My View: Sarasota County got Benderson right

 
 

Sarasota County commissioners made the right choice by eliminating the requirement of Benderson Development to build affordable housing first at its huge University Town Center development.

All of the commissioners realized the obvious that managed to escape the entire Planning Commission — people who do not have jobs do not need affordable housing. They need jobs. This development provides that.

Further on the path of the obvious, the real estate market crash has pretty well fixed the affordable housing problem. There are inexpensive, affordable houses all over Sarasota and Manatee counties.

But the background of this issue demonstrates a bigger picture of flaws both in system and in thinking.
In 2007, as Benderson was working on development of the retail center anchored by the Super Target on University near Interstate 75, it needed approvals from Sarasota County to develop the rest of its property between that center and I-75.

In the final agreement, Benderson agreed to build 110 affordable housing units for every 350,000 square feet of commercial space it built. This was at the end of the boom years, and Benderson had to bend to the will of politicians. Clearly the company was not interested in building affordable housing near its luxury mall, but too bad. That was needed to get approval.

This dynamic must be understood. Benderson is a private, taxpaying company. It owns its land, and it wanted to build a mall that would provide thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in taxes. But Sarasota County, like most all governments today, saw an opportunity in the developer’s anxiousness and relatively deep pockets to strong-arm the company into providing affordable housing that the county would pay zero toward but for which politicians would take credit.

By 2010, with the collapse of the housing market and the nation wobbling out of a recession, Benderson and the county reached agreement for the developer to build a hotel and 100,000 square feet of commercial space, temporarily avoiding the issue of affordable housing. That deal required Benderson to begin construction within 90 days of the county finishing the $14.5 million extension of North Cattlemen Road paralleling the interstate. The road project is expected to be complete by January 2013, and Benderson must start building within 90 days.

But the construction of that commercial space triggers the requirement for Benderson to build 110 affordable homes.

The company asked that the affordable housing provision be eliminated, and the Sarasota County Planning Commission denied the request 7-0. The Planning Commission’s rationale was that someday, many years out, the real estate market could get expensive again, and there could be a need for affordable housing.

Stunning. With the real estate market collapse, there is really no affordable housing issue left. In fact, given the ongoing foreclosure crisis, prices have kept falling to the point that there is an absolute glut of cheap housing in Sarasota and Manatee. Empty, cheap, affordable housing — if you have a job.

The only thing the Planning Commission and the County Commission should be considering in such cases is whether the project meets zoning, or whether zoning changes are appropriate to the surrounding development. Requiring affordable housing to be built, or cash payments in lieu of it, is nothing short of a shakedown racket. It is simply blackmail for a property owner to do what he wants to with his property — which in this case everyone agrees would be beneficial.

Affordable housing should never have been arm-twisted into the plan, anyway.

It needs to be mentioned, however, that there is one point on which Benderson opens itself to government leverage — the Nathan Benderson Park rowing regatta complex. It’s a great idea. Just not for government money.

But Benderson persuaded the county to contribute up to $20.6 million to build the park, roads and buildings. Sen. Mike Bennett persuaded the Legislature to throw in another $5 million for the park, which Gov. Rick Scott rightly vetoed.

It’s the game everyone plays. Local governments are far too quick to give money away to favored enterprises, and, naturally, most private enterprises are just as quick to take the money. But you take the money, and you take the strings. And strings can entangle.

It’s an unholy alliance in which a few businesses and politicians win and taxpayers and most businesses lose.

Sarasota County was right to eliminate the affordable-housing provision and would be better to stop blackmailing developers into providing the favorite flavor of service that day. And the county should stop throwing public money at private enterprises.

Rod Thomson is editorial pages editor of the Observers and can be reached at rthomson@yourobserver.com.

 

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