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Sarasota Thursday, Mar. 10, 2011 6 years ago

Developers decry buffer zones

by: Robin Roy City Editor

Sarasota County and its various municipalities have been trying to come up with ways to encourage economic development.

That was the theory behind a proposal to create buffer zones around city neighborhoods, according to Mike Taylor, a city planning and development general manager.

“We were trying to balance two communities — the development community, which we know is important to the vitality of the community — and the neighborhood community,” he said.

But, he said the proposal has actually upset both groups.

Currently, city rules require public hearings for any proposed building more than 5,000 square feet that is outside of the downtown zones.

Taylor said the Planning Board asked the city to come up with an easier approval process, so, as a first step, his team proposed reviews based on location instead of size.

An example of why the planning board felt a new system was needed was the expansion of the city’s water-treatment facility on 12th Street. The addition was going to be more than 5,000 square feet, which automatically required a public hearing, even though it was in the middle of an industrial area.

Taylor’s team proposed that any project that falls within 250 feet of a city neighborhood would be subject to a public hearing. Everything else would be eligible for administrative review, which bypasses public hearings.

“We felt it was a good starting point for a conversation,” said Taylor.

Because developers can spend thousands of dollars in the public-hearing process, some in the real-estate community have begun to sarcastically refer to the buffer zones as “discouragement zones.”

That’s a play on Manatee County’s “encouragement zones,” which attempt to speed up the permitting and approval process for new development.

Land-use attorney Casey Colburn believes the new proposal was created without allowing real-estate interests to play a part.

“It was done in secret, and it was a shocker,” he said.

The problem for the business community is that on South Tamiami Trail, particularly south of Sarasota Memorial Hospital, all commercial properties are within the buffer zone.

Meanwhile, some neighborhood groups didn’t like the fact that they wouldn’t have input on projects outside of the buffer zones.

“It’s not about controlling growth,” said Kate Lowman, a member of the Laurel Park Neighborhood Association. “It’s about having a say in large projects right across the street.”

Lowman said through the public-hearing process, neighborhoods have been able to make several large-scale developments more consistent with the surrounding community.

Taylor stressed that the proposal is a first step and was aimed to get input from neighborhood and development groups.

“It’s not intended to discourage development or take away from neighborhoods,” he said. “We wanted to provide relief for a process that some thought was unnecessary but also protect neighborhoods with a buffer.”

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