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Judge rejects Woman’s Exchange appeal

On Monday, Circuit Court Judge Brian Iten ruled the city was justified in its decision to reject plans to expand the Woman’s Exchange.

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  • | 12:55 p.m. December 6, 2016
  • Sarasota
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A judge has sided with the city regarding a controversial decision to reject plans to expand the Woman’s Exchange consignment store on Orange Avenue.

On Monday, Circuit Court Judge Brian Iten denied the Woman’s Exchange’s petition for a writ of certiorari, affirming the city’s decision in the process. In April, the City Commission rejected the proposal to build an expansion at 526 Rawls Ave.

In the two-page ruling, Iten said the city provided due process, followed the essential requirements of law and made its decision based on competent substantial evidence.

Attorney Robert Lincoln, representing the Woman’s Exchange, had argued the city ignored its own zoning regulations and the input of city staff, which approved the project before the commission reversed that decision.

Iten disagreed. He said the appeal from Laurel Park residents, who argued the proposed loading zone was incompatible with the nearby neighborhood, presented a valid reason to reject the plans.

"The court finds that the commission properly considered the non-expert, fact-based testimony of local residents regarding the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists in the area of the proposed site plan," Iten wrote.

The city is currently in the process of rewriting its zoning regulations to allow for the proposed expansion without the inclusion of a loading zone on Rawls Avenue. When the Woman’s Exchange filed its appeal in July, Lincoln said the store was still considering moving to a new location — even if the court eventually issued a favorable ruling.

Woman’s Exchange CEO Karen Koblenz expressed frustration with Iten’s ruling and said the nonprofit was still considering its options for the future.

“It is a sad day for the city when property owners cannot rely on the zoning code as it is written to protect their financial interests,” Koblenz wrote in a statement.

Kate Lowman, the Laurel Park Neighborhood Association board member who led the residents’ appeal of the site plan, applauded Iten's ruling and the city’s defense of its decision. She said the neighborhood focused on ensuring its testimony met the legal threshold of ”competent substantial evidence,” a lesson she hoped other residents would take away if they had to mount a similar challenge.

“I think the challenge for citizens is that you have to really work to make your case,” Lowman said. “You’re not a lawyer or engineer where automatically, it’s assumed the evidence you have is substantial and seriously factual — not just an opinion.”

Woman’s Exchange statement

Below, find the entirety of Woman’s Exchange CEO Karen Koblenz’s response to Iten’s ruling. 

Sarasota’s growth and economic health has always had at its foundation the fact that it is the premiere cultural center of Florida. The Woman’s Exchange has always been committed to that cultural presence and the belief that the arts enrich our way of life, as well as the economic health of our community.  We will continue to pursue that objective, which was at the heart of our decision to purchase the adjacent property located on Rawls Avenue and design our expansion around it.  The design of that expansion was approved by the city staff and found to meet all requirements of the zoning code, including providing a loading space meeting the city’s requirements.

We are obviously disappointed in Judge Iten’s brief ruling, that appears to support the City Commission’s elevation of the personal fears and opinions of neighborhood activists over the expertise of its own professional staff. We continue to strongly believe that the City Commission failed to read, apply and enforce the binding language of the city’s zoning code, and disrespected the hard work of its own excellent staff. Unfortunately, the court’s order contains no analysis or explanation as to how the City Commission’s decision complied with the essential requirements of the law, its own zoning code. In fact, the judge’s order does not cite to any provisions of the zoning code. We are further disappointed that Judge Iten did not grant our counsel’s request to be heard in oral argument before ruling.  

The city placed the Woman’s Exchange in an impossible situation by demanding a code-compliant loading zone and then denying its site plan due to the loading zone it demanded.  We are simply not able to discern the court’s reasons for upholding that decision. We are disheartened to learn that vocal activists are permitted to override the city’s zoning code and determine the fate of property owners trying to use their property in compliance with the zoning code. It is a sad day for the city when property owners cannot rely on the zoning code as it is written to protect their financial interests. 

The Woman’s Exchange is considering its options.

Laurel Park statement

Below, find a statement on the ruling from Alice Sundstrom, president of the Laurel Park Neighborhood Association

The Laurel Park Neighborhood Association is pleased Judge Iten ruled in favor of the city of Sarasota. His ruling means there will not be a Woman’s Exchange loading zone on tiny Rawls Avenue.

We'd like to thank the City Commission for their support of Sarasota’s neighborhoods and City Attorney Robert Fournier for his hard work and diligence in defending that decision in court.

We hope the Woman’s Exchange prospers and continues its important mission of supporting the arts in Sarasota.