A forum held Tuesday, March 2, in the cultural media room of the Longboat Key Center for the Arts, allowed leaders of community groups and the approximately 60 people in attendance to ask questions of the commission candidates vying for three commission seats.
The three races in the Tuesday, March 16 municipal election are between at-large incumbent Commissioner Hal Lenobel and Phill Younger; District 1 incumbent Mayor Lee Rothenberg and Lynn Larson; and District 3 incumbent Commissioner Peter O’Connor and David Brenner.
Lenobel declined to participate in the forum.
Below are the candidates’ answers to the questions provided by several Key organizations and members of the audience.
President, Islandside Property Owners Coalition (IPOC)
The town’s zoning code is going to be under review. Do the candidates support increasing both the commercial and density zoning Key-wide?
Larson: I think we have enough commercial property. As to changes in density, I would leave that to our planning board to come back to the commission with recommendations.
Rothenberg: The balance we are considering here is residential and commercial. I think we have had a very good balance in the past. Longboat is a retirement community. I am not in favor of overdevelopment. I’m concerned always about increases in traffic.
O’Connor: I am in favor of intelligent development. But I’m against unbridled development. The potential changes would have to be taken extremely seriously. I would not be in favor of increases of commercial development and I wouldn’t be in favor in large increases in density, which require referenda anyway.
Brenner: The question isn’t so much do you pick on the Longboat Key Club, it’s what are you going to do to help Longboat Key? There are some areas that are residential and should be residential. The balance needs to be struck to get what’s right, instead of what’s uniform.
Younger: There may be areas where retrenchment of zoning is necessary and we could look at mixed use. Unless we review it, amenities we all enjoy will not be sustained.
President, Longbeach Village Association
The voters years ago voted not to have mixed-use on this Key. What are your views on mixed-use and whether or not you think it will work?
Younger: I feel mixed-use needs to be revisited. Whitney Beach will never survive as a stand-alone shopping center without mixed-use. A little bit of reorganization may be necessary in that area.
Brenner: What may be good at Whitney Beach may be inappropriate for Centre Shops or Avenue of the Flowers. I would like to see the planning effort go forward to see where it makes sense to do it, if at all.
O’Connor: My experience elsewhere tells me mixed-use is something I’m not pleased with. I don’t see it as a great success. Towns to the east of us have rather unfinished mixed use. I would be very jaundiced toward mixed-use.
Rothenberg: I’m personally in favor of mixed-use. My opinion is things are sufficiently different today and it would be approved if it went to referenda today.
Larson: I agree that mixed-use could be a solution for some of the areas on the Key. This is a different day and I believe we need to take a look at how to help the property owners and the Key.
President, Longboat Key Garden Club
Our garden club is a non-profit that’s dedicated to our community. When we have an event, we have discovered we have to spend $45 for a permit for a non-profit event. That money could go for extra plants or another grant. What are your thoughts on charging this fee to non-profit organizations and the issues we have with placing temporary signs on the Key?
Younger: It’s a no-brainer to me. The $45 being collected wasn’t always collected. I would prefer no fee be collected by the town because it benefits the entire town. It should be waived. We should revisit the sign code.
Brenner: I have been accused by my opposition as wanting to turn over codes so businesses and commercial can go haywire. My last meeting overseeing the planning board began a review of the sign code. You have to go back and look at codes and see if they make sense.
O’Connor: I understand $45 is critical to non-profits. Obviously, we have to look at those on a case-by-case basis. I do think our sign code has wide support here.
Rothenberg: I encourage you to bring this issue forward to the planning board. I am also a firm believer in the sign code, but the codes are regularly tweaked when necessary.
Larson: Some of the fees I believe we have on the island don’t make sense.
Founder, Positive Change for LBK
The largest business on the island is desiring to renovate its facilities and bring an estimated 500 new jobs and $5 million to $6 million in permit fees to the town alone. Are you pro business and how do you plan on bringing business to the island to get us out of the red and into the black?
Larson: I would like to see more business at the businesses we actually have. I think we really need to utilize the business we have on the Key to help them stay alive.
