Commissioners, Planning Board members aren't experts on land-use.
The Sarasota City Commission recently brought us another major arbitrary NO! vote on a development project that had gone through an excruciating review process of two years, only to be vetoed by a group of people ill-equipped to make such a decision since they are not educated, trained, experienced or qualified land-development planners. Further, City Commissioners don’t seem to understand what the city’s Comprehensive Plan is. I even read a candidate for City Commission election describe the Comp Plan as equivalent to our Constitution – WRONG! The City Charter is equivalent to a Constitution. A Comprehensive Plan is a strategic policy document which is regularly updated as required by state law to take into account the dynamic changes our communities experience as time goes by.
Some suggest that we need to change our process so that proposed developments aren’t unreasonably subjected to a City Commission veto after the time, effort and two-year cost of an intense staff review by multiple layers of technical expertise. Anyone who has attended a Development Review Committee meeting can see first-hand exactly how detailed and careful a review that is. The detailed review is based on building, development and zoning rules to assure equal treatment of projects and predictability. That equal treatment and predictability goes out the window at the Planning Board (also populated generally by people unqualified to do such reviews) and in front of the City Commission often using an incompatibility argument as the basis for the veto.
Our land development review process does not need to be changed. What needs to be changed is the Planning Board and City Commission role in that process to eliminate their arbitrary part in it. Planning Board members have been heard to encourage projects to be revised in accordance with expectations which aren’t a part of our code. City Commissioners have introduced issues into their negative votes that don’t have anything to do with land development. And, compatibility has become a fallback bugaboo when all else fails to kill a project.
You would think that compatibility would be a precisely defined term in our code, but it is not. It is actually a nebulous term that might be described similar to pornography, that is – “I know it when I see it!” So, another improvement we can make to our development review process is to define the word so it is sufficiently clear that anyone seeing it in the context of land development knows what it means. Florida law defines it as “a condition in which land uses or conditions can coexist in relative proximity to each other in a stable fashion over time such that no use or condition is negatively impacted directly or indirectly by another use or condition.” In our town, incompatibility is generally used to indicate a use isn’t the same as my adjacent use. That is problematic.
So, three suggestions for more equal treatment and predictability in land development reviews in the city of Sarasota include:
- Train our City Commissioners on what the City Comprehensive Plan actually is and how to use it.
- Eliminate the arbitrary roles of the Planning Board and City Commission in the decision-making process. They can still play a part, but it must be fair and predictable. That’s what the rule of law is all about.
- Define “compatibility” in our code with as much precision as possible.
Finally, the City Commission‘s decision-making has got to benefit the city at large. That’s real leadership!
Ken Shelin is a former Sarasota City Commissioner.