We knew how the Bath & Racquet Club proposal would go — Sarasota’s own ‘Groundhog Day.’ At least Mayor Ahearn-Koch, a no voter again, has this right: The process needs to change.
Now we know what Phil Connors (aka Bill Murray) the TV weatherman in “Groundhog Day” experienced.
When the Sarasota City Commission rejected Bath & Racquet Development Inc.’s request for a comprehensive amendment, it was the same scene we have seen over and over again in the city: rejection of another good project for the city because of a small group of “again-ers.”
Here, right from the script:
“We’ll be living in their shadows,” said one of the residents from a nearby neighborhood. “They’ll be looking from great heights (Editor’s note: Uh, five stories, less than the distance from home plate to first base), 60 feet away, into our swimming pools, living rooms and bedrooms, completely removing all privacy that we have had.”
“We didn’t move to Sarasota to see this kind of development,” another said.
And once again, one of the leading characters in Sarasota’s version of “Groundhog Day,” Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch pulled out the 20-year-old guide book (“the comp plan”) and pretty much repeated her same lines from when she opposed Selby Gardens’ redevelopment plan: “I don’t believe that it is in any way, shape or form compatible with our neighborhood chapter.”
Comp plan not a law
Now let’s shift here and take in some of the recent conversation our deputy managing editor, David Conway, had recently with Steven Cover, the city’s planning director.
Prior to coming to Sarasota, Cover served in similar positions and dealt with similar “Groundhog Day”-like growth debates in Arlington, Va.; Madison, Wis.; and Atlanta.
Conway: “Do you see privately initiated comp plan changes as problematic?”
Cover: “I really have no problems with privately initiated comp plan changes. Keep in mind, we’ve got a plan that’s 20 years old now.
“The comprehensive plan is not law; it’s a guide to the future growth of the city, and over time things change. If a comprehensive plan change makes sense, there’s nothing wrong with it being out of cycle and moving it forward to the commission.
“There’s nothing wrong with proposals being done out of cycle. … To say you can only do it once a year, and that’s it, I don’t think that’s really being very responsive to the community.”
Conway: “What are your thoughts on amending the comp plan, more generally?”
Cover: “Communities evolve over time. Sometimes you’ll have a future land use in the comp plan for a property that just doesn’t make sense anymore, or it’s not applicable to what’s on the property now.
“Twenty years ago, there weren’t a lot of people talking about mixed-use and talking about buildings that have commercial on the first level and residential above. Boy, has that changed over time. Now mixed-use is a desirable type of development proposal.”
Conway: “Do you think there’s room for improvement by cleaning up the language in city regulations?”
Cover: “There’s definitely room for improvement.”
You can say that again. And again. And again.
We’ll at least give Mayor Ahearn-Koch (one of the no votes that killed the Bath & Racquet project) this: She, too, acknowledged after the vote the city’s development approval process needs to be changed. She called it a “flawed process.”
You can say that again. And again. And again.
It needs to be changed, indeed.
An expensive gamble
Those residents whose properties border Bath & Racquet Club probably don’t care about this, but to get a sense of how wrong the process is, consider the other side of the story: that of Bath & Racquet Development Inc.
Now we know there likely are many readers out there who won’t shed tears for a developer. But perhaps put yourself in the shoes of Bath & Racquet Owner Scott Olson and the would-be developer, Bath & Racquet Development Inc.:
First, Olson told us he could have sold his property “for a whole lot more money” four or five years ago, but the buyer would have demolished the club for other commercial use. Olson wanted a buyer who would keep the courts, and that meant a lower sales price.
Olson and Bath & Racquet Development agreed on an undisclosed price. Although it was not contingent on development approval, the sale hasn’t closed.
Over the past two years, Bath & Racquet Development has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars, probably close to $1 million, hiring lawyers, engineers, architects and contractors to do the due diligence around the property and develop detailed site plans. Bath & Racquet Development did not respond to our call.
Along the way, the developer held seven neighborhood meetings (more time and money) to try to make the plans acceptable to the neighbors and city. The final version that went before the City Commission was scaled down so far from the original plans that we were told it was “a last-ditch effort” to make it work economically.
The scaled-back version included the developer volunteering to upgrade stormwater lines, fix the road behind Trader Joe’s, install a landscape buffer that was two times greater than the city minimum, build a road between the project and neighbors and have building setbacks of 50-60 feet. City setbacks require only 15 feet.
On top of this, the project had the endorsement of the city staff and Gene Boles Jr., the Bill Belichick of the American Institute of Certified Planners who appeared at a meeting.
Even after all of this, it was still a gamble, throwing dice on a craps table. Olson and Bath & Racquet Development were at the mercy of the five Sarasota city commissioners. They needed four of the commissioners to win approval.
We knew how it would end.
Two commissioners: no vision. No aspiration. No imagination. Stuck to the yellowed pages of a 20-year-old, outdated planning guide.