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Opinion
Sarasota Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019 1 year ago

$1.4 million wasted?

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For five years, Sarasota city residents waited for what was to be a new zoning code for the future. But after spending $1.4 million and compiling 478 pages, it looks like it was all for naught.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

Maybe we’re the odd ones. Odd in that we have this thing about the value of time and money — especially the use of other people’s money, e.g. taxpayers’ money.

So it struck us as rather astonishing; heck, we would even say outrageous. 

As our deputy managing editor, David Conway, reported last week, the Sarasota City Commission and city administration decided pretty much to dump, scrap, shelve what took five years and $1.4 million to produce: a new form-based zoning code for the city.

And they did this in a matter of maybe 30 minutes, with only one commissioner, Hagen Brody, raising any questions about this extraordinary decision. Nor was there much of a peep from the city manager, Tom Barwin, the city administration CEO whose job is to be the chief steward and manager of city taxpayers’ dollars. 

Let that sink in: 

n Five years. Five years of a small team of hired planners who worked, say, 50 weeks a year — 250 weeks in all — crafting, researching, writing, drawing, meeting with city residents, ultimately producing 478 pages of a new zoning plan designed to help make the city a nicer, better-looking, more functional place to live.

n $1.4 million. Think of what you would do with $280,000 a year for five years. 

Now $1.4 million in the total scheme of the city’s $73 million general fund budget is like Donald’s Trump $5 billion for a border wall — hardly a blip. Nonetheless, try going before the City Commission and asking it to approve appropriating to you $1.4 million over five years for you to write 478 pages that promptly would be put on a city shelf. It wouldn’t happen.

Poof! Five years. $1.4 million.

A pattern has emerged. The lift station. Legal fees. Parking meters. Millions for the Bobby Jones Golf Club. Unfunded pension liabilities. And now this, rejection of form-based codes, a zoning system that commissioners and the city staff five years ago felt compelled to authorize because the existing code wasn’t working. The form-based code, city taxpayers were told, would be so much better.

All of this feels like an old car. It runs, but it’s falling apart and constantly needs fixing. A costly nuisance.

We get that times, preferences and people change. In this instance, City Manager Tom Barwin brought in a new planning director, Steve Cover, whose expertise and emphasis is long-term planning. 

You know how that goes. When a new leader comes in, he or she has his/her way of doing things, so priorities change. It’s quite obvious form-based code gave way to Cover’s new set of nine priorities (see box).

We reached out to Cover but didn’t hear back before deadline. Nonetheless, based on comments to commissioners, Cover’s priority list looks to be prioritized to give top billing to the STOP group’s vociferous campaign to scrap the city’s administrative review process in favor of more public hearings. After that, you can see the hand of Barwin:

He has always been big on the pedestrian-sidewalk issue. Affordable housing is always on every planner’s list, as is long-range transportation planning. You know how these planners are: They envision that everyone will be pedaling bicycles, walking to work or riding on some mass transit train. Cars are toxins in their books.

At the bottom, last but not least on the priority scale is a review of the form-based code concepts. Cover put a timeline on this that would extend from now until December 2021 — three years of review. Five years to draft it; three years to review it.

What’s going on here? 

It’s nice that Cover has articulated a timeline for his priorities. But if your property, business or neighborhood is to be affected, it would behoove the city to go overboard to communicate. At the least, it seems Barwin and Cover should consider addressing for the citizens of Sarasota what is intended for each of Cover’s priorities. We could envision a series of town hall-like meetings throughout the city, as well as for the city’s architects and developers, to explain what they’re doing, why, when and what they expect the outcomes to be.

For five years, neighborhood groups, commercial property owners, developers, architects, engineers and others lived with anticipation and the uncertainty of what the form-based codes would mean. The marketplace abhors uncertainty.

Sarasota taxpayers deserve a clear explanation of why the city junked five years of effort and $1.4 million.

Eliminate the pool and pavilion at Lido

OK, we’ll admit: It wasn’t nice or respectful to refer to those who opposed the Lido Beach redevelopment project as “the mob.” We heard..

In hindsight, what occurred with this project — opposition rising after the City Commission signed a lease with the applicants — often occurs.

As we pointed out, part of the irony in this was that the applicants presented to the city and public in their initial plans features that the Lido Key Residents Association requested.

But as often occurs, once the decision and details start to sink in, those concerned can have a change of heart and mind. Buyer’s remorse and opposition gel.

What happened with the Lido Beach pavilion project is typical of what happens with public property. When everyone — e.g. taxpayers — owns it, no one owns it. What to do with the property becomes a government morass. The Lido Pavilion is an explicit case in point.

Be that as it may, the next issue is: What’s next?

Put the project out for bid again? Start over, and get the same result — more opposition?

How about modeling it after the Siesta Key Beach redevelopment? That one was $20 million — far more than needs to be spent on Lido Key. 

Nevertheless, what is needed at Lido Beach? Restrooms and parking. That’s it. 

Eliminate the concessions and pool. All the food and drink anyone needs is a block away on St. Armands Circle or a short walk to the Holiday Inn and Lido Beach Resort.

Keep it simple and clean.

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