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City offers potential rezone to Ringling Shopping Center owners

Hoping to end litigation and spark revitalization, the City Commission has offered the owner of the largely vacant shopping center a deal in response to a legal claim.

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  • | 12:17 p.m. June 16, 2015
The City Commission expressed a desire to see the strip mall transformed into an "urban village."
The City Commission expressed a desire to see the strip mall transformed into an "urban village."
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At a meeting Monday, the City Commission unanimously agreed on a proposal that could lead to the rezone of the Ringling Shopping Center, property that has sat mostly dormant since the 2013 rejection of a planned Walmart at the site.

The decision came after a group of residents, most of whom live near the shopping center, voiced their opposition to any changes that would allow a big box store to move into the area. Commissioners felt their proposed deal, if accepted by the property owners, would produce desirable results for adjacent neighborhoods and the city as a whole.

"It's all the things we said would make our city more vibrant and bring in the economic development we want," Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie said.

The proposal is a response to a legal claim from the property owners, who allege the city’s actions in 2013 caused an undue devaluation of the land. Although City Attorney Robert Fournier said the merits of that claim are flimsy, he said the city had an opportunity to reenergize an area it would like to see redeveloped anyway — and to gain an advantage in legal proceedings that have been ongoing since the Walmart denial.

In the proposed deal, the city would begin the process of rezoning the shopping center property, changing the land classification from Community Shopping Center – Neighborhood to Downtown Edge and Downtown Neighborhood Edge. Although the changes would allow for the same use at the site that was denied in the 2013 Walmart proposal, Fournier said zoning regulations would prevent the development of a traditional big box store.

That process would be subject to public input and eventual commission approval, though the board expressed positive opinions about those changes independent of any legal ramifications they might have.

Still, under the Bert. J Harris Private Property Act — the Florida law via which the shopping center owners have made their claim — the city is required to proffer a settlement proposal. If the owners were to reject the offer and proceed to trial, Fournier said the city could recover the cost of attorney’s fees if their argument prevailed and the judge felt the settlement was reasonable and would have resolved the dispute.

Now, the property owners are in a position to decide whether to accept the city’s offer. Despite a recent push to revitalize the shopping center, owner Louis Doyle sent a letter to the City Commission last week discouraging them from approving the proposed settlement. He has advocated for a formal mediation process to avoid the public input that he believes led to the derailing of the Walmart proposal.

"Mediation … would not be subject to all the diversions of political theatrics we have seen over the past decade" — Louis Doyle

"In this situation, mediation could be used to resolve all matters simultaneously … and would not be subject to all the diversions of political theatrics we have seen over the past decade," Doyle wrote in an email prior to Monday’s meeting. "Energy could be focused solely on the two sides (the City and me) rolling up our sleeves and working it out."

Fournier said the city would be willing to go through mediation with the property owners, but said any changes to the zoning of the property would eventually have to go through a public vetting process. If the city did seek a rezone and comprehensive plan change following an agreement with the owners, the city would act as the applicant, allowing the property owners to stay out of the public hearing process if they so desired.

For more information about the Ringling Shopping Center, pick up a copy of Thursday’s Sarasota Observer.


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