St. Armands Circle residents asked the Sarasota City Commission to consider extending a ban on special events on the Circle at a meeting Monday, but the city attorney cautioned commissioners about the legality of — and the motive behind — lengthening that moratorium.
Mayor Shannon Snyder said he wanted to consider extending a moratorium on events at St. Armands Circle Park through the end of the month after speaking with people on the Circle. Snyder said the extra traffic created by special events was a public safety concern. He questioned whether the benefits of an event in a busy area — specifically, the St. Armands Fine Art Festival, scheduled for April 26 and 27 — outweighed the negatives.
“If there’s a fire out there, an ambulance needs to get out to Longboat Key. There could be a problem,” Snyder said.
The moratorium was originally approved for Feb. 1 through April 20 of this year. The City Commission passed it after landowners, merchants and residents expressed concerns regarding nearby special events. Circle stakeholders said that the events cause added traffic congestion and compete with local businesses during the busiest part of the year.
A group of St. Armands residents attended Monday’s commission meeting, with St. Armands Residents Association Vice President Ed Rosenblum speaking in favor of the moratorium on their behalf.
Rosenblum said the city, in approving the original events ban, incorrectly identified the peak tourist season; the Florida Department of Transportation lists April 28 as the end of the peak traffic season.
Rosenblum agreed with Snyder regarding the potential safety issues.
“Your primary duty as a governing body is the public health, safety, welfare and morals, not commercial interests,” Rosenblum said. “On any scale where you place commercial interests against that primary duty, there’s no contest.”
Rosenblum pointed to a recent parking study conducted on St. Armands Circle during a similar art festival in November, during which 100% of the Circle’s parking spaces were occupied.
City Attorney Robert Fournier strongly opposed the idea of extending the moratorium this year. He said he believed people on the Circle were specifically targeting next month’s art festival because they asked the city to deny the permit for the event last summer. When the festival was ultimately approved, members of the St. Armands Landowners, Merchants and Residents group complained the city was forcing an unwanted event on them.
In the past, Rosenblum said the Landowners, Merchants and Residents group was allowed to approve or deny events held at St. Armands Circle Park. Fournier said permit applications were sent to the LMR for feedback, but nothing in the city’s code grants any power to the LMR — and doing so would potentially be an illegal delegation of governmental power to a private entity.
Fournier said he recommended the event be allowed because at least two similar art festivals have been held each of the past three years at the park, and traffic congestion is not listed as a reason to deny a special-events permit. He told commissioners there was reason to believe this request was specifically designed to prevent the St. Armands Fine Art Festival from taking place.
“I just think it’s a very bad idea, from a legal standpoint, for you to entertain extending this moratorium period where this one event is the specific target,” Fournier said.
Although multiple commissioners expressed some interest in extending the moratorium, the commission took no action at Monday’s meeting. Snyder maintained his position that an emergency near St. Armands Circle would cause problems for the city.
“I wasn’t targeting one person,” Snyder said. “I’m worried about whether someone out there having a serious accident — which we know for a fact occurs — and how much personal liability are we going to take for that one?”
Fournier said the city would not have any liability in the situation Snyder described. For next year, the city’s special-events ordinance could be revised to add new restrictions. Fournier acknowledged that the residents had valid concerns, but it was too late to do anything this year.
“We’ve all been out there during peak tourist season,” Fournier said. “The wishes of the LMR were very much taken into account when the moratorium was done.”
The attorney’s office is currently rewriting the city’s ordinance regarding special events. Fournier said he hoped to have something to the commission by May.
Rosenblum said he was disappointed in the city attorney’s comments and said the residents were not specifically targeting any one event.
“The issue tonight is not about our special-events privileges,” Rosenblum said. “The issue tonight has to do with public health, safety and welfare.”
Contact David Conway at [email protected]