It is no secret that relations between the Longboat Key Town Commission and the Planning and Zoning Board have been strained for many years.
Depending on with whom you talk, the strained relations are a result of either one or a combination of the following: personal chemistry, perceived philosophical differences and tactical errors.
The chemical equation
In dealing with relationship issues, the personal chemistry among the players is always part of the equation.
Going back to the launch of the visioning process, commissioners and planning board members clashed over how to manage the process and whether to conduct a citizens survey. But the incident that sparked the tension occurred in December 2007, when planning board member David Brenner made a remark after the commission declined to endorse the two referenda questions on voluntary rebuild and the tourism pool of 250 units.
Said Brenner: “We are looking for some leadership here.”
Some commissioners later told Brenner that some of their colleagues understood the commission’s civility code to mean commissioners couldn’t be criticized. Clearly, Brenner inflicted a wound.
Even today, nearly a year-and-half later, commissioners haven’t forgotten or forgiven.
The tension became apparent earlier this month, when Mayor Lee Rothenberg questioned whether Brenner could work as an unbiased planning board member while also serving as the chairman of the Longboat Key, Lido Key, St. Armands Key Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Development Committee.
The situation was exacerbated further when Commissioner Gene Jaleski suggested at the April 17 Town Commission workshop that the town needed a special citizens committee to study the sign code, because the planning board didn’t effectively involve the public in its deliberations.
Planning Board Vice Chairman B.J. Webb was so annoyed by the statement that she felt compelled to go to the podium to express her dismay that the commission sounded like it didn’t trust the planning board to deal with the sign code properly.
All of this creates a situation in which some commissioners feel some members of the planning board have not shown the Town Commission proper respect, and planning board members feel the commissioners undervalue them and all their work.
The ‘development’ issue
Perceived philosophical differences are also a factor. The majority of our commissioners believes the planning board is too pro-business and pro-development. This is a result of the planning board’s work on the voluntary rebuild and the pool of 250 tourism-units charter amendments.
During presentations to the voters in a series of public meetings, planning board presenters repeatedly emphasized the importance of tourism to the Key’s economy. Not because they were especially pro-tourism, but because the Key’s prevailing demographic pattern of fewer and fewer full-time residents has threatened the survival of many of the commercial services on which we rely. Only one out of three homeowners is currently homesteaded versus nearly half of homeowners 15 years ago.
Tourism was seen as the tool to help maintain enough off-season commercial activity to sustain the on-Key lifestyle we have enjoyed.
For planning board members, these ordinances were about re-development of our aging condo-and-hotel infrastructure — not development of some new, high-rise hotel or shopping center. It was about retention of what we have, not more development.
However, the emphasis on tourism in the public dialogue, the chamber’s economic support of the referenda effort and Brenner’s serving on the chamber’s Economic Development Council all combined to give commissioners the perception that the planning board is too close to the chamber and, thus, too pro-development.
Why should you care?
This is not just political corridor talk. A schism between two important parts of the town government is serious. It affects how the town operates and impacts citizens in their daily lives. For example, suppose the Town Commission decided to limit the planning board’s review of the sign code to just political signs. Ask all the people trying to sell their houses how that would affect them.
Even people not selling their homes are affected; when homes don’t sell, it keeps all our property values down.
Better communication between the two governmental bodies is the key to improving the situation. Mayor Rothenberg says restoring a better relationship with the planning and zoning board is one of his primary goals. He can begin the process by meeting with Brenner and explaining his concerns.
To dispel the perception that the planning board is too influenced by the chamber, Brenner should resign his position on the Economic Development Council. He has the ethical and legal right to be there, but some commissioners have received complaints from residents that it is a conflict of interest. Eliminating that notion will reduce the pro-development tag hampering the planning board.
Lastly, and most important, the Town Commission should re-appoint Brenner to the planning board at the May 4 Town Commission meeting. He understands the situation, recognizes the commission’s concerns and knows how the planning board can best serve the town. By resigning his position with the chamber, he also would demonstrate that he is listening to the commission.
Not re-appointing Brenner after all he has done for the town will send the wrong message to the planning board and the community. Planning board members will take it as an insult to all of them. This only would widen the gap between the two bodies. And it would show the public that the Town Commission has no tolerance for criticism and is willing to use its power just to make a point.
Heal the divide; move forward.
Sandy Gilbert is a former member of the Longboat Key Planning and Zoning Board and a Longboat Key resident.