The Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations has grown from an informal alliance to an institution the city leans on for insights into residential areas.
Concerned about the prospect of a large commercial development near their neighborhood in the late 1980s, people living in Sarasota’s Avondale neighborhood reached across the city for help.
Mollie Cardamone, an Avondale resident, remembers recruiting leaders of neighborhood groups in Gillespie Park, Bay Point Park and Laurel Park to join in the opposition to the plan. Although the project wouldn’t directly affect the other neighborhoods, they all had concerns about commercial intrusion into residential areas.
By joining forces, they amplified their voices, causing city officials to take heed of the neighborhood associations at a time policy was more generally geared toward growth and economic development. The project was rejected. In the wake of their triumph, the faction that united in opposition shifted its focus to formalizing its alliance.
“We said: ‘We were so successful. We probably should organize an association of neighbors supporting neighbors in this kind of thing,’” Cardamone said. “‘As the city grows, it’s going to happen more and more.’”
That’s the origin of the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations, a group that celebrated its 30th anniversary at its January meeting. CCNA’s ranks have grown since 1990 to more than 30 associations. Formed in an effort to persuade city officials to listen to resident input, the group has evolved into a hub of power in its own right.
Members have gone on to win seats on the City Commission and key advisory bodies. A representative for city administration is typically in attendance at every meeting, usually accompanied by other staff members.
Pre-pandemic, CCNA met regularly at 9 a.m. on the first Saturday of every month at the Waldemere Fire Station. For years, meetings have followed the same general agenda: Neighborhood representatives give a brief overview of issues in their community, the organization hears a presentation from a speaker, and the group discusses initiatives old and new.
“I understand that listening to 35 neighborhood representatives talk about what’s going on in their neighborhood can sometimes seem a little boring,” said Kathy Kelley Ohlrich, a Glen Oaks Ridge resident who served as CCNA chair from 2015-16. “But it’s very important — that’s when you find out that another neighborhood is having problems with trash pickup or tree removal or something else, and you learn that there are common issues. That’s when you come together, and you connect with that other neighborhood to find solutions.”
Cardamone served as CCNA’s first chair from 1990-91. In its nascent stages, she said CCNA was able to quickly gain the attention of city officials thanks to support from City Manager David Sollenberger.
She recalled two early victories that energized CCNA. The city required developers to meet with residents before filing most project applications. The city also agreed to send notice of potential land use changes to property owners within 500 feet, an increase from 200 feet.
“They’re simple by today’s standards, but they were really important to us at the time,” Cardamone said.
Neighborhood association leaders David Merrill and Nora Patterson won seats on the City Commission in 1991. Cardamone joined them in 1993. From there, Cardamone said, the commission shifted to more heavily emphasize neighborhoods. The city created a neighborhood services department and added a neighborhood chapter to its comprehensive plan, changes in which CCNA members played an active role.
“David, Nora and I kind of changed the character of the City Commission,” Cardamone said.
Virginia Haley and Linda Holland, who filled the CCNA chair role from 1993-1997, said the group prioritized being a proactive, productive group. Although CCNA came together in opposition to a development, its leaders sought to find ways to improve engagement between neighborhoods and city officials.
“It was very important not to be that organization that was opposed to everything,” Haley said. “Looking for those opportunities to find common ground was very important.”
CCNA has become the city’s conduit for tapping into the interests of its neighborhoods.
While she was chair, Ohlrich oversaw a series of workshops in which neighborhoods came together to identify the top issues they shared. One of those top priorities were parks and green space. A year later, the city began the process of creating a dedicated parks and recreation funding district, which the commission established in 2019.
When individual neighborhood representatives brought up concerns about trees being removed from properties, the CCNA board of directors realized this was a universal issue. The conversation sparked the formation of a tree advisory board and the drafting of revised removal regulations.
“I think without CCNA, it wouldn’t have happened,” Ohlrich said.
Although city leaders have praised the work CCNA has done — the commission honored the organization’s anniversary at its December meeting— at least one elected official is hesitant to assume the voice of formal neighborhood groups is always reflective of the voice of all residents in the city.
“As a representative of the entire population of the city, I have to keep in the back of my mind that there are some people who are not involved in the neighborhood associations,” Mayor Hagen Brody said in 2018.
Cardamone expressed some frustration at what she perceived to be a waning emphasis on neighborhood issues among elected officials. Although the city abandoned its effort to produce a form-based zoning code following pushback from CCNA in 2018, the commission declined to adjust its standards for reviewing downtown development proposals, an initiative CCNA supported.
Holland, a Gillespie Park resident said dealing with the changing makeup of city leadership — and negotiating perspectives even among CCNA members — has been a challenge for the organization. She expressed some reservations about the emphasis the group has placed on downtown development in recent years, expressing a desire to focus primarily on neighborhood initiatives.
“I’d like to see us get back to our roots of helping the neighborhoods that need the help,” Holland said.
Although there are debates on more granular matters, those who have been involved with CCNA are broadly proud of the work the organization has done and continues to pursue. Ohlrich, who joined the group in the early 2010s, worked alongside Cardamone and Holland to produce a report commemorating the organization’s 30th anniversary. She was surprised to learn how much the group was able to accomplish, applauding all of those who have served the group for their dedication to improving their neighborhood — and, by proxy, the city.
“[There are] all kinds of things that we all take for granted now, but if the early founders of CCNA hadn’t been so persistent, who knows where we’d be today,” Ohlrich said.