Supporters of the botanical gardens’ proposal framed it as a compromise that would ensure the organization’s long-term sustainability, but some resident critics weren’t won over.
For the second time in less than a year, the city’s Planning Board voted to recommend approval of a proposed redevelopment project at the bayfront campus of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.
After meeting for more than 10 hours on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Planning Board cast a series of 4-1 and 5-0 votes endorsing the first phase of Selby Gardens’ master plan for its property at 1534 Mound St.
To accommodate the construction of the master plan, Selby worked with city staff to propose the creation a new botanical garden zoning district. The organization is also seeking approval of a rezone to the botanical garden designation, a site plan, a street vacation and a utility easement.
The site plan pertains to the initial phase of construction of Selby’s overall master plan vision. Phase one includes a four-story, 450-space parking garage, a ground-floor accessory restaurant open during the gardens’ hours of operations and a 28,600-square-foot structure serving as a welcome center and plant research building.
A majority of the Planning Board said Selby’s proposal was effectively designed to address the long-term needs of the nonprofit while responding to the concerns of neighboring residents.
“Obviously, it’s the best possible avenue to preserve this garden in its current form,” Planning Board member David Morriss said.
City staff recommended approval of the zoning text amendment, rezone and site plan on similar grounds.
“The proposed botanical garden zone district is, in my opinion, the best method for ensuring Selby Garden’s future in the city at its current location,” said David Smith, the city’s manager of long-range planning.
Selby Gardens and supporters of the proposal characterized the application as a compromise that meaningfully addressed top critiques of the previous iteration of the master plan, which city commissioners rejected 3-2 in November.
Selby representatives pointed to the reduced height of the parking garage from 70 to 39 feet, the relocation of a restaurant from the rooftop of the garage to ground level, limitations on hours of operation at the restaurant, a proposed cap on rentals of outdoor event space and the installation of a sound-management system on the property. They also cited a third-party traffic study, conducted using input from neighboring residents and more detailed than the city’s typical review, that determined the plan will not negatively affect transportation nearby.
City staff said proposed transportation elements, including new turn lanes on Orange Avenue, extended turn lanes on Mound Street and the creation of a multiuse recreational trail along Orange and Mound, would offer an upgrade from existing conditions.
“This project will improve traffic flow in the area,” Assistant City Engineer Daniel Ohrenstein said. “It will make it more efficient.”
Several residents living near the project site remained critical, stating the changes did not meaningfully address concerns about the size of the garage, traffic and complaints associated with events at the property. Speakers at the public hearing said they believed Selby was becoming overly commercialized and that adding garage capacity would exacerbate the issue.
“Unfortunately, the compromise plan is not a compromise,” resident Louanne Roy said.
Residents also expressed fear that the botanical garden zoning regulations left open the possibility that Selby could pursue activity on its property in the future that might not be harmonious with nearby neighborhoods.
“The language in the zoning text is so loosely worded that Selby would be open to do just about anything they’d like,” resident Bob Bernstein said.
Chris Cianfaglione, a planner with Kimley-Horn working on the Selby proposal, said the language in the botanical garden zoning district was written to be in line with or more stringent than the underlying zoning land use designation that applies to the 14.7-acre property. The proposed regulations include a maximum height of 40 feet, minimum front and rear setbacks of 15 feet, minimum side setbacks of 35 feet, a 25% cap on building coverage and a prohibition on residential units.
Cianfaglione said development under the existing land use classifications could be more intensive than the project Selby is pursuing.
“We are protecting this property — and the surrounding residential areas — from any change in the development program that could happen on this site,” Cianfaglione said.
The plan drew endorsements from some neighbors, with representatives speaking on behalf of the Hudson Crossing condominium association and Palm Place board of directors offering support.
“We find Selby Gardens to be an outstanding neighbor whose presence adds immeasurably to the quality of life in our neighborhood,” said Margaret Ruyle, a member of the Palm Place board.
Representatives for the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation also asked the Planning Board to recommend approval of Selby’s application.
The new plans won the support of one official who opposed Selby’s last application: Planning Board member Patrick Gannon, who said the scrutiny the previous proposal received resulted in an improved project.
“I do find the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens have made significant changes that have addressed the concerns that were raised a year ago,” Gannon said.
Board member Kathy Kelley Ohlrich cast the lone vote against the creation of a new zoning classification and the proposed site plan. Ohlrich said she believed the project should have used an existing zoning classification and that not enough information was available about future phases of Selby’s master plan.
“Creating a new zone district when there are three existing implementing zone district plants the seeds for havoc,” Ohlrich said.
Following the Planning Board’s vote, the City Commission will consider the Selby Gardens application and render a final decision. The commission has not yet set a date for a public hearing on the Selby project.
Throughout the public hearing, Selby Gardens President and CEO Jennifer Rominiecki said the organization’s latest plan represented the most community-friendly proposal possible to preserve the institution at its current location.
“We are here showing you the best application we can offer,” Rominiecki said. “Selby Gardens belongs in the city of Sarasota. That’s why we have invested the time, energy and resources to make it happen.”
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