With split vote, City Commission calls for draft of new ordinance dealing with large-scale events

Board members ask that regulations regarding use of parks, as well as provisions for marathons and other races be included in it

City Attorney Robert Fournier. File photo
City Attorney Robert Fournier. File photo

On a 3-2 vote, the Sarasota City Commission this week directed City Attorney Robert Fournier to prepare draft ordinances regarding special events in downtown Sarasota that would necessitate closing more than five blocks to two-way traffic. One version would prohibit such events, while an alternative would require City Commission approval of them, according to Commissioner Susan Chapman’s motion.

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie seconded the motion. Mayor Willie Shaw joined Chapman and Freeland Eddie in approving it, while Commissioners Suzanne Atwell and Liz Alpert opposed it.

“I just want to be careful that we don’t get into the prohibition business,” Atwell told her colleagues. “The ‘elephant in the room’ has been Thunder By the Bay,” she added, referring to the annual January event that has drawn tens of thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts to the city. Noting that it will be in Payne Park in 2017, Atwell said, “It could be phenomenal there.”

Alpert told her colleagues she could not support the motion because she feels the existing ordinance covering special events is sufficient.

Chapman responded, “I think that those events need to be managed better,” and the city needs an objective standard for doing so.

Freeland Eddie also called for the draft ordinances to address special events in parks, while Shaw cited complaints about marathons and other races that have had an impact on residents’ access to the Ringling Bridge and downtown condominium complexes.

The background

Referencing the memo he provided the board in advance of its Aug. 15 regular meeting, Fournier pointed out that in March, the City Commission declined to place any new limitations on special events held in downtown Sarasota. Subsequently, on May 16, the board voted unanimously to extend a moratorium on street closures for Main Street between Orange Avenue and Gulfstream Avenue through September 2017, with the exception of Thunder By the Bay, parades and the New Year’s Eve celebration.

The justification for that extension for the third year was the ongoing construction in and around downtown Sarasota. However, as Fournier noted on Aug. 15, “Moratoriums by nature are going to expire.”

Motorcycles line a section of Main Street during the 2014 Thunder By the Bay. File photo
Motorcycles line a section of Main Street during the 2014 Thunder By the Bay. File photo

In March, he continued, the focus shifted to how the City Commission would define a large-scale event for the purposes of any new ordinance. He wanted to find a standard “so that [the board members] didn’t have to pick and choose among events, which could result in legal issues, potentially.”

In his discussions with other staff members, Fournier explained, four ways of defining a large-scale event were considered: the duration; the number of streets or blocks that would be closed; the attendance level; and economic impact on the city.

An ordinance in place since 2008, he said, already makes it necessary for the City Commission to approve a right of way use permit for any event that would close streets for more than 72 hours.

In terms of economic impact, he continued, Thunder By the Bay and the New Year’s Eve festivities have significantly higher numbers. “I think, nevertheless, there’s some wiggle room in there,” he added, that can lead to results analogous to comparing apples to oranges.

With attendance, he pointed out, it becomes a matter of “best ‘guestimate,’” leading to even greater room for subjectivity.

A graphic provided to the City Commission earlier this year shows tentative plans for Thunder By the Bay in Payne Park. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
A graphic provided to the City Commission earlier this year shows tentative plans for Thunder By the Bay in Payne Park. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Therefore, he said, staff focused on the number of blocks that would be closed to two-way traffic. Staff advised him, Fournier continued, that most special events encompass four or fewer blocks. Beginning next year, he added, the Farmers Market will take up five blocks. Thunder By the Bay has necessitated the closing of as many as 12, he pointed out. As a result, he and staff agreed to propose that a standard of more than five blocks be the focus of a new ordinance, if the City Commission chose to have him draft such a document.

Fournier also stressed that directing him to prepare alternative ordinances should not be construed as a sign that the board will choose to put one of them into effect after public hearings have been held on them.

