With a 4-1 vote Dec. 13, the Sarasota County Commission authorized the Planning Commission to hold a public hearing on zoning amendments that once again would impose maximum height and minimum setback restrictions for construction on the county’s barrier islands.
Commissioner Christine Robinson cast the single dissenting vote.
The action followed commissioners’ reconsideration of a vote Oct. 12 that they thought applied just to a critical area plan for Nokomis. They learned afterward that it had wiped out construction restrictions throughout the county that had been implemented in 2003.
After news of that vote spread, some Key residents voiced alarm that the island one day could resemble Fort Lauderdale, with skyscrapers along the beaches.
The amendments the board considered Dec. 13 included prohibiting the adoption of a critical area plan that could establish heights above 85 feet on the barrier islands; eliminating increased heights in the residential multi-family zoning districts along the Intracoastal Waterway, as increased height would apply only in the case of mixed-use development; and restricting the maximum height allowed by the adoption of a critical area plan to 85 feet.
A critical area plan is a tool used to determine a strategy for how a piece of property should be developed.
Chairwoman Nora Patterson initially took exception to the third provision, regarding the maximum height of 85 feet in a CAP.
“That is not exactly what I asked for,” Patterson told Planning Director Tom Polk and Assistant Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson.
What she had requested, Patterson said, was County Commission authority to allow a CAP to exceed the 85-foot restriction if a supermajority of the board approved such a request.
Polk responded that the Dec. 13 discussion was just the first attempt to remedy the Oct. 12 vote.
However, Thompson pointed out that the zoning code would not allow a special exception for construction above 85 feet in a residential area, but it would in other districts.
“What we approved (Oct. 12) had no height restriction whatsoever,” Patterson said, “so this is a backtrack.”
When Commissioner Joe Barbetta mentioned that the zoning changes would allow special exceptions up to 110 feet, Patterson said, “I never mentioned the 110.” Her only intention, she said, was to make it possible for the County Commission to approve construction above 85 feet, with four of the five commissioners casting “yes” votes on a specific request.
“I feel pretty strongly it should be that way,” Patterson added of the supermajority suggestion.
Commercial zoning districts, which allow some residential use, Patterson said, do allow unrestricted heights. “It has been in the code for years,” she added, “and it hasn’t really caused a great catastrophe to occur.”
When Commissioner Jon Thaxton suggested at one point that the proposed language prohibiting the adoption of a CAP for a barrier island was analogous to “overkill,” Thompson replied that she and the other staff members were trying to follow the direction the board members gave them Oct. 25, regarding backtracking on the zoning amendments.
In response to another point Patterson raised, staff pointed out that the county’s Comprehensive Plan does not allow extra density on the barrier islands, so language to that effect was not necessary in the amendments.
Patterson repeated that her goal in seeking the amendments was to provide extra protection for the barrier islands. She said she favored “whatever language it takes to make it work.”
Robinson said she would not concur with the need for a supermajority vote to allow construction over 85 feet in a CAP.
In response to public comments made prior to the discussion, Barbetta asked Thompson whether the new language eliminated the possibility of construction higher than 35 feet in a Commercial Marine zoning district, including no provision for a special exception.
“That’s what we’re going to have to address,” Thompson said. As written, she added, the zoning code would allow taller buildings through the adoption of a CAP in such a district.
Patterson said no building should be taller than 35 feet in a commercial marine zone, but Barbetta told her, “I wouldn’t want to prohibit redeveloping other areas” zoned CM, when such construction might be appropriate.
Thaxton pointed out that the county has only four or five commercial marine zones and any proposal for construction would necessitate a public hearing.
With the commission vote Dec. 13 authorizing the Planning Commission to hold another public hearing on the issues, Thaxton said county residents would have an opportunity to weigh in on any points they felt appropriate.