Rothenberg: Longboat, like every town, is suffering from a nationwide economic problem. My approach is to make this the best community on the West Coast of Florida. We have to make Longboat that place to get people to come to our businesses
O’Connor: Utilizing the existing businesses is our first step. If all those predictions we just heard were true, clearly the solution is to encourage the Longboat Key Club.
Brenner: The complexity comes from the fact that people aren’t going to come to this Key just because we are a nice bunch of guys. We need to put in place a program that makes it inviting for people to come.
Younger: The amenities we all enjoy and love depend on a mix of tourists and residents. We have lost a lot of visitors and hotel units. I am for reasonable economic development and we need to look toward restoring what we can. But we need the proper mix.
Executive director, Longboat Key Center for the Arts
What ideas do you have to make or promote the Key as a year-round destination rather than a four-month seasonal destination?
Larson: I think we have wonderful hospitals and facilities. We have great schools and universities. I can’t think of a better place for people to move to.
Rothenberg: Let’s make Longboat so attractive in every way that people want to come here. But we are fighting the weather and many don’t want to come down here in beastly hot weather.
O’Connor: The key is for us who live here year-round to promote living here year-round.
Brenner: There is no doubt in my mind we could have kept the 200 folks who came to a recent tennis center tournament on the Key, whether it’s in January or July.
Younger: We do need to work much more closely with all of the chambers of commerce around here. We need more marketing to promote this island as a family destination.
President, Longboat Key Public Interest Committee (PIC)
The Vision Plan has been largely ignored despite public input given to it. What objectives would you choose to work with others to implement it?
Younger: It’s on the shelf right now. I would work proactively to bring visitors here and re-establish lost amenities we have had.
Brenner: There are 13 goals in the Vision Plan. The 13th goal, for example, is getting more citizens involved in the governance of this Key. We need to utilize this plan.
O’Connor: I really think your question flows from a false premise. In the deep dark past when the Vision Plan moved forward, I think you will find that the guy who saved the Vision Plan was me.
Rothenberg: The Vision Plan is not dead. It has 82 separate items, half of which don’t apply because they deal with state or federal issues beyond our control. The planning director is buried with work and doesn’t have time to work on it right now.
Larson: The Vision Plan has been catching dust for several years now. The plan asks for, and we need, a mix of year-round residents and visitors on the island.
President, Longboat Key, Lido Key, St. Armands Key Chamber of Commerce
Florida Hometown Democracy, which got a referendum requirement placed on this year’s November ballot that, if approved, would give voters veto power through election on changes to communities’ master plan for growth. Proponents say Amendment 4 will protect property values. Opponents say endless lawsuits, higher taxes and widespread economic turmoil will result. What are your thoughts?
Larson: I am definitely in favor of voters making their choices. I enjoy seeing people vote.
Rothenberg: Personally, I am in favor of the amendment because I feel in many, many cases, developers have overpowered or overwritten local authorities.
O’Connor: The little I have heard and read leads me to believe this is a good amendment to the constitution.
Brenner: I think Amendment 4 could be a disaster on this Key. You elect officials to help run the town. Get rid of them if they aren’t doing a good job.
Younger: I’m not too sure we need it here.
Representative, Sarasota Bay Watch
There has been discussion of another bridge being built in the past. Which should come first, protection of our bay waters or relieving traffic flow?
Younger: We certainly need to maintain our natural environment. As far as the traffic situation, we are served by 11 miles of a state highway. On the north end, we are faced with the world’s smallest traffic circle. On the south end, the Ken Thompson traffic light causes issues. We are caught between a rock and a hard place.
Brenner: There’s no way in the world another bridge will be built. If there’s going to be a solution, it has to come through a regional approach to deal with traffic.
O’Connor: A third bridge has been studied and was not chosen by a regional group. We are not designed for peak traffic, and, as a result, we don’t always have great traffic on the island.
Rothenberg: The good news is there is no way in hell that idea would ever happen (another bridge). I’m leery of anything that increases traffic on Longboat Key.
