.

The third item on the list, Fournier continued, would allow the city to provide specified incentives to offset the costs to a developer for constructing attainable housing. “This merely says [that] if the city … [provides] incentives A, B and C,” Fournier pointed out, and the developer is happy with those incentives, then the developer and the city could enter into an agreement.

“So I tried to be a little more clear and careful in setting out these three alternatives,” Fournier explained.

All of the amendments that the commissioners approved this week include language explaining that applicable zoning text amendments will be required before their provisions “can be applied to a development application.” Thus, the City Commission will not be able to approve any proposals based on the Comprehensive Plan modifications before those zoning text amendments have been adopted.

Comments, questions and assertions

Before the first public hearing began on Oct. 17, the commissioners themselves debated whether to allow further public comment that day, as numerous residents had addressed them about the proposals during the Sept. 19 public hearings.

Fournier raised the question, pointing out that they had satisfied the requirement of state law by allowing those earlier public remarks. Still, he continued, he saw “absolutely no detriment or any harm to taking public input” on Oct. 17.

“I think we, uh, should allow comment on these,” Commissioner Brody responded, referring to the amendments. “For whatever reason, I think incorrectly, there’s been a lot of statements made that there hasn’t been adequate opportunity for public comment in this.” Brody added, “I don’t think that to be accurate … But, um … if this is an opportunity to further alleviate that concern, we should take it.”

Nonetheless, he continued, he expected speakers to repeat their Sept. 19 views, “instead of actually adding, um, constructive input … But, you know, maybe there might be one or two people out there that do add some kind of constructive comment we can take instead of just complain about the process.”

Commissioners Alpert and Ahearn-Koch also favored allowing public comments.

The very first speaker on Oct. 17 was former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, who is a senior vice president of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, which is based in Venice. For years, Thaxton has been an advocate for the development of affordable/attainable housing in representing the Foundation.

Referring to the process up to that day, he told the board members that he had to say, “This has become a little more difficult to track than a 3-year-old in a bounce house.” He also wanted to apologize upfront, he continued, because he knew some of his comments would be repetitive.

Then Thaxton talked about the Urban Mixed-Use land classification amendment, which would allow for the redevelopment of aging shopping centers on commercial corridors. “Florida Statute 166 specifically and explicitly … regulates the inclusionary zoning,” he pointed out. That “allows for increased densities to be used to fully offset the cost to provide affordable housing by the developer. This concept that density increases alone will produce affordable housing is bumper-sticker politics,” he added.

“Thirty years of experience in Sarasota County has surely taught us that density alone will not produce affordable or attainable housing,” Thaxton stressed. “Density and intensity increases that are granted above base zoning are the only commodity I know of,” he said, “where a recipient gets value at no cost …

“This is a one-time-only opportunity to leverage your discretionary land use authority to ensure that these increased densities actually will produce afforedable housing in the city of Sarasota,” Thaxton added. “I trust you [to] take advantage of it.”

At various times during the rest of the commission’s debates on the amendments, Commissioner Brody mocked Thaxton by referring to him as “affordable housing sage Jon Thaxton.”

Details of the amendments

After reviewing the new policies, The Sarasota News Leader is providing details about each of them, below:

Comprehensive Plan amendment creating the new Urban Mixed-Use Future Land Use Chapter

The base residential dwelling unit densities for the following four mixed-use classifications are as follows:

  • Urban Neighborhood — Up to 12 units per acre, with additional density allowed within a “Missing Middle” Overlay District “when attainable housing is provided and the total density shall be no greater than 3 times the maximum base density of this land use classification …”
  • Urban Edge — Base density up to 25 units per acre, but no more than four times that maximum; plus “residential base density up to 40 units per acre and additional density up to a maximum of 100 units per acre within and on individual projects in accordance with the Rosemary Residential Overlay District; and non-residential lodging, office, commercial, and artisanal uses.”
  • Downtown Core — Base residential density up to 50 units per acre, with a maximum of four times that level if attainable housing is provided.
  • Downtown Bayfront — Residential density up to 50 units per acre, with a maximum of four times that level if attainable housing is provided.
  • Urban Mixed-Use — Base density up to 25 units per acre and 35 units per acre for the North Tamiami Trail corridor, with a maximum of three times that level if attainable housing is provided.

“The Urban Mixed-Use land classification is founded upon the concepts of ‘New Urbanism’ whereby diverse, walkable neighborhoods are created,” the amendment says. “A goal of ‘New Urbanism’ is to realize compact and diverse mixed-use neighborhoods with discernable centers that provide housing and workplaces in proximate locations. It is envisionsed that current redevelopment of centers and corridors that today consist of one predominant type of use, either commercial or office, will transition to a varied mix of land uses consisting of both residential and non-residential uses.”

Urban Mixed-Use Future Land Use Classification

This amendment involves 482 parcels previously classified as Community Commercial. The change applies generally to the following areas, the amendment notes:

  • Along the south right of way line of University Parkway from North Tamiami Trail east to Old Bradenton Road;
  • Along North Tamiami Trail from University Parkway south to 10th Street;
  • Along North Washington Boulevard from 21st Street east to the city limits;
  • Along the east right of way line of Tuttle Avenue from Fruitville Road south to Colorado Street;
  • Along the west right of way line of Beneva Road both north and south of Fruitville Road;
  • Along South Washington Boulevard near its intersection with South Tamiami Trail;
  • Along the east right of way line of South Tamiami Trail from north of Bahia Vista Street south to Hyde Park Street and at Siesta Drive;
  • Along the west right of way line of South Tamiami Trail at the intersections with Bahia Vista Street, Prospect Street, Floyd Street, Hillview Street, Hyde Park Street, and Bay Road;
  • Along both sides of South Tamiami Trail from north of its intersection with Bay Road/Bee Ridge Road south to the city limits; and
  • Along Bay Road/Bee Ridge Road from South Osprey Avenue east to the city limits.

The amendment states that the owner of any of the parcels “is not entitled to a rezoning to the Zone District which would provide the maximum density or intensity within the Urban Mixed-Use Land Use Classification.”

Administrative review and approval

As City Manager Brown promised during a previous meeting, this amendment says “that the City may utilize administrative review for site plan applications where construction of attainable housing units will occur.”
The use of “may” instead of “shall,” Brown pointed out, would allow for staff to pursue Planning Board and then City Commission public hearings on projects when staff feels such hearings would be appropriate.

Nonetheless, City Commission candidate Lobeck called that language “the most pernicious part of any of this.” He added, “To say ‘shall’ utilize administrative approval as opposed to ‘may utilize’ is meaningless when staff decides whether it’s used. They will always use it.”