Our view

 

Our view

 

Date: November 11, 2009
by: Observer Staff

 
 

On more than one occasion last week, we overheard spectators and participants in the Longboat Key Planning and Zoning Board hearings say they have never witnessed anything like it: Four days, soon to be six days, of hearings on the Longboat Key Club’s proposed $400 million redevelopment proposal.

Florida economist Hank Fishkind was amazed. He couldn’t believe the opposition was as organized and steadfast as it was. “This is the biggest commercial project in the state right now, and with Florida’s economy the way it is, most Florida cities would die to have this project,” Fishkind told us.

It may be close: The planning and zoning board is likely to have more hearings on the Key Club’s redevelopment plan than did Congress when it passed the $800 billion bailout plan last year.

And here’s the kicker: The planning board doesn’t even have the final say.

All of what we have witnessed is likely to be repeated in December and January when the proposal goes before the Longboat Key Town Commission.

No wonder it costs so much to saw a board and hammer a nail on Longboat Key. What more evidence is needed to get the message that Longboat Key’s zoning code needs to be ditched and created anew?

The zoning code is so vague and onerous that it’s abusive to every property owner on the Key. Some like to call it the Land-use Lawyers’ Full-Employment Act. Just ask Mike Furen, the Sarasota lawyer who has made a career and handsome living arguing on both sides of the fence the past 30 years how to interpret Longboat Key’s Zoning Code Sanskrit.

The fact lawyers on both sides offer such starkly different interpretations of the code illustrates the blurry, opaque contents of the law.

To be sure, there are many Longboaters who will argue the code has protected Longboat Key from becoming a honky-tonk mess. But the flip side of that argument is playing out today: Divided neighbors spending thousands and thousands of dollars on lawyers and a community that is now trying to undo the destructive ill-effects of over-reaching, overzealous property regulation over the past 25 years.

+ The town’s zoning abyss
Yes, over-reaching, overzealous property regulation.

Just ask Harry and Lynn Christensen, soon to be 30-year owners of Harry’s Continental Kitchens.

The Christensens have fallen into Longboat Key’s Wonderland Rabbit Hole, the black abyss of the town’s zoning code.

It all started with Heidi Micale, the town’s code enforcement officer, who began checking all of the outside-dining permits of the Key’s restaurants. Lo and behold, Micale discovered Harry’s restaurant and delicatessen did not have the proper permitting for its outside dining tables.

And, so began the Christensens’ odyssey down the hole.

Town planning officials gave the Christensens a choice: Shut down the outdoor dining immediately or pay a daily fine while continuing to operate the tables and applying for proper permitting.

Some choice. Take the ipecac or choke on the poison.

But when Lynn Christensen stepped into the Town Hall planning and zoning office to apply for the permits, she encountered the town’s regulatory maw. If Harry’s wanted to keep the same number of outside tables that it had at its restaurant, it would have to petition the town to remodel the restaurant, because the extra seating would require the installation of additional bathrooms. And, by the way, the code enforcement officials said, those eight parking slots in front of Harry’s delicatessen and office on St. Judes Drive, they’re illegal, too.

Town codes say cars cannot back out of a commercial operation into a street. The parking slots, the town says, must be converted to parallel-parking slots, a loss of four parking slots and a loss of convenience for customers.

That’s not all. When the Christensens submitted a survey of the property to apply for outdoor-dining permits, this triggered the town staff into pulling the 1992 site plan for Harry’s deli. Turns out the site plan shows the parking slots behind the deli are different from the way they’re being used. Again, instead of six slots perpendicular to Joan M. Durante Park, the town says there should be only four parellel-parking slots.

Talk to Lynn Christensen about what it will take to obtain the outdoor-dining permits, and she’ll take you down a confusing trail of whether her business will end up appearing before the town’s planning and zoning board and/or the Town Commission to seek an exception to the town code or a site-plan amendment. The rules are confusing, and the process for both is expensive. For one, an applicant is required to put down $3,000.