Larson: My concern is a new bridge would bring more people to the island. I would tell you we send a lot of money to the two counties and the state, and with that money comes some clout. We need to take advantage of that clout and see if we can get some help.
Executive director, Longboat Key Center for the Arts
As a non-profit entity, I hear you all talk about density and growth. Sarasota County and the surrounding areas are talking about developing a brand here called The Cultural Coast of Florida. Do you support that type of vision and how do you envision Longboat Key could help build that brand?
Larson: One of the reasons we chose to move to the Key was because of the cultural areas that were around this island. I think a theater would be great for the Key, but the question is how could we support it on a full-time basis?
Rothenberg: The area is full of arts that people use and enjoy. I don’t have any specific ideas on what should be done. I personally will support any sensible ideas to help move the Key in that direction.
O’Connor: Of course I would support that. As to contributions, this facility (the art center) is the first and most meaningful contribution I can think of. A theater in concert with some sort of a recreation facility would be a benefit to this island.
Brenner: When I was commerce director for the city of Philadelphia, I insisted we create an arts council. We found a way to get the business community to march in step with the arts community. They found it was in their best interest to make sure the arts thrived. We could do that here.
Younger: I would like to note the Sarasota area is a cultural mecca for a community its size. I would suggest we start on a small scale and better use the facilities we have and move forward from there.
President, Longboat Key Public Interest Committee (PIC)
Longboat Key faces a huge unfunded pension liability. What would you recommend to correct this issue?
Younger: This is one of the primary reasons why I’m running. We have one of the 10 worst funded pension plans in the state. Our pension plans are too small. I think we need to revamp pension programs and move toward defined contributions.
Brenner: It’s an unbelievably complex subject. Two of those pension funds are the result of negotiations with two unions. There’s no question we need some sort of a hybrid plan. I’m not sure it should go to the state fund, though. We have $25 million in unfunded liability and we should start issuing debt to pay down the unfunded liabilities.
O’Connor: Clearly, it’s an actuarial problem and it’s a moving target. If you wait long enough, we will attain our 8% assumption rate. My solution is to move toward the state retirement system while honoring commitments to existing employees.
Rothenberg: You treat this just like a mortgage. Our situation is far more complex because there’s a number of factors involved, one of which is a return on our investment. Right now, we are in negotiations with police and fire unions. Part of the problem with the so-called unfunded liability is related to benefits, which are given when things were going great.
Larson: I was the sole vote on the police pension board that voted against the 8% assumption the actuary recommended. I felt it should be lower because we never achieve 8% on an ongoing basis. We must come up with a different plan. The state has a bill in the Senate that would allow defined contributions for police and fire, while still receiving the taxes forwarded to us from the state.
Former Longboat Key mayor
If a proposal for a cell-phone tower comes before you, would you vote to do it or not to do it?
Larson: Cell-phone service is what we need. I have heard there would be one placed on Coquina Beach. That’s a great idea. I would have to see where it was placed.
Rothenberg: I don’t support building cel- phone towers or any other kind of towers on the north end of the island.
Brenner: The bottom line must be reasonable cellular service and public safety.
Younger: I would prefer not to have cell towers. I’m concerned about someone getting in an accident and not being able to reach 911. I don’t think we have to say there’s going to be a cell tower anytime soon. And technology is always advancing.
This town spends an enormous amount of money on consultants, which triggered the mixed-use question years ago that the voters disagreed with. Why are we discussing it again?
Younger: Consultants make recommendations based on conditions that are happening now. There may be support for this now.
Brenner: You have to use the planning elements we have. Is there a place for mixed use? I don’t know any more than the next guy.
O’Connor: I share your view on the fact that it was rejected by voters. Until we solve every other planning element problem, we shouldn’t use consultant dollars for this endeavor.
Rothenberg: There is nothing specific being discussed or planned right now on this subject.
Larson: I agree too much money is spent on consultants. Property owners need to come forward and ask for this if they want it to be considered.
