Regardless of where one stands on the final decision, or the issue itself, the recent Ringling Wal-Mart appeal process stands as a testament to the citizens of a community who cared enough about an issue to take a stand for something they believed in.
Citizens questioned the wisdom and legality of building a “big box” store in the mostly-vacant Ringling Shopping Center that abuts the Alta Vista and Gardens of Ringling Park neighborhoods.
After eight hours of testimony, public input and multiple interpretations of the city’s zoning code that required two meetings and was completed on Feb. 26, City Commissioners Willie Shaw, Terry Turner and Shannon Snyder sided with the neighborhoods and the appellants, while Commissioner Paul Caragiulo and Mayor Suzanne Atwell accepted city staff’s interpretation of the zoning code and sided with Wal-Mart. The 3-2 vote meant the Wal-Mart site plan was denied and the project is either dead or headed to court.
The Feb. 19 portion of the appeal hearing belonged to the “experts,” with Wal-Mart reps and attorneys, city staffers and representatives of the Alta Vista Neighborhood making legal arguments and offering conflicting interpretations of the city zoning code as it applies to the Ringling Shopping Center.
Key arguments centered around whether the zoning code allows the construction of a “department store” larger than 15,000 square feet and what technically constitutes a “department store,” as opposed to the allowed, but somewhat dubious “large store” designation deemed acceptable by Tim Litchet, Sarasota’s Director of Neighborhood and Development Services.
By contrast, the Feb. 26 meeting belonged to the people. According to my notes, more than 50 citizens addressed commissioners when the hearing was opened to the public---a number large enough to warrant serious consideration from commissioners as they formed their opinions on the matter.
The People SpeakThe first folks to speak were the five residents designated as “affected parties” who live within 500 feet of the proposed development---this in addition to the six people serving as the official appellants who had the opportunity to speak on Feb. 19 and would again after the public had its say.
Sharon Juraszek spoke first, her voice taut with emotion as she weighed in on the department store debate. “This is clearly a department store, which is against the code,” she said, calling on commissioners to “make the right call” based on the “rule of the law.”
Andrea Davis then painted a mental picture of the potentially impacted neighborhoods, saying, “This part of town has so much peacefulness and charm. It still reflects the old Florida character and flavor because of the modest one-story bungalows---no mega-houses, no mega-stores, just old Florida.”
Bill Dehart, whose front yard faces the shopping center, expressed support for the Wal-Mart and referred to the shopping center’s current state as an “eyesore.”Steve McAllister was the first “non-affected” party to speak, eliciting a groan from Mayor Atwell when he said of the Wal-Mart folks, “They gotta work a little bit harder. This is Sarasota. We don’t have to roll over on our backs and spread our legs for the first suitor that comes along.”
Marc Niski disagreed, saying “If they meet the zoning, let them build it … Right now we have nothing.”
Louis Doyle, the California-based co-owner of the Ringling Shopping Center property for the past 15 years, told commissioners about multiple recent incidents involving skateboarders, vagrants, vandals and graffiti taggers.
After referring to the shopping center as “aged” and “obsolete,” he said, “It’s difficult to find quality tenants that are interested in going in there. I think that this proposal we have is a very good one, and by the way, there’s not anyone standing in the wings to come in if this does not go through.”Grant Showalter used to live across the street from the shopping center. He expressed support for the project, saying, “I look forward to the possibility of a Wal-Mart being there. I see a lot of advantages.”
Reflecting back on the 1990s when he lived within view of the plaza, Showwalter said, “I would watch the sun set over the Ringling Shopping Center … I watched it---literally and figuratively---set over Ringling Shopping Center as Woolworth’s went out and Walgreens went out and Dollar General came in. It has been going downhill for a long time.”
Local attorney Chris Pettit questioned Tim Litchet’s advice to commissioners to apply a “holistic interpretation” of the zoning code. He also questioned why Litchet did not get the city manager to sign off on a development project whose defined use was not among those allowed by the zoning code.
Addressing the department store designation Wal-Mart hoped to avoid, Pettit said, “In repeated cases in the United States, Wal-Mart was determined to be a department store, not a variety store.”
Resident Patricia Varley said, ”I am not against growth and development, but as a citizen, a grandma and a teacher I believe in abiding by the law and this is breaking the city zoning code,” sharing her belief that multi-million dollar corporations should not be exempt from the law.
“Ask yourself," she said, "is this something you would want or approve for your own neighborhood?
Who’s protecting our neighborhoods, if not our elected officials?”One of the most impressive presentations of the night came from Maryellin Kirkwood, who said, “I think biggest problem that we have is one that was brought up last week by Commissioners Turner and Snyder---the idea that the hours of operation for any business in the City of Sarasota that’s in a quiet neighborhood is not defined in our zoning code. A 24-hour, seven-day-a-week department store really is not compatible with the 616 homeowners that comprise that general neighborhood.”
