The Sarasota Bradenton Airport Authority suggests legal action may ensue to block Aventon Sarasota, a 372-unit multifamily complex beneath its noise contour.
For the time being, planning for a 372-unit apartment community at the former Sarasota Kennel Club will move forward.
Whether or not it’s actually built may come down to how a court defines the word “must.”
At Tuesday’s Sarasota City Commission meeting, commissioners green-lit the plans from Raleigh, North Carolina-based Aventon Cos. for Aventon Sarasota on the 25-acre property across University Parkway from the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.
By identical 4-1 votes, commissioners approved an amendment to the Future Land Use Chapter of the Comprehensive Plan, then the rezoning of the parcel to Residential Multiple Family 4 and the site plan for Aventon Sarasota. Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch cast the dissenting votes.
But “must” the city have approved residential on the site formerly zoned for commercial or mixed-use only? According to Sarasota attorney Robert Lincoln, who represented the Sarasota Bradenton Airport Authority during the public hearing, that will likely be up to the courts.
Both Lincoln and SRQ President and CEO Rick Piccolo cited a 2018 agreement between the city and airport. That agreement included prohibiting residential-only development on land surrounding the airport beneath the 65 decibel day-night average sound level contour from the end of the runway, under which the majority of Aventon’s residential buildings would stand.
Unless, the agreement reads, housing “must” be built on the site.
Lincoln defines that to mean that if a subject property has a pre-approved residential use or a deed restriction that requires residential be built, the restriction is rendered invalid. Conversely, city staff — which recommended approval of Aventon’s plan — and the majority commissioners interpreted “must” as a determined need for housing rather than a requirement.
Under its previous zoning, the site could have hosted more intensive commercial uses such as a strip center or big box store, or even mixed use with a residential component. Neighborhoods surrounding the site balked at intense commercial uses.
One nearby Manatee County resident spoke against the apartments, imploring commissioners to not allow new residences under the noise cone.
In addition to the agreement, Lincoln and Piccolo argued that a residential-only development on the site is contrary to the city’s comprehensive plan, and that amending it to accommodate Aventon’s project doesn’t hold legal muster.
“The verbiage in the comp plan and zoning code all cite the health, safety and quality of life reasons that residential units in the 65 DNL are only permitted in a must situation,” Lincoln said. “It's the official position of the city adopted by this commission. No must situation exists.”
Ahearn-Koch based her objections to the apartments for health and safety issues, citing research that continued exposure to commercial aircraft operations result in hearing loss and even mental health problems. Further, she said, the city should honor its internal agreement with SRQ.
Other commissioners and Mayor Erik Arroyo countered the city’s housing crisis constitute a “must” condition, even though rather than affordable housing Aventon's rents — largely because of its proximity to the airport — will be on the lower end of the market.
That Aventon has emerged as the only willing buyer of the decaying kennel club site since it was forced to close in 2019 by statewide referendum banning greyhound racing, Commissioner Hagen Brody pointed out, only accentuates the need to move forward.
The airport authority had expressed interest in purchasing the land before 2020 but had to stand down amid the uncertainties of COVID-19. Piccolo insisted the airport's objections are based on future noise complaints by new residents, and not its interest in the property.
Brody suggested potential legal action will be between SRQ and Aventon only, but before commissioners voted on the rezoning and site plan, Lincoln launched one final salvo across the dais.
“The city is going to be a defendant in any litigation,” Lincoln said. “And I'm not just here saying that because the Airport Authority is going to pay me to sue the city. I don't enjoy doing that. If any of you know me at all, over the years I always come and say this is what's going to happen. This is why it's right, or this is why it's wrong. It's not gamesmanship. I say this stuff because I believe it to be true, and I know what I'm going to do.”
Brody questioned City Attorney Robert Fournier about the city’s legal exposure.
“What you have in the record is that it must be allowed because there's a housing crisis, and it's needed for housing,” Fournier said. “That’s the argument that's being made as to why it's a must.”
“In your professional opinion, is this a valid argument to support the city's determination?” Brody asked.
“I think it's going to be a difficult argument,” Fournier answered.
Join the Neighborhood! Our 100% local content helps strengthen our communities by delivering news and information that is relevant to our readers. Support independent local journalism by joining the Observer's new membership program — The Newsies — a group of like-minded community citizens, like you. Be a Newsie.