President, Islandside Property Owners Coalition (IPOC)
In the public-hearing process, little, if any, discussion has occurred about the impact on the neighbors the Islandside development would cause. What are your thoughts on this?
Larson: I believe their needs to be some type of balance between what the club is asking for and what residents would like.
Rothenberg: No comment.
O’Connor: Perhaps we were remiss not to discuss the impacts of the immediate neighbors, and I would like to see more of that when the hearing resumes.
Brenner: I couldn’t believe that a matter that was so detailed would even rise to being heard by the commission. It would seem to me changes or issues (in regards to impacts on neighbors) could be dealt with at the staff level.
Younger: I would point out I was the only person who stepped forward and offered a proposal to address traffic issues for residents and the Key. What I proposed would have harmed none and benefited all.
President, Longbeach Village Association
If elected, would you be partners with the Village and the state to get rid of our stagnant waterway on the north and south side of Broadway to bring our neighborhood back to its original state?
Younger: We have a lot of problems on the north end. We need to take some proactive measures to address all of the north end.
Brenner: This fits into what I refer to is my desire to have more planning and carrying it out.
O’Connor: Clearly you are worried about it, so we should be worried about it.
Rothenberg: I don’t know enough of the details. If this is a strong enough problem, perhaps town staff can work on it.
Larson: It sounds to me it’s a town problem and not a Village problem.
President of the Longboat Key Garden Club
We really have nowhere to meet. Would you support a new recreation center?
Younger: Because the Key Club proposal uses its lynch pin, the hotel, I propose that to ensure the Key would benefit, the club provide $4 million toward a recreation center at Bayfront Park.
Brenner: A study was done for a new recreation center. We should
ask the members of the commission, where is it?
O’Connor: There’s going to be a severe strain on bonding capabilities in this town. It should be larger than $4 million (the amount of money donated by the Key Club).
Rothenberg: My suggestion is not to rely about getting money from the town. If you want a new rec center, go out and work for it.
Larson: It would be nice to have something for the rest of us who don’t play tennis. Maybe we can get grants.
President of the Longboat Key, Lido Key, St. Armands Key Chamber of Commerce
I believe in representative democracy. I believe in all of you and the offices you seek. I wonder sometimes how any of you can face the truly difficult issues when on one hand this island is in need of financial assistance and on the other hand, one of the ways you achieve that kind of financial support is through development. When faced with people who oppose development, how will you lead?
Larson: What I will do is promise I will sit and listen to all the testimony and make the best judgment I can on any issue.
Rothenberg: There has to be a balance. You can’t have too much or too little development. Right now we are in a terrible economic situation. We are all receptive, but the duty is to weigh the pros and cons.
O’Connor: Most people here come from somewhere else. The implication we would make a decision on a development project based on a large degree because it will bring in revenue is not something we consider because we don’t control the revenue coming in. We don’t make our decisions based on the amount of money we get.
Brenner: I’m an activist. I don’t believe you can sit back and think all the right things are going to happen. The Publix shopping center is a golden opportunity for this town. We should be at the highest level. We need to let Publix know we love them and want them here and want them to succeed. I’m a big believer in planning. You have to be active.
Younger: We have to be proactive. I’m for reasonable economic growth. But you have to have a balance. We have limited commercial areas. But we also need to reinvigorate and redevelop
Founder of Positive Change for LBK
The hotel business, the primary driver of this town, is in serious trouble. What is your plan to turn it around?
Larson: The town approved 250 more tourism units. The Hilton is taking part in that. We need to work with some others to try and sell Longboat and those extra units.
Rothenberg: I believe Longboat is in a transition period to bigger and better things. Something will happen with the Colony. The Hilton has already said they want some available units.
O’Connor: I heard testimony (at the Islandside hearing) to that effect and, frankly, I wasn’t very convinced by it. I hope everyone understands the function of municipal government.
Brenner: Nobody is going to come here in any sort of number until we create an image on Longboat Key.
Younger: Nobody is stepping up and saying they want to build a hotel right now. We do need some tourism units and a balance because it’s a residential community.
Contact Kurt Schultheis at firstname.lastname@example.org.