Firing what might have been a verbal shot in the direction of Mayor Atwell, who is currently running for re-election, Kirkwood said, “That’s a least a thousand voters, keep that in mind too.”
Kirkwood then produced a Sarasota Herald-Tribune article from 1999 in which Litchet’s judgment was called into question. Quoting the 1999 article, Kirkwood said, ‘“The latest snafu arose because Building and Zoning Director Tim Litchet incorrectly read the building code,’ said Assistant City Attorney Bob Fournier … ‘Litchet, by his own admission, has given the same wrong interpretation of the code for numerous projects.’”
Stating her own opinion, Kirkwood said, “I think the commission and the city manager need to clean up the building and zoning code---make it clear so that we’re not interpreting it. Also, you must put hours of operation in the code.’’
Striking a more emotional chord, Island Style Watersports owner Laurel Kaiser said, “I will weep if this is what happens.”
James Rose took a more creative approach, expressing his opposition in the form of a three-minute video addressing the main points of contention.
Echoing comments made earlier by Louis Doyle, Pam DeDea, Property Manager for the Ringling Shopping Center, said, “For the past seven years I have been plagued with skateboarders being an issue at my shopping center. A week ago, I got a call from the police department that skateboarders had broken into the vacant Publix unit. The very next night we were tagged at the shopping center.”
She then said, “The property is obsolete. It was built in the fifties. It is old and that is part of the reason for this development. I understand that people don’t like change, and don’t want a big box, but I can assure you that this property is very tired and it is going to be even more time-consuming, not only for me, but for the city police, because of the extra patrols they have to do to make this property safe.”
Expressing displeasure that State Senator Bill Galvano was providing legal counsel to Wal-Mart, Occupy Sarasota activist Paul Tuttle said, “I think it’s absurd that one of our Florida state senators has been hired to represent Wal-Mart.”Commercial realtor John Harshman supported the Wal-Mart proposal, saying, “It’s a shopping center that has seen some really good days, but those days were long ago … Publix didn’t say ‘Let’s expand on this site,’ they left. This is the only plan that has come forward.”
Expounding on his support, Harshman said, “This will help the retail downtown, but more importantly it will help the diversity of our residential downtown. We want to bring more vitality, more life to downtown, and this will give an alternate shopping [experience] that’s not Whole Foods and that’s not some of the higher-end shopping.”
Harshman also supported city staff’s interpretation of the zoning code.
After clarifying that she does not live in one of the potentially affected neighborhoods, Millie Small said, “I wouldn’t want it in my neighborhood, I know that.”
She then said, “There’s one thing I never heard mentioned, and that’s the noise of the air conditioners and where they would be located,” citing pervious complaints associated with Sarasota Memorial Hospital.
Referring to the traffic impact, Small said, “The traffic numbers don’t add up to me. If there’s no increase in traffic, I’d be worried if I was Wal-Mart,”---a comment that produced laughter from the audience.
Small also voiced concerns about blocking the existing sidewalk that connects the neighborhoods to the east with the shopping center parking lot that lies between the neighborhoods and Payne Park.
Questioning Litchet’s interpretation of the zoning code, local land use attorney Dan Lobeck said, “This is a no-brainer. A department store is defined as a store of more than 15,000 or more square feet of gross floor area, selling a wide variety of retail goods arranged in general departments. Without question, Wal-Mart is a department store.”
Explaining that he is not opposed to Wal-Mart in general, Lobeck told commissioners they should deny this site plan application, and if they so desire, rezone the property in a manner that would allow for a department store.
Former supermarket and "big box" executive Jim Lampl was the last citizen to speak. He said, “As a former site analyst, I’m bewildered why Wal-Mart would take this site. I would have turned it down just like Publix did. I would look for a site that has better access on a four to six-lane highway, like the new Publix store. I would never consider for five minutes this location.”Addressing the traffic impact study, he said, “The traffic planning study is flawed. I’m thinking that there’s close to 50,000 trip impacts per week, not 36,000, so I think the traffic impact is understated by at least 10 percent. These roads cannot take this kind of the impact.”
Lampl also cited concerns about noise created by semi-truck refrigerator units and as many as ten 25-ton rooftop air conditioning units, saying, “Even with energy efficient units, it makes a hell of a lot of noise at three o’ clock in the morning,” suggesting that the units would run continuously due to the anticipated 24-hour operations.
“The real impact of a 24-hour store is inescapable, and the retail net effect of a Wal-Mart is a zero sum game.”
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