Lynn Christensen doesn’t have an issue with the town staff. She acknowledges that her business made a mistake not applying for permits to operate outdoor dining and that the town staff is doing its job enforcing the codes. Indeed, the last thing Lynn Christensen wants is to agitate the town staff and make the process worse.

But part of what’s maddening about Harry’s Continental Kitchens experience or the process through which the Key Club is being subjected is this: The effects of Longboat’s codes are lost on those in positions to change the system. Rarely, if ever, does it matter to the town’s planning board members or town commissioners what it costs businesses to comply with the town’s regulations — not just the cost of obtaining the permits, but also the cost of time devoted to the process and the cost of lost business.

The Christensens have postponed work to re-open the convenience store next to the restaurant while they hack through the permitting process for outdoor dining. And look at the platoon of lawyers, economists, architects and engineers the Key Club has engaged to plead its case. All those costs are passed on to consumers.

Consider this as well: These two businesses each have been paying taxes and generous, contributing corporate citizens for three decades on the Key. And yet, that seems to count for little. At every turn, there’s a code or an ordinance that exacts another price, more blood.

For more than 15 years, Harry’s has operated with parking slots in front of and behind its deli without harm to anyone. For more than five years, it has operated outdoor-dining at its deli and restaurant, harming no one. And throughout all of this time, town regulators have passed by and even eaten at the restaurant or deli with never a protest. Until now. Where were they 15 years ago?

Sadly, nothing will change. Rewriting the town’s outdated and punishing zoning code to match the town’s era of redevelopment is too daunting. It’s much easier to stick with the status quo. It doesn’t cost the planning board members or town commissioners — none of them Longboat business owners — a dime.

And it keeps the town staff employed.
 

H.R. 3962. This is America, land of the free?

H.R. 3962, otherwise known as Affordable Health Care for America Act, is worse than anything a freedom-loving American can imagine.

See for yourself. To read this 2,000-page monstrosity, take the time to go online to: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c111:H.R.3962:

Just read a few selections from the bill. You will not believe you are still living in America. In a letter released Nov. 6 by the non-partisan Joint Committee on Taxation, U.S. Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, reported “the failure to comply with the individual mandate to buy health insurance contained in the Pelosi health care bill could land people in jail.”

The letter from the Joint Committee on Taxation says that “Americans who do not maintain acceptable health insurance coverage and who choose not to pay the bill’s new individual mandate tax (generally 2.5% of income), are subject to numerous civil and criminal penalties, including criminal fines of up to $250,000 and imprisonment of up to five years.

“H.R. 3962 provides that an individual (or a husband and wife in the case of a joint return) who does not, at any time during the taxable year, maintain acceptable health insurance coverage for himself or herself and each of his or her qualifying children is subject to an additional tax.”

If you’re an employer, woe be to you. You will face a nightmare of more regulations, taxes and possible fines. Consider a few excerpts from the section on employers’ responsibility to provide health insurance, section 4980H:

(1) IN GENERAL- In the case of any employer who fails (during any period with respect to which the election under subsection (a) is in effect) to satisfy the health coverage participation requirements with respect to any employee to whom such election applies, there is hereby imposed on each such failure with respect to each such employee a tax of $100 for each day in the period beginning on the date such failure first occurs and ending on the date such failure is corrected …

(C) OVERALL LIMITATION FOR UNINTENTIONAL FAILURES - In the case of failures which are due to reasonable cause and not to willful neglect, the tax imposed by subsection (a) for failures during the taxable year of the employer shall not exceed the amount equal to the lesser of --
(i) 10% of the aggregate amount paid or incurred by the employer (or predecessor employer) during the preceding taxable year for employment-based health plans, or
(ii) $500,000

Or try this excerpt from section 512: (c) Employers Electing Not to Provide Health Benefits-
(1) IN GENERAL - In addition to other taxes, there is hereby imposed on every non-electing employer an excise tax, with respect to having individuals in his employ, equal to 8% of the wages (as defined in section 3121(a)) paid by him with respect to employment (as defined in section 3121(b)).

Write U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. Tell him you’ll fire him if he votes “yes.” — Ed.

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