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Sarasota Monday, Jun. 18, 2018 2 years ago

STOP threatens lawsuit over city development notices

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The citizen activist group alleges the city is not properly alerting residents about plans for certain downtown projects.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

A group of residents plans to take legal action if the city does not change its policies for noticing and assessing fees for certain downtown projects.

An attorney for the citizen activist group STOP asked the city June 13 to take action on the issue or face a potential lawsuit. STOP alleges the city does not properly provide notice to residents living near proposed development sites when some site plans are filed. The group also said the city does not collect required fees for some projects.

STOP objects to a city policy the group says does not provide notice or collect certain fees when a developer files a site plan and a building permit application for a project at the same time. When a developer files a site plan ahead of a building permit application, the city sends notices to residents living within 500 feet of the property in question.

The group said the lack of notice makes it unreasonably difficult for residents to track projects.

“It was only step-by-step that we figured out there was this particular category of project that didn’t receive any notice,” said Kate Lowman, a member of STOP’s steering committee. “We were really shocked to learn that. We started bringing it up and saying, ‘This is wrong. How can you be managing this in this fashion? You’re precluding the opportunity for residents to actually know a project is in the works.’ And we really haven’t gotten a meaningful response from the city.”

STOP examined 16 downtown developments and found that, for nine of them, no notice was given to residents. The projects without notice included the Embassy Suites at 202 N. Tamiami Trail, The Jewel at 1301 Main St. and 624 Palm on South Palm Avenue, STOP said.

City development staff was not made available for direct comment on the site plan review process. The city plans to hold a staff meeting next week to discuss potential changes to its policies.

A Feb. 28 email from Gretchen Schneider, the city’s development services general manager, stated the city is not required to provide notice of building permit approval and that developers can submit site plans as part of a building permit application.

City Attorney Robert Fournier thinks STOP makes a persuasive argument that the city is obliged to give notice.

“I thought the interpretation in the letter from STOP was consistent with the way the code reads, and I’ve been saying it for quite some time,” Fournier said.

Even if the code provides a basis for not sending notice, Lowman argued the policy effectively minimizes residents’ ability to challenge a proposed development. Affected parties have a 10-day period to appeal the city’s decision to approve a site plan.

STOP members said city staff told them they could track building permit and site plan applications online. STOP believes that’s an onerous expectation.

“Frankly, it’s not reasonable,” Lowman said. “I think it could leave a citizen justifiably feeling a conscious effort is being made to cut them out of the loop — what little loop is left.”

STOP thinks there’s an even stronger case to be made that the city isn’t properly collecting fees when a developer jointly submits a site plan and building permit application. STOP’s research indicated that, for five projects where the city did collect site plan review fees, the average payment was $23,897.

Because the city does not collect site plan review fees when the site plan is submitted with a building permit, STOP argued the city potentially lost out on more than $215,000 from nine projects the group identified.  

In a statement, Tim Litchet, the city’s director of neighborhood and development services, said the city charges appropriate fees whether a project goes through the building permit or Development Review Committee process. Fournier said he did not want to comment on specifics regarding fees until he had a chance to discuss the topic with staff members.

“I think it’s important we get all concerned parties at the staff level together and then talk through it,” Fournier said.

Lowman and fellow steering committee member Bob Hendel hope the city will take swift action to address the issues the group raised. However, both were disheartened by the city’s responsiveness since STOP first started questioning the policies in February.

“We’ve just gotten to the point where we don’t know how to ask nicely and get an answer,” Lowman said. “We really have tried.”

As a result, the group pledged to move forward with legal action if no changes were made.

“No one should underestimate how upset the STOP steering group is with the lack of action on the part of the city on this issue,” Hendel said. “We’re very sincere.”

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