Board members direct city staff to conduct community workshop on proposed height increases in two downtown zoning districts
After a May 16 public hearing that lasted almost five-and-half hours, the Sarasota City Commission voted 4-1 to transmit to state officials a proposed amendment to the city’s Comprehensive Plan that city Planning staff believes will facilitate the creation of “attainable,” or workforce, housing.
The Comprehensive Plan contains all of the policies that guide growth in the city.
The document going to the state will not include a controversial provision that would have eliminated restrictions on building height in four zoning districts, including three affecting Sarasota’s downtown.
Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch cast the “No” vote after contending that members of the public had had too little opportunity to consider the staff recommendations for all of the changes.
City Planning Director Steve Cover pointed out that a community workshop was held on the proposal on March 24; staff sent out 5,668 notices to property owners within the affected areas. Yet, he did add that only about 70 people attended the session.
Ahearn-Koch said she should have received a notice, based on her place of residence, but she did not. She was not the only affected property owner who failed to get one, as members of the public noted.
David Lough, president of the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association, told the board members that no downtown residents received notice of that March meeting.
A statement in the backup agenda material explained that a notice was supposed to have gone to any owner of property within 500 feet of the parcels that would be affected by the proposed changes, as well as to neighborhood associations “that have registered with the Office of the City Auditor and Clerk to receive such notices.”
Additionally, throughout the May 16 discussion, Ahearn-Koch stressed her objection to the proposed amendment’s provision for staff to approve projects with attainable housing units via a process called “administrative review.” That would mean that no public hearings would be conducted on applications that complied with city regulations.
However, Planning Director Cover did tell the commissioners that staff is proposing that a community workshop be conducted on any attainable housing plan, in lieu of public hearings before the city Planning Board and the commission.
“Just a community workshop, in my mind, is not enough to actually make an impact,” Ahearn-Koch responded. If the members of the public cannot appear before the commissioners they elected, she continued, “Then I don’t think it’s as impactful.”
The proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment also would allow for a new Urban Mixed-Use zoning classification with attainable housing units in what public speakers referenced as “old, tired shopping centers,” as well as along major commercial corridors.
Both Commissioners Ahearn-Koch and Hagen Brody voiced concerns about the potential of seven-story complexes, for example, being constructed adjacent to single-family neighborhoods, in regard to that provision.
Yet, city planning staff members indicated that the necessary zoning text amendments to carry out the changes in the Comprehensive Plan could address those concerns.
Further, the proposed amendment includes a pilot project in the Park East area of downtown Sarasota. That would entail a “Missing Middle” overlay zoning district, so buildings with higher residential density could be constructed. Duplexes, triplexes, courtyard buildings, cottage court homes, townhomes or multi-dwelling structures would be allowed in Park East, Cover explained.
The ‘poison pill’
The biggest “conflict point” in the amendment that staff had proposed — as Brody characterized it — dealt with building height in the downtown zoning districts.
The original version of the amendment, as past city Planning Board member Patrick Gannon had pointed out in email correspondence with City Attorney Robert Fournier, eliminated from the Comprehensive Plan the building height restrictions for the three downtown zoning districts — Downtown Bayfront, Downtown Core and Urban Edge — plus the Urban Neighborhood district.
As Fournier noted in a May 11 memo to the commissioners, “[T]he General Characteristics section [of the Comprehensive Plan] under each of these four land use classifications specifies a limit on the height of the buildings …”
Staff said the reasons for the deletions, Fournier continued, were to provide “consistency with the remainder of the Comprehensive Plan and … to avoid redundancy with the height limits recited in the Zoning Code.”
Fournier added that “downtown is generally where the tallest buildings are found. Accordingly, downtown residents and residents of areas near downtown may have more concerns about the possibility of an increase in building heights than residents of single family neighborhoods.”
Moreover, Fournier explained, if the provisions are removed from the Comprehensive Plan, “it will become much easier to increase building heights in the downtown because only an ordinance to amend the Zoning Code will be needed.”
Any change to the Comprehensive Plan requires a “Yes” vote from four of the five city commissioners, he wrote, whereas only three votes are necessary to amend the zoning code.
By way of acknowledging what staff and the board members indicated was a vast number of negative emails that they had received on that topic, City Manager Marlon Brown recommended changes at the outset of the May 16 hearing. Planning Director Cover then explained them to the board and the meeting attendees.
The height of any structure in the Downtown Bayfront zoning district could not exceed the current limit of 18 stories, Cover said. However, for Downtown Core — which allows a maximum of 10 stories — a developer willing to provide a sufficient number of attainable housing units could build up to five additional stories. The existing residential density in that zoning district is 50 units per acre.
