For the third time in four months, residents in red T-shirts packed the commission chambers at City Hall on March 15 — a show of force meant to persuade officials to change the way the city approves new developments.
Those residents support the activist group STOP. At the March 15 City Commission meeting, STOP campaigned against the expansion of administrative review. The process empowers staff to approve certain projects as long as they comply with standards within the zoning code.
Administrative review was expanded in the downtown area in 2005, following the approval of new zoning regulations for the heart of the city. As a result, the city has approved larger-scale downtown projects without public hearings in front of the Planning Board or City Commission — and without a formal venue for residents to share their thoughts.
Since forming in 2016, STOP has gained supporters as it argues administrative review is an obstacle to quality development. The group has taken a central role in the city’s discussion of zoning regulations. And, on March 15, it persuaded a majority of the commission to take a stance against expanding administrative review.
It hasn’t, however, earned a hard-and-fast commitment against the continued use of administrative review for larger projects. And so, as the city keeps discussing the best way to regulate growth, STOP will continue to advocate for increased public hearing requirements.
“From our point of view, it’s much better to have a process that truly enhances the communication in both directions,” said Kate Lowman, a member of STOP’s steering committee. “If you’re doing it at a public hearing, then the developer has a genuine incentive to listen. It doesn’t mean they’re necessarily going to, but they don’t have their approval yet, so there’s a built-in motivation.”
The conversation about administrative review comes as the city considers adopting a new form-based zoning code. The document proposes changes to the administrative review system, expanding it outside of downtown for projects planners believe would be relatively uncontroversial.
Karin Murphy, director of the city’s Urban Design Studio and principal author of the form-based code, points out that the code still mandates public hearings and community workshops for more intense projects. She doesn’t want administrative review to apply to developments residents are uncomfortable with, which the code tries to reflect.
But she said administrative review can be useful for streamlining the development process, lightening the burden on the Planning Board and City Commission.
Outside of downtown, administrative review is already in place for residential developments with fewer than eight units and commercial developments that are smaller than 10,000 square feet — or smaller than 5,000 square feet if the site is within 100 feet of neighborhoods.
The code would just expand those standards where planners thought it was appropriate. Murphy and other city staff members have said this process still allows for public input — it just happens in the drafting of the code, rather than on a case-by-case basis for each new development.
She pushed back against the suggestion that administrative review produced lower quality developments. If the proper regulations are in place, she said administrative approval could produce consistently good developments. Conversely, if there aren’t good regulations, there’s no way to guarantee the final product is good.
“Going to public hearing doesn’t always produce the greatest building,” Murphy said.
But residents citywide have expressed frustration at what they say is a lack of public input on projects that are reshaping the way the city looks and works.
More than 20 residents spoke at the March 15 commission meeting, arguing resident feedback produces projects that are more compatible with neighborhoods. Some of those residents argued city staff should not have approved certain downtown high-rises because they are not compatible with their surroundings, even though they comply with building standards.
Former Mayor Mollie Cardamone, another founding member of STOP, served on the commission from 1993 to 2001 — before administrative review was expanded. She remembered the public hearing process as an opportunity to have a constructive dialogue between developers and residents, with the commission serving as the mediator.
She cited the approval of The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota downtown and the Ritz-Carlton Beach Club on Lido Key as two major projects that were approved with changes brokered through public hearings. She thinks the back-and-forth is lost when staff is empowered to approve projects on its own.
“Staff can’t really do much about — or know — the impacts that affect the neighbors,” Cardamone said.
Developer Jay Tallman was one of the few public speakers who defended administrative review. He said public hearings provide neighborhood commentary at a point when developers have already sunk resources into producing plans for a project.
He encouraged the city to establish a process that allows for resident input on site-specific issues. He just wants that to happen at the beginning of the development cycle.
“It’s the early input from the neighborhood that’s very important,” Tallman said. “To have subjective input at the very tail end — after I’ve spent, in some cases, over a million dollars on the planning of the project — that’s not the time to do that.”
In some cases, the form-based code recommends holding public workshops ahead of administrative site plan review. That would allow public input, but STOP doesn’t think it goes far enough, arguing the commission and Planning Board are more likely to hold developers responsible for addressing community concerns.
“What we have now with administrative approval is pretty much that, if a developer submits a project and it technically meets the code, it gets approved,” Lowman said.
After hearing from residents, planners and developers, the commission is divided.
The city is just beginning its review of the proposed form-based code, but Commissioners Jen Ahearn-Koch and Willie Shaw were already willing to rule out the possibility of expanding administrative review altogether at the March 15 meeting.
“I absolutely do not think we should be expanding on something that is causing community outrage,” Ahearn-Koch said. “I cannot support that in any way, shape or form.”
Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie said she thought the city needed to do more research before coming to that conclusion.
“The assumption is that you’ve heard from the entire community,” Eddie said. “You can’t make that assumption.”
Commissioner Hagen Brody went a step further in defense of administrative review. He called it an important tool for facilitating redevelopment because it provides certainty for builders.
“Demonizing it — and, at this premature point, excluding it — I think is a huge mistake,” Brody said.
And Vice Mayor Liz Alpert said both sides appeared to have some merit. She indicated she did not want to expand administrative review without provisions allowing more public input. But, responding to Tallman’s perspective, she agreed it made sense to gather that public input earlier.
As the commission continues to discuss its zoning regulations, Murphy said community buy-in will decide the fate of the form-based code — and provisions such as administrative review. Although she may make recommendations based on her planning expertise, she said the goal of the code is to produce standards that reflect the desires of the city.
“I’m not the decision maker,” Murphy said. “When the elected officials hear from all the voices in the community, that’s a good, healthy process.”