A new civic group called STOP! Will hold its first town hall

Sarasota Herald Tribune Monday September 19,2016
By KATE LOWMAN, Guest Columnist

On Thursday, a new civic group called STOP! Will holds its first town hall meeting titled “Sarasota, The Vue, and You.”

We are a community-based organization of Sarasota citizens concerned about recent developments, such as The Vue, which threaten to degrade the character of Sarasota. We are not anti-growth. Rather, we are working for quality progress.

STOP! is committed to changing the city zoning code to:

• Reintroduce public hearings.
• Widen sidewalks.
• Require realistic traffic studies.

Unfortunately, the narrow sidewalks and concrete canyon effects we see with The Vue are encouraged or required by a city code adopted in 2003, one that was supposed to be “new urbanism, walkable, and pedestrian-friendly” — or so it was hoped.

That 2003 code change also mandated that developments in appropriately zoned areas be approved without any public input or hearings before the Planning Board and City Commission. Instead, downtown developments like The Vue are approved by city staff, in consultation with the developer, through a process known as Administrative Approval.

When the city adopted the Andres Duany-inspired downtown plan in 2003, the Argus Foundation and a group of developers threatened to sue the city. Following negotiations, a settlement was reached wherein the city agreed to a number of changes in the new code, including the addition of Administrative Approval. Most citizens had no idea that their ability to participate in decisions about the direction of new development was given away.

The assumption was that a well-designed code will yield certainty for both developers and the public, so time-consuming public hearings should be eliminated. The reality, however, is that no zoning code is perfect, and not all issues are clear-cut. City staffers do not just apply the code; they also interpret and make exceptions to the code.

With Administrative Approval, all this decision-making goes on behind the scenes; there is no public process for citizens’ concerns to be heard and addressed, and there are no opportunities to take advantage of residents’ real-life knowledge of the issues a new project may present.

There is no backup plan to deal with quality-of-life concerns. By the time citizens know what has been decided, it’s likely too late for any action other than a court case. Even if one appeals the staff decision within the allowed 10-day window, it is expensive and complicated.

Finally, without public hearings, there is no organic process for the city to analyze where the code needs to be improved.

The simple fact is that no code is perfect. No code can be applied blindly, especially when most new projects in the city are infill and require sensitive handling to fit in with neighboring buildings. It is not enough to simply say the code is pedestrian-friendly. The actual code and its application need to be pedestrian-friendly.

We have now had a 13-year experiment with the downtown code and with Administrative Approval. Numerous buildings have gone up and we see the results: narrow sidewalks, large buildings and congested streets.

How is this experiment working for Sarasota? One look at The Vue will tell you the experiment has failed.

Meanwhile, the city conducts traffic studies, which do not capture the actual traffic impact of new projects. And a citywide expansion of Administrative Approval is being proposed to increase it outside the downtown and into all the neighborhoods.

It is time to STOP! The experiment, takes a deep breath, and gets our ship of state headed in a better direction. STOP! Proposes code changes, which will help us, do just that.

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