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Sarasota Thursday, Mar. 17, 2011 6 years ago

Buffer-zone brouhaha


The city’s first attempt to balance developer needs with neighborhood interests in hopes of goosing some economic development has flopped, managing to upset both sides and make new development even harder.

There may have been good intentions, but we know where that road leads.

The intention was to find ways that rules would be altered to encourage economic development. One area targeted by city staff was what triggers expensive and time-consuming public hearings, rather than the swifter, less expensive administrative ruling by a staff member.

Under current rules, public hearings are required on any new development of more than 5,000 square feet outside the downtown zones. In addition to that being a small development threshold, the rule has resulted in automatic public hearings in industrial areas where there are no residential neighbors. The city’s own plan to expand its water-treatment facility tripped over this regulation.

So, staff proposed replacing the 5,000-square-foot building-size trigger with a 250-foot buffer around the city’s neighborhoods. Anything outside that buffer zone could be handled by an administrative review. Within the 250 feet would require the public-hearing process.

But, by replacing the 5,000-square-foot trigger, the result is that any new development of any size that required a permit within the 250-foot buffer would trigger a public hearing. That, essentially, made the whole process more onerous, rather than less.

To make it worse, almost the entire city south of Sarasota Memorial Hospital is within 250 feet of a neighborhood. So the entire South Tamiami Trail, chock-full of commercial properties, would fall under the mandate for public hearings on any size development. The law of unintended consequences crushed the good intentions, creating what some have called a “discouragement zone.”

Mike Taylor, the city’s planning and development general manager, said the staff will drop that plan and come back with a new proposal.

Here’s a suggestion. The city should add the 250-foot buffer zone to the 5,000-square-foot trigger, not replace it, so there would not be new areas requiring public hearings. The result would be fewer automatic public hearings in industrial areas where they are unnecessary and will allow neighborhoods to get their say.

Neighborhood activists would howl at such a rule change. In fact, some neighborhood activists did not like the staff’s proposed changes because they would not have input on some projects. And that is a problem in Sarasota.

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to economic stagnation is paved with kowtowing to the loudest neighborhood association activists.

Let’s take a moment to recall some perspective. If we are talking just plain “rights,” this country and Western civilization has long held a strong place for personal property rights. The rights of people owning nearby property to have a decisive say on what someone does with his own land within the law is a fairly new development. With the rise of neighborhood associations, and their particularly heavy influence in city politics, the imbalance is magnified.

And, given the small turnout in the recent city elections, with 14 votes deciding one race and another winning with a total of 703 votes, it is obvious that city commissioners could feel intimidated by neighborhood association activists.

Here’s hoping that new commissioners Shannon Snyder and Paul Caragiulo will have the principled fortitude to stand up for economic development that will help the entire city when faced with neighborhood associations trying to dictate what other property owners can and, more importantly, cannot build.

They will be seated when Taylor and his team come back with a new proposal, and we will get to see if they are able to balance overall city needs against the loudest activists.

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