He added that he also planned to come back to the board with a separate proposal regarding how signatures should be counted for property owners in an area where a special event is being proposed that will entail street closures for a period shorter than 72 hours. As it stands, two-thirds of the affected property owners must support the closures for the city to allow an event on Main Street.

However, Dean Miller, representing the Rivo at Ringling Condominium Association in downtown Sarasota, offered public comments at the outset of the Aug. 15 meeting calling for a change in the manner in which those signatures are counted. It is not fair, Miller said, that the complex’s 106 owners get just one vote under the existing ordinance.

Fournier noted in his memo that because the organizers of Thunder By the Bay could not obtain the necessary number of signatures to hold their 2017 event on the eastern part of Main Street, they had opted to request the use of Payne Park.

Debating the issues

Commissioner Susan Chapman. File photo
Commissioner Susan Chapman. File photo

“I think this is a reasonable way to deal with events that have grown very large in size,” Chapman said after Fournier completed his introductory remarks.

Freeland Eddie then raised her concerns that Fournier had not mentioned consideration of holding events in public spaces or parks. “For that to be lost in the analysis, I think, is a disservice.”

He had anticipated that point might be brought up, Fournier replied, but the genesis of the action he was proposing was the closure of downtown streets.

Nonetheless, Thunder By the Bay’s decision to opt for Payne Park, he added, “puts parks on the radar screen, too.” If the board decided to direct him to work on a new ordinance, he said, he would discuss with staff whether to deal with events in parks separately or in the draft of the new regulation. “[Park use] really hasn’t been discussed in this context before.”

Freeland Eddie also suggested that any provision for parks necessitate that the organizer obtain a majority of signatures of those in the affected area, as such an event could affect the public’s access to the space.

Furthermore, the City Code does not address ingress and egress issues, noise and the use of public spaces in addressing special events, she added. Yet, “those are three big areas that have repeatedly come up.”

Referring to Thunder By the Bay in Payne Park, Atwell pointed out that no one can predict well it will work after.

Fournier concurred. “They may love it at Payne Park or they may want to go back downtown.”

“The good thing is that we are doing this now … so we know how to respond to them for 2018,” Debbie Perez, the city’s special events manager, told the board, referring to the organizers of Thunder By the Bay.

The status quo

Commissioner Liz Alpert. File photo
Commissioner Liz Alpert. File photo

During the discussion, Perez pointed out that crafting the existing special events ordinance “was a huge undertaking. … We knew we would miss things.”

The section of the City Code specifying requirements for approving or denying a special event permit last was updated in November 2014, the document shows.

When Commissioner Alpert also said she did not believe the board should take the stance of prohibiting events, Chapman responded, “I think we should be in the prohibition business when [an event] takes up 12 city blocks,” adding that the board members have an obligation to consider year-round businesses and taxpayers downtown.

Thunder By the Bay is not the only concern, Chapman noted. When the annual boat show was held at Bayfront Park this year, she said, “bully-type guys” illegally prevented members of the public from using that facility’s parking lot, and the organizers closed the adjacent sidewalk. “They had no authority to do that.”

However, Alpert pointed out that thousands of people who do not live in downtown Sarasota but who attend special events there also are city taxpayers. “I think they have to be taken into consideration, too.”

The reason the events are big is because they draw so many people, she told her colleagues.

When Shaw then raised his concern about the impact of marathons and other races on property owners and residents, City Manager Tom Barwin explained that Sarasota Police Department staff conducts a debriefing after every such event. Those sessions include the organizers and all directors of city departments involved with the runs, Barwin added. The goal is to make sure any problems that have arisen will be prevented from recurring, if the organizers wish to get a permit for the event the following year.

Because of technology used to identify the runners, Barwin added, “we have good data” that enables staff to deal with such events more effectively. He promised to begin providing summaries of the debriefings to Shaw.

When Shaw said he did not want races excluded from the drafting of the ordinance, Fournier replied that he could ask the Police Department for information to assist with that.