Longboat Key residents, you’re going to love your new Publix …
… As long as the town commissioners don’t mess it up.
Let’s start with the good news.
In spite of some of its members’ efforts to meddle, the Longboat Key Town Commission endorsed Monday night — in a drawn-out, four-hour and 50-minute meeting — virtually all of Publix Super Market’s proposed plans to redevelop Avenue of the Flowers.
The results, when completed, will be a stunning improvement to the most important place on Longboat Key, the site of two of the essential necessities on the Key — the supermarket and drug store.
Lakeland-based Publix Super Markets Inc. has committed to constructing a one-of-a-kind, upscale Publix that is intended to serve not only as the Key’s grocery but also as a town-center gathering place, where patrons can sit inside or out sipping coffee, eating pastries, salads, sandwiches or snacks, reading iPads, books and newspapers, all the while chatting with friends and family. And they will do this in the confines of a lushly landscaped setting and handsomely designed building — both conveying an ambience that fits with Longboat Key’s laid-back, island personality.
The project is expected to begin in April and, miraculously, be completed by December. What a great gift for the holidays.
Getting to that point will have been the usual Longboat ordeal. That’s the bad news.
It took two and a half years for Publix’s development team to mine its way through the town’s excruciating planning process. As a full house of spectators sat in Monday night’s Town Commission meeting at Town Hall, they all experienced flashbacks, cold sweats and post-traumatic-syndrome visions of the Longboat Key Club and Resort’s public hearings. Even some of the same residents who spoke for and against the club’s proposed redevelopment project stood at the podium again, taking their same positions as before. As Yogi Berra put it, déjà vu all over again.
The results, in the end, will be well worth it. Even Michael Leeds, Publix’s developer and project leader, credited the town’s planning staff for being “excellent” and for making his team “stretch” to create the best possible design within the confines of a difficult parcel.
Leeds should be credited for being as gracious and composed as he was Monday night. He endured what seemed to be interminable, nitpicky attempts by three commissioners to redesign what a multimillion-dollar team of architects, landscapers, civil and traffic engineers (hello, the experts) have spent two-and-a-half years doing. Put more trees here. Change the parking there. Raise the height of the berm over there. Spread out the landscaping. Don’t put the shrubs in a row. Change the flow of traffic. Make the delivery trucks go over here. Put in parallel parking to accommodate the landscapers’ trailers during lunch time.
Almost reaching the breaking point, Leeds tried to explain to the commissioners: “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” he said, noting all of the issues with which to contend — Publix’s own building and parking requirements, the town’s requirements, traffic flow, parking, deliveries, pedestrian safety, noise, neighbors, drainage, etc.
“If I had 30 acres,” Leeds said, “I could do a lot better job. I have 11 acres.” Shortly afterward, Leeds added the one comment that should have resonated with everyone: “Publix is making a gigantic investment.”
Indeed, that is what is so often forgotten.
We should be grateful that Publix — one of Longboat Key’s stellar corporate citizens for 30 years — is willing to commit and risk as much capital as it is to develop a project that goes well beyond the minimum. We shouldn’t forget: Publix doesn’t have to do any of this. In fact, given all of the nitpickiness and costs imposed by the town, Publix just as easily could have decided: That’s it! We’re shutting down. Here, ingrates, take the keys. We’re out of here!
To be sure, reaching the final product required a lot of conversations among Publix, its development team, the town government, neighbors and community activists. To an extent, that is the way it should be. But at the same time, the process to get to the end result on Longboat Key fuels again some common refrains about trying to develop anything on Longboat. One lifelong property owner refers to Longboat Key as “Never, Never Key.” Or, as anyone who has tried to build on Longboat knows, you may own your property and think you own your property, but it’s not really yours. Everybody has a say, which, of course, goes against the principles of property ownership rights.
On this point, late in the process Monday night, during public comments, resident Terry Gans almost brought many audience members to their feet. “I would have hoped (after the Key Club experience) commissioners would have learned designing from the dais is not a good thing. Stop it!” he said emphatically.
Here was yet another instance. Town Attorney David Persson also made note of it at the start of the Publix hearings Monday night. The development process on Longboat Key — with its byzantine development code — is horrendously dysfunctional. Persson urged again — as he has for the past two years: Longboat Key’s development code needs to be scrapped and rewritten. Bring an end to this process before it brings an end to Longboat Key.
Thank you, Michael Leeds and team and Publix Super Markets Inc. for persevering. You should know: In spite of the town codes, all of you are greatly appreciated on Longboat Key. Longboaters are looking forward to a new store where shopping, indeed, is a pleasure.
+ Legal smackdown?
When 12th Circuit Court Judge Charles Roberts issued his stinging, overwhelming ruling against the town of Longboat Key and Longboat Key Club and Resort’s redevelopment plan, one of the initial reactions racing through the Key’s wireless bandwidths was: How could the town and Key Club’s lawyers have been so far off to be dealt such a smackdown? How could Town Attorney David Persson and land-use lawyers for the Key Club, John Patterson and Brenda Patten, all with at least three decades each of land-use practice, not known better or not have advised their bosses better to avoid this result?
In his 19-page ruling, Judge Roberts said the development order adopted by the Town Commission departed “from the essential requirements of the law” in seven areas. Roberts quashed the entire development order and essentially directed the town and Key Club to start over.
If you read Roberts’ ruling, a crucial albeit faulty perspective emerges. Roberts takes the narrow view that if the town codes do not designate specific uses, then they are not permitted. “Nowhere in the zoning code are commercial offices, meeting rooms, spas or commercial recreational uses such as the golf clubhouse … made known to be permitted in the GPD (Gulf Planned Development),” he wrote.
And yet, the same code that Roberts read also says: “… nonresidential development in the GPD … may be permitted to occupy up to 15% of the total land area of the GPD.”
As Persson noted Monday night, the town code is so murky that it’s open to all kinds of interpretations. Is Judge Roberts’ interpretation so valid that he is more authoritative on the interpretation of the law than Persson, Patten and Patterson? Roberts, it’s worth knowing, was a criminal prosecutor for most of his career before becoming a judge in 2003.
Be that as it may, the issue now is what to do next. The town and Key Club say they will appeal Roberts’ ruling.
At the same time, it would make sense for the Town Commission to amend the specific glitches in the town code as quickly as possible.
There’s a saying: “The older the colder.” The more this drags on, the less enthusiasm the Key Club owners may have to keep pushing forward. Longboat Key’s future still hinges on a world-class Key Club.