Downtown residents tried — and failed — to get the city to change its events regulations to allow more resident input on proposed street closures. Now what?
Members of the Downtown Sarasota Condo Association spent months devising a proposal to revise the city’s special events ordinance, hoping to better accommodate resident input without overburdening event planners.
But on Tuesday, the City Commission voted 4-1 to reject the DSCA proposal, asserting a belief there is no need to fix the city’s current procedures on street closures associated with special events.
“This is a solution without a problem,” City Commissioner Hagen Brody said.
After the board criticized the proposal as unnecessary and a potential disincentive to holding special events, DSCA representatives said they believed the commission misinterpreted the spirit of the proposal. DSCA Chairman Patrick Gannon and board member Michael Normile both said the organization wanted more events downtown.
They just hoped their proposed changes would allow the city to avoid negatively affecting residents as the number of special events grows.
“There were so many misunderstandings that took on a life of their own,” Normile said. “I was kind of astonished.”
Currently, the city requires the approval of two-thirds of affected property owners before permitting a street closure associated with a special event that lasts for less than 72 hours. That system drew criticism from residents of the Rivo at Ringling condominium, who questioned why individual business owners could cast their own votes, but condo owners only got one vote per building.
In 2016, the organizers of Thunder by the Bay considered the east end of downtown as a potential venue for the event. The proposed street closures would have blocked a point of access to Rivo along Indian Place — and the 106 Rivo property owners would have been able to cast just one collective vote against the event.
Under the DSCA proposal, both businesses and residential property owners would be considered affected parties if they are located on a street that is proposed to be closed between six hours and 72 hours for an event. Event organizers would have to mail notices of the proposal to all affected parties, who would then have 30 days to contact the city with input.
“Public comment will be a significant factor in the decision by the city to approve or deny the closure application,” the DSCA proposal stated.
Under the proposal, city officials said they would approve or deny proposed events based on a list of criteria events staff currently uses. Public comment would be used as a tool to determine if an event was violating any of those criteria.
Normile said the DSCA wanted to avoid any system in which each individual property owner was entitled to a vote on every proposed street closure. In March 2017, in response to the Rivo concerns, the commission discussed changes that would have given individual condo owners the ability to vote on a street closure.
The DSCA proposal was written after consulting with downtown residents, other downtown stakeholder groups and city staff, Normile said.
“All we want to do is get something that works, is efficient, is economical and can be implemented,” Normile said.
Not everybody supports the suggested changes.
Ron Soto, president of the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association, appeared at Tuesday’s meeting to advocate against the proposal. Although residents have advocated for a more active role in the street closure process, Soto suggested businesses are a more significant part of the fabric of downtown. As a result, he said, it’s natural that businesses have more sway over proposed street closures.
“This is a business district,” Soto said. “We can’t go out to Bird Key and have a festival there of any type, because it’s a residential district.”
Brody agreed, arguing that businesses had more at stake than residents when it came to street closures. Brody also said the requirement to mail notices to all condo residents would represent a heightened barrier to entry for event organizers.
“This is a solution without a problem.” — Hagen Brody
Although Thunder by the Bay sought a street closure that would block access to a condo, City Auditoriums Manager Debbie Perez said staff generally steers event organizers away from any configuration that would affect residential entry and exit. As a result, Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie questioned why any changes were necessary.
“If their concerns are already being addressed in your policy, why would we do something that would make it more difficult (to have events)?” Eddie said.
Normile said the DSCA didn’t think the changes would create a burden for event organizers.
Proposed regulations creating a maximum number of closures on any given street would not have prevented any downtown events from taking place last year, city staff confirmed. Neither would a rule that restricts street closures that block access to a residential building.
The goal, Normile said, was to formalize and codify rules designed to ensure events were equitably distributed throughout downtown without negatively affecting residents.
“I want to encourage events,” Normile said. “If there’s a way we can do this while giving a voice to the constituents, let’s do it.”
City Attorney Robert Fournier said the DSCA proposal was arguably fairer than the existing system because it gave a more equitable voice to downtown residents. Fournier floated another solution to the events debate: eliminating the requirement for outside approval of street closures altogether.
Fournier suggested a system in which city staff granted street closure permits as long as an event complied with established guidelines.
That drew concern from Soto. Without the signature requirements, he feared special events would be foisted on uninterested businesses.
“It eliminates all that process of — do we really want this to close the streets for the businesses?” Soto said.
The commission ultimately voted to make no changes, keeping the existing two-thirds signature policy in place. But Normile said residents would still be troubled by having a lesser voice than businesses on street closures.
If residents wanted to raise the issue again, Fournier said there could be a legal argument against the current system — although there are also counterarguments.
“If someone comes back and wants it further addressed, we’ll see what the commission would like to do if and when that happens,” Fournier said.
Normile said downtown residents weren’t tied to the specific details of the proposal rejected Tuesday. They did, however, expect the city to respond to the spirit behind the proposal — concerns that still exist following the meeting.
“We believe in an equitable sharing of opinion on this matter among businesses and residents, that no one should be unfairly burdened, that we should be reasonably encouraging of events downtown,” Normile said. “I’ll leave it to better minds than mine to come up with language that accomplishes that.”