Bill Noonan: Change Sarasota’s approach to downtown development

By Bill Noonan, Guest Columnist Sarasota Herald Tribune : OPINION

There has been some confusion about STOP! and its goals. I am a member of the steering committee, along with eight other concerned citizens. We have a 39-member advisory board and have been endorsed by 15 Sarasota neighborhood associations since we formed eight months ago.

We are not a political organization and are distinctly not anti-growth. We are for quality progress.

We started STOP! with the intention of preserving and protecting the quality of life for the residents of the city – in the face of a billion-dollar building boom and a flawed zoning code. We have learned a great deal about how our city works.

It is important to keep in mind that a combination of factors, over a number of years, has brought us to this point. There is no simple or easy solution at hand. We have, however, been able to highlight a few critical problem areas and formulate some proposals for improvement.

We believe in the need for walkable sidewalks. Sarasota bills itself as a pedestrian-friendly city. The reality is mixed, as residents can attest. Our proposal is for the city to adopt new standards in building codes, requiring setbacks where necessary, to ensure wide, safe and appealing walkways.

We believe that residents must regain the seat at the table which they lost in 2003. Until then, the development-approval process for downtown projects included public input and a vote by elected officials. That process was replaced by reviews and approvals by city staff in what is commonly ┬ácalled “administrative approval.” All of the twenty-something large new projects underway downtown were approved without any public hearings or votes by elected commissioners. No notices were published to publicize that the projects were under consideration or approved.

We believe residents should be notified of the large, intense projects being submitted by developers in the downtown core. Citizens are surprised and often angered as large projects arise. To that end, we propose ending administrative approval downtown and reverting to the previous process -including public input and votes by elected officials – for large or intense projects.

For the protection of residents of the rest of Sarasota, we propose that the administrative approval process not be extended outward from the current downtown core. This is important for the edges of our very distinct and appealing neighborhoods around the city. No one wants a high-volume retail entity on the edge of their peaceful residential area without having been a part of that decision-making process.

Many citizens do not realize that the Planning Department headcount was dramatically reduced during the economic downturn after 2007. That small planning team has been working diligently but without a dedicated planning director. The city has started a process to recruit and hire a candidate for that position. The community should follow that effort closely, as it is a key element in rebuilding that team. We propose that a permanent, qualified director be hired as soon as possible and that key vacancies on the planning team be filled by highly qualified and certified planners shortly thereafter.

The increasing traffic congestion is a very complex problem, with vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists all vying for safe transit through a limited network of available road surfaces that will be further strained by dramatically increasing traffic generated by the occupants of the 3,207 new residential units approved for the downtown core. Our extensive research has led to a few proposals that might make things a bit more manageable.

We have proposed that a current, actual count of vehicles transiting the downtown corridor network be undertaken quickly to establish a baseline. The last partial count was done in 1992. We have proposed that the Florida Department of Transportation revise its calculation of the Peak

Season Conversion Factor to accurately reflect the impact of seasonal traffic on our roads.

We have also proposed an analysis of road capacity and traffic flows based on our current conditions, plus the likely cumulative impact of the new buildings, through 2022 – when most of the current projects will be completed and their buildings inhabited.

We have proposed that the City Commission establish a Transportation Advisory Board composed of a wide spectrum of qualified parties to study all proposals and recommend viable solutions.

We have proposed that the city review its calculations of various fees imposed on developers to ensure adequate incoming revenue flows.

To reiterate, we are a small group of concerned, rational citizens working to inform the community so that together we can protect the asset that keeps us here – a very special quality of life.

– Bill Noonan is a Sarasota resident. STOP! will hold a candidate forum Feb. 27 at 6 p.m. at the Selby Library.