Questions over Epoch appeal raise a broader issue of expertise, involvement on advisory boards.
City staff's approval of an 18-story condominium project, called the Epoch, was recently appealed by a group of nearby neighbors on South Palm Avenue. The appeal — the first of its kind — was heard by the City’s Planning Board on June 4 and June 13.
This appeal was not a regular quasi-judicial public hearing for the Planning Board.
It was so unusual that City Attorney Robert Fournier had to issue a lengthy memo to the parties, their attorneys and the Planning Board about the legal methods and timing that were to be utilized in the hearing. There were three pre-trial motions filed that had to be decided before the substantive case could be heard. One of those motions involved me personally.
Robert Lincoln, attorney for Seaward Development, the developer of the project, filed a motion that demanded that I recuse myself from the proceedings because he claimed his client would be denied “due process” resulting from bias on my part. His motion was based on my association with the civic group STOP.
STOP is basically an aspirational think tank that studies the zoning code and makes recommendations for its future improvement. Mr. Lincoln’s claim was that I could not possibly be unbiased in a hearing that required analysis of the current zoning code. The premise is ridiculous and I declined to recuse myself. (The full discussion is available on the city website.)
If Mr. Lincoln had researched further, he would have discovered that all five Planning Board members have deep associations with zoning-related civic groups in Sarasota. In fact, three of our members hold executive positions with the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association, the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations and the North Trail Redevelopment Partnership, among others. Several of these civic groups work in concert with STOP on the same zoning issues Mr. Lincoln was concerned about. In addition to their civic activities, current Planning Board members bring with them decades of professional experience in architecture, law, engineering and government.
Experience and local knowledge are crucial in informing decision-making for the complicated issues facing the Planning Board. But there is a more fundamental concern at issue here. Recusal is not just a defense against bias, it is also a weapon used to remove people whose voice you would like to silence. In the past few months alone, recusal has also been employed against a member of the City Commission and a member of the Historic Preservation Board.
So the broader issue here is: Who should be serving on the all-volunteer key advisory boards in the city? Should the appointees be blank slates with little or no knowledge of the subject and no connections to community groups? Should monetary conflicts of interest—such as potential financial gain by those involved in building and development—be more carefully vetted before appointment? Doesn’t it make sense to appoint people who have dedicated their time and expertise to studying the issues?
On June 13, the appeal against the Epoch was dismissed by the Planning Board in a unanimous 5-0 vote because the appellants were unable to establish standing.
I believe Mr. Lincoln would agree that his client received full, unbiased “due process” both in the conduct of the hearing and in the result. At all times during the Epoch hearings, all Planning Board members were fully informed on the issues and conducted themselves in a professional and impartial fashion. I was proud to stand with them to the end.
Eileen Walsh Normile is chair of the Sarasota Planning Board.