Board members raise questions about ad offering the property for sale while Special Exception application process was underway
With residents of the surrounding area asserting the lack of need for a new church on Fruitville Road — and several of them questioning the veracity of statements made by the leader of the congregation at the heart of the debate — the Sarasota County Commission ended up denying a petition for a Special Exception necessary for the project to proceed.
Commissioner Christian Ziegler was in the minority on the 3-1 vote, with Chair Michael Moran absent because of a family emergency.
The 8,500-square-foot Sarasota Family Worship Center was proposed on a 5.27-acre site located at 13900 Fruitville Road. The plan called for the new facility to stand on the south side of Fruitville Road, about 600 feet east of the intersection with Oakford Road.
The rural land is zoned Open Use Estate 1, which allows for one residential unit for every 5 acres, county Planner Keaton Osborn told the commissioners during a Sept. 23 public hearing.
All the eight speakers during the hearing —most of whom live in the Old Miakka community — opposed the project. Several pointed out that the petition failed to meet the criteria provided in Article 5, Section 124-43 of the county’s Unified Development Code, which combines all the land-development and zoning regulations. That section says, “The Board of County Commissioners, in the exercise of its sound discretion, may determine that special exceptions should be limited and controlled as to number, area, location, duration, or relation to the neighborhood, in order to safeguard and promote the public health, safety, welfare, morals, order, comfort, convenience, appearance, prosperity, or the general welfare.”
Becky Ayech, president of the Miakka Community Club, was the first speaker to point out, “This is a land-use decision; this is not a religious decision.”
In making the motion later to deny the petition, Commissioner Charles Hines concurred with Ayech: “It’s a land-use question here.”
Ayech further noted that 18 churches are in the general area planned for the Sarasota Family Worship Center.
“Normally, neighborhoods want churches,” Hines added when he made his motion. “This community is pushing away from commercial activity,” he continued. Instead of a church, Hines said, a house should be built on the property, citing that as “one use versus potential growth over time,” as more people could end up in the congregation than the current number the pastor, Mitchell Shelby, had given the board.
For sale, or not?
During her remarks, Ayech also called into question the actual intent of the church leaders, saying she had sent to the commissioners a clipping from a newspaper that advertised the church’s property for sale. “I personally talked to Mr. Shelby,” Ayech continued. “He said it was for sale.”
Yet, Shelby had testified earlier that he had received phone calls from people interested in purchasing the property, mistakenly thinking it was on the market because of a “For Sale” sign on a neighboring parcel.
Ayech maintained that Shelby had told her that he and other church leaders had learned that it would take about two years to go through all the county procedures to get the new facility built, but they needed a new church earlier than that. “So I can only go by what is published in the paper and my personal conversation with the gentleman,” Ayech said.
When Commissioner Nancy Detert questioned Shelby about that, he responded, “That is a lie. That never happened.”
Shelby then mentioned having received “a lot of strange phone calls.” Those callers, he continued, “basically … scared our people. They told us we weren’t going to be approved.”
He added, “I wouldn’t sell to [some of the interested parties] because I’m responsible as a Christian man. You just don’t do wrong to your neighbors.”
Detert told him she was not asking about a “For Sale” sign. “Are you considering selling the property?” she asked again.
When Shelby tried to interrupt her before she concluded a follow-up remark, Vice Chair Alan Maio told Shelby that when a commissioner is asking a question, “Stand down.”
“‘Cause I’d forget my question,” Detert interjected with a chuckle.
Then she asked Shelby, “You have no building on [the site] yet?”
“No,” he replied.
She told him she did not want to find herself in the position of granting the Special Exception necessary for the church project in an OUE zoning district “and then basically you’re a flipper … who puts something different on [the land].”
Shelby explained that he had received one phone call from a Realtor representing a doctor on Siesta Key. The Realtor asked whether Shelby would sell the property to the doctor. “And I told [the Realtor] the property wasn’t for sale.”
Later, when Commissioner Ziegler pursued a similar line of questioning, Shelby said that if he were to sell the land, he would not sell it to somebody “who would do wrong to the neighbors.”
“I’m here by faith that everything’s going to work out all right,” Shelby added.
Following the speakers’ comments, Ziegler once more raised the sale issue, referencing the ad in the newspaper.
Shelby finally acknowledged that after he started receiving the calls from people interested in purchasing the property, members of the congregation began talking about whether the church should sell the land. “So there was a small ad put in the Classifieds,” he said, and it ran for a few days. “That was panic,” he added of the members’ pushing that action. Shelby said he decided that the move was wrong.
“You got the calls because of the ad?” Ziegler asked.
