In a 3-2 vote, the board denied a comprehensive plan amendment necessary for the botanical garden to implement its master plan.
After nearly 30 hours of public hearings and dozens of community meetings, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens’ proposed master plan proved contentious to the end.
At the conclusion of a special meeting Tuesday, a divided City Commission voted 3-2 to deny a key portion of Selby’s master plan application, rejecting the nonprofit’s proposal for redeveloping its 14.7-acre bayfront site.
The commission’s decision drew cheers from residents who opposed the master plan. Since Selby first submitted its proposal to the city more than two years ago, a group of residents neighboring the project site have offered vocal opposition to the concept. In particular, the potential for increased traffic near the intersection of Orange Avenue and U.S. 41 and plans for a five-story parking garage with a rooftop restaurant led to criticism suggesting the project was inappropriate because it did not fit in with its surroundings.
On Tuesday, a majority of the commission echoed those concerns in explaining their decision to deny a proposed comprehensive plan amendment that would have facilitated the implementation of Selby’s master plan. Commissioner Willie Shaw cited projections of increased traffic. Shelli Freeland Eddie said she did not believe Selby had shown enough to justify the plans. Jen Ahearn-Koch said traffic and compatibility with the surrounding neighborhoods were major issues.
“I know there must be solutions, and I would encourage Selby … to please continue to work, but I cannot support this going forward,” Ahearn-Koch said. “It is not in the public’s interest.”
Commissioners Liz Alpert and Hagen Brody voted to support the Selby proposal. The two commissioners expressed belief the changes were appropriate for the downtown-adjacent site and provided a benefit for the community, including more open space and a better organized Selby site.
“The greatest public benefit is this evolving Selby Gardens … and preserving it for the next generation of Sarasotans to enjoy,” Brody said.
After the meeting, Selby Gardens President and CEO Jennifer Rominiecki said the organization would need time to consider how it would proceed following the city’s rejection of the master plan. Throughout the city’s development review process, Selby characterized the most controversial elements of the proposal — the garage and rooftop restaurant — as essential to the gardens’ long-term operations.
“This is a severe disappointment,” Rominiecki said.
Lay of the land
Tuesday’s vote specifically focused on a proposal to change the classification of Selby Gardens’ property on the city’s future land use map, a long-range planning document.
To facilitate the implementation of the master plan, Selby proposed changing its future land use designation from Community Office / Institutional to Metropolitan / Regional. To implement the master plan, the future land use classification had to satisfy at least three of Selby’s needs: allowing botanical gardens as a permitted use, allowing an independently operating restaurant as a permitted use and allowing the height necessary to build a 75-foot-tall parking garage and other new structures included in the proposal.
Selby originally sought a change to the Downtown Edge zoning classification but revised its proposal after neighboring residents raised concerns about establishing a downtown property on the south side of Mound Street. Working with city staff, Selby Gardens decided to use the Metropolitan / Regional land use category to create a new zoning district designed specifically to allow the implementation of the master plan and no other uses.
But the Metropolitan / Regional classification became another point of contention for residents, who argued the designation would remove a buffer between the downtown area and the residentially zoned neighborhoods to the south. They characterized Metropolitan / Regional — used for properties including St. Armands Circle, Sarasota Memorial Hospital, Plymouth Harbor and Pines of Sarasota — as an unduly intense land use category considering the location of Selby’s property.
“This is about commercialization at the expense of the neighborhoods and their residents,” said Ricki Lindsay, resident of the Bay Point Park neighborhood.
City staff recommended approving the application and endorsed the future land use change. Even without the master plan proposal, planning staff members said they believed the Metropolitan / Regional designation was more appropriate for the Selby site than the current classification. Mayor Liz Alpert, who supported the Selby proposal, agreed with that assessment.
“It’s not office institutional,” Alpert said. “It’s a botanical garden that draws people from around the region, from around the state, from around the world.”
The commission’s decision was the first time a city entity disapproved the Selby master plan. In a 3-2 vote in October, the Planning Board recommended approving the proposal, despite some misgivings from one of the advisory board members who endorsed the plans.
After a failed vote to approve the comprehensive plan amendment, Brody expressed displeasure with the commission’s direction. He cited Selby’s status as a local institution of note as reason to listen to appeals from gardens officials regarding the future needs of the organization.
“I think that we should show more flexibility and appreciation for our cultural assets in the community,” Brody said.
The commissioners who opposed the proposal did not see their votes as a flat denial of Selby's ambition to redesign its property. Board members encouraged Selby to consider altering its plans to address the sources of resident opposition.
“I don’t think this is the end of the conversation, but i’m not convinced they met the burden,” Freeland Eddie said.
Throughout the public hearing process at the Planning Board and City Commission, several project opponents prefaced their comments with assurances they loved Selby Gardens and considered it an important part of the community. Following Tuesday’s meeting, Hudson Bayou resident Susan Chapman said she believed neighbors critical of the proposal succeeded because they focused specifically on characteristics of the master plan and its purported incongruity with city standards.
Chapman rejected the notion residents were opposed to Selby more generally or the prospect of any change in their neighborhood. She said her community has been able to reach compromises with other neighboring stakeholders. As Selby considers its future, she was optimistic the organization could ultimately arrive at a plan residents supported.
“I think our neighborhood has always been able to make win-win solutions, and I hope we can make a win-win solution with Selby too,” Chapman said.
On Wednesday, in the wake of the master plan denial, Rominiecki said Selby still needs to address several issues with its current operations. That includes capacity limitations, parking configuration and the storage of materials in flood zones.
“We’re going to be looking at all options for Selby Gardens’ future,” Rominiecki said. “I can tell you that status quo is not an option.”