In the Urban Edge district, which has a height restriction of five stories, a structure could get one or two extra stories with an attainable housing plan, Cover added.
“We’re looking at somewhere in the 15% to 25% range” for the proportion of attainable units, he said, if a project is to receive approval to exceed the height.
The Urban Neighborhood district allows for a maximum of three stories.
Nonetheless, Brody argued that the height issue is “a poison pill, honestly.” Not enough community outreach has taken place, he and Ahearn-Koch agreed, for those provisions to remain in the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment at this time.
“The messaging is going to get hijacked,” Brody said, “and it has the potential to kill this whole proposal. … The public has to be totally, fully aware of what’s happening.”
Commissioner Liz Alpert disagreed, emphasizing that the board that day just was considering sending the proposed amendment to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), which, under state law, must review any local government comprehensive plan amendment. Alpert also stressed that the final vote on the amendment would come months later, after another public hearing. Staff indicated that that would be expected in late summer or this fall.
Moreover, referencing the earlier staff comments, Alpert noted that the details regarding the height restrictions would be included in zoning text amendments that the commissioners also would have to approve, following hearings.
“It’s up to us to do the right thing for the overall community,” Alpert told her colleagues, “and then educate the community. … Let’s have the courage to put [the height proposals] in and send [the amendment] to the state and deal with it when it gets back.”
She made the very first motion on May 16, which called for transmitting the entire staff proposal to the DEO, including the modified height provisions.
That motion failed, with only Mayor Erik Arroyo supporting it.
As Arroyo explained, four “Yes” votes would be needed to approve transmitting the amendment to the DEO.
Then Brody made a motion to sever the height portion of the amendment from the staff recommendation, and Arroyo seconded it.
When Alpert asked whether he was suggesting that a separate commission hearing be conducted on the height issue, Brody responded, “I think staff can probably go out and talk about [the height issue] …” He had discussed with Planning staff the potential of a town hall on the topic, Brody added.
The vote on that motion was 4-1, with Ahearn-Koch again in the minority.
After Brody’s motion succeeded, Alpert made another motion that called for transmitting to the state a separate amendment with the modified height restrictions that Cover had presented. Arroyo seconded it. However, Ahearn-Koch stressed that “zero discussion in our community [has been held] on that recommendation,” as it was just made public that morning.
One of the speakers that afternoon, attorney Dan Lobeck, pointed out that, 14 months ago, in discussing with the commissioners concepts to spur attainable housing construction, Cover “promised you a year of intense community engagement, and he’s provided none of it. … This has been an under-Cover operation from Day 1, and it’s wrong.”
The last time the City Commission “had this kind of massive Comp Plan change,” Ahearn-Koch also pointed out to her colleagues, was in 2008, following nearly three years of work, including multiple community meetings. That effort was necessary to comply with the state requirement for periodic updates of comprehensive plans.
The number of parcels impacted by the changes considered then, she continued, was 1,198. With this new amendment, Ahearn-Koch emphasized, the number would be close to 1,500.
However, David Smith, the city’s long-range planning manager, noted that that earlier initiative encompassed much more than the amendment before the commission on May 16.
Alpert’s motion on transmitting the proposed new height standards also failed, 2-3, with Vice Mayor Kyle Battie, Brody and Ahearn-Koch voting “No.”
Then Brody made the final motion, which directed staff to hold the community workshop on the height changes. Ahearn-Koch seconded it, and it passed 5-0.
That vote took place at 6:14 p.m., by The Sarasota News Leader’s clock. The hearing had begun shortly before 11:30 a.m. The board did allow an hour-long break for lunch, and Arroyo called for several 5-minute breaks as the hearing continued through the afternoon.
Underscoring the need for attainable housing
Using a PowerPoint presentation, Smith of long-range planning talked about the fact that, in 2021, the city saw a 44.3% increase in rental rates. The average rent in 2018 was $1,000, he said. In 2020, that rose to $1,250 and then, in 2021, it jumped to more than $2,000 a month.
He also presented the commissioners a chart showing typical jobs in the community, household sizes from one to four persons, and Area Median Income (AMI), a figure that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issues each year for every Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) in the United States. Sarasota is in an MSA with North Port and Bradenton.
The 2022 AMI for the area including Sarasota is $90,400. That climbed almost 17% from the 2021 AMI of $77,200.
Smith’s chart showed that the median rent in Sarasota ranges from $2,524 for a studio apartment to $3,200 for a three-bedroom apartment.