“I’m not sure that all those calls were because of the ad,” Shelby replied. The one from the Realtor representing the Siesta Key doctor was prompted by the ad, he acknowledged.
“We don’t want to sell the property,” he insisted to Ziegler. “But we have been gong on for almost two years with this property,” with no construction yet underway.
Shelby further insisted, “We’re not in the business of flipping land.”
Ziegler pointed out that Shelby earlier had maintained that no steps had been taken to market the site for the new church. “From my side,” he told Shelby, “let’s just be honest. … Is it for sale?”
In responding, Shelby indicated that most of the calls he received from potential purchasers of the site were what he characterized as “private calls,” as shown on his phone. Callers told him the church would not get board approval for its plans. “I got several of those calls,” he continued, and he shared the information with the church board. Then members of the congregation learned about the calls. “We’d already put in almost $30,000 into the property,” Shelby said. “I understand the panic of our people,” he added, “but I put a stop to it.”
Sarasota County Property Appraiser Office records show that the church bought the land from Florida Power & Light Co. in November 2018 for $152,000. This year, the market value of the property is $157,100, the Property Appraiser’s Office record for it shows.
Other concerns of area residents
During the hearing, in discussing the general area around the site proposed for the church, Ayech of the Miakka Community Club talked about the differences between what she referred to as “urban mentality and rural reality.”
Old Miakka, she continued, starts at Cow Pen Slough. Noting testimony Shelby had offered about winning approval of the church plans from the three immediate neighbors of the site, she noted how widespread residents’ homes are in the eastern part of the county.
“From an urban standpoint,” Ayech said, she could understand Shelby’s discussing his plans with only the three sets of closest homeowners. However, she added, “From a rural reality,” that was insufficient. Shelby did not contact the Miakka Community Club or any of the leaders of Old Miakka, Ayech told the commissioners.
Another Miakka resident, Jane Grandbouche, concurred with Ayech about lack of interest in a new church in the community.
Yet, Shelby told the commissioners that Old Miakka “is several miles down the road. … They’re not anywhere near our property.”
He referenced a “little nest of churches just east of the interstate on Fruitville Road.” However, he continued, the site planned for his project is miles from other churches. Moreover, he said, “The majority of our congregation is right along Fruitville Road. … A third of us live east of I-75. … It’s just a perfect location for us.”
Ayech and other speakers also talked about traffic problems with which they have been contending on Fruitville Road, as more residential developments have been constructed east of Interstate 75.
Although Shelby testified that an average of 65 persons attend services at his church on Sundays, Ayech pointed out that county staff estimated 70 vehicles would be added into the traffic mix, if the church were to be built.
The past four weeks, Shelby maintained, he had counted the number of vehicles in the parking lot for the Sunday service at the church’s current location on Gocio Road in Sarasota. The figures he cited were 20, 23, 25 and 27. Moreover, he said, “We don’t all come at the same time.” For example, he pointed out, some persons arrive early for rehearsal of the musical selections for the service.
Nevertheless, Grandbouche joined Ayech in voicing concerns about extra vehicle trips generated by churchgoers. “The traffic is tremendous on Fruitville Road,” Grandbouche said.
Yet another concern was raised by attorney Susan Schoettle-Gumm, who also lives in the eastern part of the county. She said that Shelby’s statements on various points have changed from presentation to presentation; she characterized that as “widely varying information.”
During the Neighborhood Workshop county staff conducted on the church proposal, she added, Shelby told the attendees that most of his worshippers “were from midtown” and that “No one was out this way.” Therefore, she added, she was surprised to hear the statement he had made to the commission that morning about where the members live.
Following the public hearing, Commissioner Ziegler made a motion to approve the Special Exception, to start discussion of the church proposal, he said.
The motion died for lack of a second.
Then Commissioner Hines made his motion to deny the petition, and Commissioner Detert seconded it.
“I can’t believe that I’m advocating to vote against a church; it’s killing me,” Hines said.
Yet, applying the section of the County Code to the proposal, as Ayech had discussed, made it clear to him that the Special Exception was not warranted, he said.
Detert concurred with the difficulty of the decision. However, she pointed out, “I try to not vote for exceptions to our planning rules because people spent a lot of time to design those rules.”
During her questioning of Shelby, she had asked whether he was aware that the property was zoned for residential purposes. While he acknowledged that it was, Shelby also said that he was told a church was an allowable use on the site, by Special Exception.
Detert said a church would not compatible with other uses in the immediate area around it.
Commissioner Ziegler talked of his concerns regarding the “lack of clarity” on the sale issue. Nonetheless, he said he could not support Hines’ motion.