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Sarasota Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017 2 years ago

City prepares to vet form-based zoning code

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A series of high-profile issues could make or break the city's new land use regulations.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

In 2018, city officials and residents will begin a yearlong review of new regulations governing development throughout Sarasota.

The city is preparing to consider adoption of a form-based zoning code, which would overhaul the existing land-use planning system. Already, the city’s Urban Design Studio has spent more than three years gathering public input and condensing a variety of documents into what it believes is a more streamlined, user-friendly guideline for building.

By early February, Urban Design Studio will have a finished draft of the code ready for public release. At that point, the city plans to hold an intensive vetting process that could continue into 2019 before the code is adopted — should commissioners decide to do so.

Residents, developers, architects and city officials have raised dozens of issues they hope the document will substantially address. For the next year, Urban Design Studio Director Karin Murphy will focus on building broad support for a document that attempts to balance all of those (often competing) interests.

To get to the point where the community feels comfortable adopting a new zoning code, the city is preparing a series of workshops designed to facilitate even more conversations about what the public wants from the code.

“It’s a very complex and complicated issue,” Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown said. “It should be very deliberative, transparent and engaging.”

Administrative review

Already, one group has successfully used the form-based code review to highlight what it believes are pressing issues facing the city.

On Nov. 30, supporters of the resident activist group STOP filled the commission chambers at City Hall. Dressed in red T-shirts, those citizens appeared at a special City Commission meeting to ask the city to hold dedicated sessions focused on two of STOP’s core issues.

It worked. In February, the city will hold a public hearing focused on sidewalk widths and building setbacks. In March, another public hearing will address the process by which the city reviews proposed developments.

Since its formation in 2016, STOP has opposed the use of an administrative review process for larger projects, which allows city staff to approve proposed developments if they comply with the regulations in the code. In 2005, the city expanded the use of administrative review downtown. The form-based code proposes expanding the use of administrative review outside of downtown.

STOP steering committee member Kate Lowman said the group believes residents want an opportunity to share input on a proposed development before the city approves it. She suggested the city needs to think about mechanisms for better engaging neighbors throughout the development review process.

“As they get more and more residents living downtown, living close together, this system where you just have nothing to say at all — I don’t think it’s going to go over very well,” Lowman said.

“This system where you just have nothing to say at all — I don’t think it’s going to go over very well.” — Kate Lowman

Murphy is aware of the concerns. She’s working to strike a balance between addressing them and still producing a code that makes it clear what developers are allowed to build by right. She agrees that larger projects should be subject to public hearings. So, too, should those that diverge significantly from the code guidelines. But the point of writing the new zoning code is to establish what types of projects people are comfortable allowing in their neighborhood.

“Otherwise, you’re going to have a lot of long commission meetings,” Murphy said.

Comfort is key, she said. Murphy is considering some options that wouldn’t allow more public input without relying on a system that mandates public hearings in front of the Planning Board and City Commission. Maybe the city makes developers hold more community workshops. Maybe some projects are placed on the Planning Board agenda, but not as a formal public hearing.

And, at least initially, Murphy suggested the city could be more restrictive on the type of projects it allows without a public hearing. There is concern about discouraging some developments likely to draw resident skepticism that planners think would be beneficial for the community. But in the process of ushering in a big change, Murphy knows some assurances have to be made.

Comfort is key, she said. Murphy is considering some options that would allow more public input without relying on a system that mandates public hearings in front of the Planning Board and City Commission. 

She is concerned about discouraging some developments likely to draw resident skepticism that planners think would be beneficial for the community. But in the process of ushering in a big change, Murphy knows some assurances have to be made for residents.

“It’s going to take trust-building,” Murphy said. “For some of these things, we may have a little bit more public hearings in the beginning — the hope being, after we see a couple of things get built, then staff can look at that and say, ‘We’ve coded this right,’ and the community trust is there again.”

Wider sidewalks

STOP is also advocating for city policies that produce wider sidewalks, expressing concern about regulations that encourage developers to build up to the property line even when there is a substandard sidewalk.  

“I don’t know how widespread the agreement will be in terms of the solution, but I think there is widespread agreement there is a problem,” Lowman said. “We have to start talking about it.”

Murphy agrees the city should improve the quality of its sidewalks, but said the issue quickly becomes complicated. The city has a limited amount of right of way on any given street. To widen the sidewalk, you generally either have to narrow the roadway or use privately owned land.

STOP asked the city to take up the sidewalk issue quickly so staff could investigate the city’s legal right to ask developers to provide wider sidewalks. That research is ongoing. Because Florida has strong private property rights laws, Murphy has prepared a backup plan — a program that provides incentives for developers who set their buildings farther back from the property line, allowing for wider sidewalks.

“It’s going to take trust-building.” — Karin Murphy 

Those incentives could include increased height or density. There may still be cases where the context of a street prohibits the city from providing an ideal sidewalk, but Murphy wants the code to produce more consistent sidewalks that are more thoroughly planned out as one unit — considering not just the width, but also the placement of trees, lightpoles, signs and other features.

“Where are the door openings, galleries, awnings going so you don’t have the conflicts you see today?” Murphy said.

Different perspectives

Although residents have expressed the loudest concerns about the code at this point, Murphy pointed out that other groups have a stake in how the code shapes up.

Sarasota zoning
Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown compares the size of the proposed form-based code to the longer zoning regulations in place today.

Through the drafting of the code, the Urban Design Studio has regularly met with groups representing Sarasota’s development and architecture communities. Their viewpoints often compete with what residents want to see — some architects, for example, want a code that doesn’t restrict their ability to produce creative designs.

In those cases, Murphy said, she shares the objections residents are likely to raise. She’s hopeful a thoughtful, thorough dialog will get everybody to a place of relative comfort. Not everyone will get everything they want, but for the city to approve new and improved zoning regulations, the code will need support from all corners.

“It’s going to take all the groups reaching a consensus on that,” Murphy said.

Neighborhood focus

In addition to hot-button issues, the city also wants to hold sessions focused on the more mundane details of how the code will affect individual neighborhoods.

Commissioners asked the Urban Design Studio to produce documents that make it clear how the new regulations differ from the ones already in place. In addition to producing that information, Murphy is continuing conversations with neighborhood representatives that began more than three years ago, refining the code so it reflects what the community wants to see.

The goal, the city stresses, is making sure everyone’s voice is heard and that everyone understands the implications of the proposed changes. It may take more than a year to get to that place, and some objections will remain, but Murphy remains confident the form-based code will put the city in a stronger position to manage its growth going forward.

“We’re not going to get unanimity, but we’re going to have a good, vetted process,” Murphy said. “With all of the things we’ve put in here, it will make things much better.”

This article has been edited to clarify that the city plans to hold a public hearing on administrative development review in March.

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