Referencing the chart, he noted an example of a Sarasota police officer making $62,000 a year and a hotel desk clerk making $28,000 a year; with one or two children, they would not be able to afford a two- or three-bedroom apartment.
To be considered “attainable” housing, a unit would have to be available to households making no more than 120% of AMI, according to the proposed amendment to the Comprehensive Plan.
Planning Director Cover pointed out that the city has 870 dwelling units that would be considered attainable. “That will be jumping up to 1,047,” he added, with the completion of two projects underway, one of which is the Lofts on Lemon complex that the Sarasota Housing Authority is constructing.
Staff had been asked, he continued, how many more attainable units could be built in the city if all the facets of the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment were adopted. “Probably double, maybe even triple [the 1,047],” he said.
“We talk with developers. We talk with architects; we talk with engineers; we talk with land-use attorneys,” Cover continued. ‘What we are proposing here,” he added, “they absolutely are interested in this.” Their primary concern, he stressed, is the length of time it takes to go through the approval process for a new development, and the fact that the City Commission ultimately could vote against their proposals. Staff believes that if a developer could get city approval within six months, instead of a year to two years, he said, then that would spur the construction of attainable dwelling units.
Attorney William Merrill III of the Sarasota firm Icard Merrill emphasized during his public comments that afternoon that reducing the number of steps a developer would have to pursue to win approval for a project would be cost-efficient.
The goal is to ensure that hospital workers, teachers, retail shop employees and hospitality industry workers, for examples can live in the city, Cover told the commissioners. “These are our neighbors, our friends, our family members, and those that proudly serve us all in so many capacities.”
Of the 52 speakers who addressed the board on May 16, many pointed to the need for attainable housing.
Colleen McGue, a member of the Kimley-Horn consulting firm staff who previously served as the city’s chief transportation planner, called the city staff proposal “really visionary.”
She provided two scenarios for the commissioners to consider. In the first, she talked of a new analyst who joined Kimley-Horn last month. “The best housing option she could find was a doublewide in Bradenton,” McGue said.
A second analyst who recently came on-board full-time grew up in Sarasota, McGue continued. “She moved back in with her parents.”
McGue further noted that the housing issue affects traffic. “More housing close to where people work reduces trips.”
Joe Hembree, chair of the Economic Development Corp. (EDC) of Sarasota County, told the commissioners that EDC leaders hear every day about employers’ difficulties in attracting workers because of the housing issue. “It’s above and beyond every other concern that they have.”
Other speakers criticized the proposal for higher buildings in downtown Sarasota. Planning Director Cover did reference emails that staff and the commissioners had received, expressing the fear that Sarasota would begin to look like Chicago. Cover made it clear that that would not happen.
Nonetheless, Jim Lampl, president of the Rosemary District Association, told the commissioners, “This city is special” — a point he reiterated as he continued his comments.
“It’s not just the beaches; it’s not just the warm weather” or the performing arts organizations, Lampl pointed out. “It’s the scale. Many of us moved here because [the city is] compact. We have neighborhoods that are defended against major development.”
“This Comp Plan amendment would make us more like the other cities,” such as St. Petersburg, Tampa and Miami, Lampl said. “I don’t want to be like the other cities.”
The Rosemary District Association, the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association and the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations of Sarasota (CCNA) all want to see the city’s height restrictions remain in place, Lampl added.
Developers are not having a hard time building in the city, he stressed. “We are being loved to death,” as evidenced by the recording-breaking number of city building permits being issued. “The whole country’s coming to the city.”
“This place has been loved to death,” attorney Merrill concurred. “That means you have a limited supply and a huge demand [for affordable housing],” Merrill pointed out. “An increased height of some nature … is necessary to accommodate additional density and price increases,” Merrill added.
Max Brandow, who was representing the Realtor Association of Sarasota and Manatee, emphasized, “We are in the midst of a housing crisis.” A six-month supply of dwelling units is what economists consider a healthy situation, he said. Yet, Sarasota has a two-week supply. “We are woefully behind the 8-ball in housing needs in this city.”
Former Commissioner and Mayor Willie Shaw said he believes the Comprehensive Plan amendment should be the focus of much more community review. “This is my Sarasota, and I don’t want to see it ruined, like the East Coast [of Florida].”
Yet, former County Commissioner Christine Robinson talked of how she always kept with her, during board meetings, a folder with documents to which she frequently referred, such as the county Charter. She had a figure on the front of that folder, which she modified as needed, she added: It was the latest county of the county’s population.
That, she said, was to remind herself that she should not cast votes “for the people that showed up and yelled the loudest.” Instead, Robinson added, her goal was to vote “for all the residents.”