Sarasota City Commission candidates split on downtown development approvals

By Zach Murdock Sarasota Herald Tribune

Four candidates say they want to limit administrative development
approvals, which do not require public hearings, and four said they can
support them.

SARASOTA – The eight candidates vying to join the Sarasota City Commission met Thursday on the same stage for the first time and split down the middle on whether they support the administrative approval of certain downtown developments.

The hotly debated process, which leads city planners to approve a downtown project without formal public hearings if it meets existing zoning codes, has become a focal point in the March election as a group of neighborhood leaders calling themselves STOP! pushes the city to limit
administrative approvals.

It was the most divisive question the candidates faced before hundreds of attendees at the Sarasota Tiger Bay Club forum less than six weeks before the election for the commission’s two at-large seats.

Incumbent Susan Chapman and STOP! leader Jennifer Ahearn-Koch advocated most strongly for

limiting administrative approvals because they contend it cuts out public input from neighbors and potentially concerned residents. Also a former Planning Commission member, Ahearn-Koch has presented the STOP! case against administrative approvals at two well-attended town hall meetings in recent months.

“When we adopted the downtown master plan, it was assumed there was so much detail in that plan that discretion would be out of it, but there’s still lots of discretion,” Chapman said. “We are giving policy-making decisions on what our community should look like to city staff. Those policymaking decisions, we as a citizens, as elected officials, have no say so over.”

Fellow candidates Fredd Atkins, who was a longtime city commissioner, and Mikael Sandstrom, a young St. Armand’s businessman, agreed that the administrative process is not public enough.

“You all remember when you were so in love with Andra’s Duany?” Atkins said. “Everything he said was gold until it turned into reality. I had just got elected in 2003 and they begged me, ‘Fredd, just shut up, this is the perfect plan.’

“I said the buck stops with us, we should have some say,” he said. “They said, ‘Well, the attorneys are going to sue our hats off,’ and now our butt is dragging and we still don’t have a hat. The administration is being driven by the developers and they don’t care because the administration doesn’t even have to listen to the commission.”

But the other candidates sharply disagreed, instead supporting that approval process as a key to allowing the city to grow. To remove it would only obstruct development and potentially cripple a staple of the local economy.

“If you start yanking and pulling at our economy, if you start talking about the government controlling free enterprise, then we’re on a very slippery slope,” local businessman Martin Hyde said.

Even if the city did limit administrative approval, any projects going to the Planning Board or City

Commission would still be based on the existing code, said candidates Patrick Gannon, a Planning Board member, and Hagen Brody, a young attorney. If the public has problems with buildings like the Vue Sarasota Bay condominium complex, they need to consider how to make those changes in the planning codes, they said.

Longtime commission critic Matt Sperling summed up his thinking with an analogy about an airplane pilot asking the passengers for help instead of his co-pilots and air traffic controllers.

“The idea that the captain has to go through the cabin and get approval of the flight plan is absurd,” he said.

The candidates will vie March 14 for the commission’s two at-large seats, which effectively represent the entire city instead of particular districts. If no candidate wins a majority of the votes cast in the nonpartisan March race, a runoff election among the three candidates with the most votes will be May 9.

Other questions at the forum revolved around traffic, planning and homelessness, but time constraints kept the candidates from answering those issues in depth.

But moderator Morgan Bentley did surprise the candidates with a final question: Because the race is for two seats, for whom will the candidates cast their second vote?

Atkins and Sperling paired up, each saying they will cast their second vote for the other. They pitched themselves as a pair of lifelong residents who share similar values about Sarasota’s identity.

Chapman and Ahearn-Koch, who share similar views about stricter development controls, both said they would support the other.

Gannon said he will support Brody. But Brody hesitated to answer, saying he would reserve his decision until another candidate articulates “a clear vision for Sarasota.”

Hyde has clearly targeted Chapman during his campaign and took the chance to take another swing.

“Susan Cha,” he said before pausing and grinning, sending laughter throughout the audience. “No, no, no, anybody but Susan Chapman.”

He shrugged and said instead he would support Sandstrom, who gleefully said he would support Hyde in turn. The two fist bumped and the crowd laughed again