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Sarasota Thursday, Sep. 19, 2019 3 days ago

Sarasota activist group STOP says it's dissolving

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The group, which lobbied for changes to the city’s development regulations, is disbanding — and drawing some criticism from elected officials for its parting message.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

STOP, a resident activist group formed in 2016 to advocate for changes to city policy related to development, is disbanding — a move that will allow the organization’s leaders to focus their attention on electoral politics.

The decision, announced Friday, comes after a June meeting where the City Commission rejected one of STOP’s core objectives: significantly reducing the use of administrative development review for new projects in downtown Sarasota. In a 3-2 vote, the commission declined to change its review procedures.

In an email, STOP said its steering committee decided to dissolve the group, so its members could pursue other forms of advocacy. That includes electoral advocacy; STOP said it now believes voters will have to select new commissioners for the group to achieve its goals.

STOP, which from its inception limited its focus to four main issues, declined to reorient itself because it believed the coalition it organized would fall apart following a move to electoral politics.

“The groups which endorsed STOP were endorsing particular issues,” the email stated. “They did not sign on to endorse candidates.”

The next City Commission race will take place in August and November 2020. Elections are scheduled for the three district seats on the board.

Since 2016, STOP’s activism has helped shape the city’s outlook on issues related to planning and zoning. helping to defeat the consideration of a proposed citywide form-based zoning code. When amending the zoning code in the Rosemary District and on the North Trail, city staff has included provisions requiring wider sidewalks — one of STOP's core issues.

Jen Ahearn-Koch, a founding member of STOP, was elected to the City Commission in 2017. Eileen Normile, another founding member, currently sits on the city’s Planning Board.

Despite its successes, STOP has failed to achieve one of its primary goals. The group advocated for the use of public hearings to review new, large projects in the downtown core. Currently, the city allows staff to review plans to determine if they comply with zoning code standards.

Although STOP argued allowing more public input on individual projects would improve the quality of development downtown, city planning staff disputed that assertion. Planning Director Steve Cover said he believed most of the complaints he heard from residents would be better addressed by adjusting building regulations, not by changing the method for reviewing development proposals.

At the June meeting, a majority of the commission agreed and directed staff to focus on revising the zoning code and to move on from considering major changes to existing review procedures.

STOP’s email drew a rebuke from two elected officials at Monday’s City Commission meeting. Mayor Liz Alpert said she felt the email incorrectly identified her as an opponent of public hearings. Alpert said she voted against a specific motion that would have established the same standard for holding public hearings downtown as exists in the rest of the city, a proposal with which she disagreed. She said she is not necessarily opposed to the concept of holding more public hearings downtown.

Commissioner Hagen Brody criticized Normile’s decision to be a signatory on an email advocating for the defeat of three sitting commissioners: Alpert, Brody and Shelli Freeland Eddie, the three votes against considering changes to downtown development review procedures.

“I think that is offensive and overtly political for an advisory board member,” Brody said.

Normile declined to directly respond to Brody’s comments. She said she does not plan to run for a City Commission seat and that she has strived to remain an objective party as a member of the Planning Board.

“Since I’ve been on the Planning Board, the Planning Board has been my priority, not STOP — though I’m very proud to be a part of STOP, I must say,” Normile said.

STOP steering committee member Mollie Cardamone said she felt Brody’s criticism of Normile was “unacceptable,” though she declined to expand upon her objections to the commissioner’s remarks.

She said STOP’s leaders do not have any specific plans for their futures in civic activism, but after three years of work, the group agreed it was time to move on.

“We believe the hallmark of a good organization is knowing when to close shop,” Cardamone said in a statement on behalf of STOP.

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