Woman’s Exchange attorney says litigation against the city still seems likely

In the meantime, the city attorney is speeding up an effort to amend the city’s Zoning Code with hope that the nonprofit will stay in downtown Sarasota

The Woman's Exchange is located on South Orange Avenue in downtown Sarasota. Image from Google Maps
The Woman’s Exchange is located on South Orange Avenue in downtown Sarasota. Image from Google Maps

City of Sarasota staff is speeding up an effort to amend the city’s Zoning Code with the hope of keeping the Woman’s Exchange in downtown Sarasota, thanks to direction City Attorney Robert Fournier won from the City Commission during its regular meeting on July 5.

Nonetheless, Robert Lincoln, the attorney for the Woman’s Exchange, told The Sarasota News Leader this week, “At this point, we are likely to pursue a legal challenge” against the City Commission over its denial of a building permit for the nonprofit to expand onto Rawls Avenue.

During their June 20 regular meeting, the city commissioners voted 3-2 to memorialize their April 11 decision to deny the permit city staff issued to the nonprofit in November 2015 to allow it to proceed with construction of an addition — including a loading zone — on Rawls Avenue. Mayor Willie Shaw, Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie and Commissioner Susan Chapman voted in favor of the resolution regarding the April vote, while Commissioners Suzanne Atwell and Liz Alpert opposed it. The June votes mirrored those of April 11.

That timing the formal recording of the resolution give the Woman’s Exchange almost until the end of July, Lincoln said, to file a complaint in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court, seeking ruling that the City Commission violated city development rules in denying the permit.

On June 20, Lincoln warned the board that its April actions “are not legally defensible … and they will be overturned, I trust, by a court.”

Robert Lincoln. Image from his law firm's website
Robert Lincoln. Image from his law firm’s website

The Laurel Park Neighborhood Association (LPNA) had appealed the issuance of the city permit, taking the matter first to the city Planning Board — which unanimously concurred with the validity of the staff action — and then to the City Commission. Residents who live near the Woman’s Exchange and owners of nearby property protested that the use of the loading zone dramatically would intensify traffic on Rawls and lead to serious accidents.

During the City Commission’s June 20 discussion, Fournier talked of potential changes to the Zoning Code that might allow the nonprofit Woman’s Exchange to continue operating on its property at the intersection of Oak Street and South Orange Avenue in downtown Sarasota. At that time, he won unanimous approval of the board to work with staff on drafting Zoning Code changes.

On July 5, Fournier reported to the City Commission that he had met with Director Tim Litchet and other staff members of the city’s Neighborhood and Development Services Department, who agreed “probably there was nothing to be gained” by preparing a formal zoning text amendment application and then having staff prepare a report on it. With the City Commission’s consensus, Fournier continued, he wanted to take the matter directly to the Planning Board in August, in an effort to expedite the process.

When Shaw asked for any comments from his colleagues, no one spoke. Therefore, Shaw said, Fournier had board consensus to proceed.

His hope, Fournier pointed out —as he had in June — was “to facilitate [the Woman’s Exchange’s] possible expansion on site …”

Because the city Zoning Code forbids use of a “primary” street for loading zone purposes, Fournier has explained, and both Oak Street and Orange Avenue are designated “primary,” the Woman’s Exchange had no choice but to plan for a loading zone on Rawls Avenue as it sought a city permit for its proposed 3,524-square-foot expansion.

Woman’s Exchange representatives have argued that their consignment business has boomed to the point that it needs more room. They planned on the Rawls Avenue loading zone especially as a means of making the nonprofit’s furniture operations more efficient.

Proceeds from the Woman’s Exchange’s consignment business are used to support arts and cultural organizations in Sarasota and Manatee counties and to provide scholarships to area students. In December, CEO Karen Koblenz told the News Leader that the nonprofit had donated more than $1.3 million to local arts organizations in the past five years.

The Woman's Exchange website offers details about its consignment process. Image from the website
The Woman’s Exchange website offers details about its consignment process. Image from the website

During a July 7 telephone interview with the News Leader, Lincoln said that if the city can put the Zoning Code changes into effect in a timely fashion, that might affect the decision of the Woman’s Exchange board of directors regarding whether to keep the operation in downtown Sarasota or whether to move. Still, Lincoln added, “It doesn’t look like those changes alone will be sufficient” to allow the nonprofit to function as it needs to on that property.

Because the property is zoned Downtown Core, Woman’s Exchange representatives warned in April, if the nonprofit leaves, a developer could construct a condominium as tall as 10 stories in its place.

Downtown Core is a district that “is a very dense mixed-use urban area,” according to the City Code. “Non-residential uses are varied,” with ground-floor retail “allowed everywhere,” the code says.

During the June 20 City Commission meeting, Laurel Park Neighborhood Association representative Kate Lowman — who provided much of the April testimony opposing the Rawls

Avenue site plan — said the association would like to have the nonprofit remain at its location.