Sarasota group pushing series of changes to development approvals

  By Zach Murdock  Staff Writer Sarasota Herald Tribune

The group called STOP! has outlined several changes to city rules that its leaders believe would better inject public input into the development approval process.

The Vue Sarasota Bay condominium complex is an enormous target, both literally and figuratively, for the growing Sarasota group pushing for changes to the city’s development approval process.

The group, which calls itself STOP!, is an ad hoc collection of neighborhood leaders advocating for stricter controls and checks on city development, especially downtown.

STOP! has put the Vue in its sights to make its points and again ribbed the big condo and hotel development at a packed town hall meeting of more than 150 supporters at the Selby Library on Tuesday night.

The group’s second meeting marked a turning point as its leaders try to convert several recent political wins – including new traction within City Hall for some of its ideas and one leader’s appointment to the Planning Board – into widespread public support for its specific proposals.

“To protect your voice, you’re really going to have to raise your voice,” said Kate Lowman, one of the founders of STOP! and a Laurel Park leader.

Although STOP! also will advocate for requirements for bigger pedestrian rights of way and improvements to local traffic studies, the emphasis Monday was on the city’s administrative approval process downtown.

Administrative approval is a term for the city review of development downtown that leads city planners to approve a project without formal public hearings if it meets existing downtown zoning codes. The process was included after push back from development groups following the 2003 approval of the New Urbanist-Andres Duany plan for creating a higher density and pedestrian-oriented downtown.

STOP! leaders argue that those processes and codes have allowed new buildings up to the lot lines, creating narrow pedestrian zones and unflattering urban design, and have effectively cut public input that would have addressed many of the issues residents complain about now, Lowman and group co-founder Jen Ahearn-Koch said.

The often maligned Vue project has become the focus of residents’ ire about downtown development.

“When you’re stuck in traffic angry, you don’t have the privilege to blame the city commissioners,” Ahearn-Koch said. “Your elected officials never even had the opportunity to approve, deny or even discuss (the Vue), and neither did you.”

“Pure administrative approval alienates its citizens and fosters suspicion and doubt,” she continued.

The city’s new form-based zoning code, expected to be considered and adopted later this year, could change that process, Lowman said. But the new code has contemplated adding only some public hearings to downtown building and even limiting public hearings outside of downtown, she said.

“We’re always going to have some administrative approval and that just makes sense” for smaller, less intense projects, she said. “Form-based code presents both a threat and an opportunity. It is a vehicle for making the changes that we want to make. It’s also a vehicle for making the problem worse. It all depends on what is finally adopted.”

Leaders urged attendees to write city commissioners of their insistence that public hearings remain a critical part of the development approval process. That push and group leaders’ growing momentum to affect city policies are making STOP! a new political force to be reckoned with as the City Commission election cycle heats up.

Late last year, group co-founder and former city commissioner Eileen Normile was appointed to a position on the city’s Planning Board. In that position she can directly interject STOP! ideas into project reviews, especially her emphasis on improving the efficacy of city traffic studies.

Ahearn-Koch also has filed as one of eight candidates for the two at-large City Commission seats up for election this spring. She is a former six-year member of the Planning Board and leads the Tahiti Park neighborhood group.

About a dozen condo and neighborhood associations have endorsed the group, and a cadre of current city commissioners and officials attend the STOP! meetings and frequently discuss its influence.

“Today a lot of people feel they lost twice,” Lowman said. “They lost the opportunity to participate in these (Duany plans), and they don’t like a lot of the buildings that are going up now. We want to have the conversation today that we should have had 14 years ago.”