Laurel Park residents want the city to know they’re content with the building regulations in place for the downtown-adjacent neighborhood.
Are there issues with development in the neighborhood? Sure, resident Kate Lowman said. People in Laurel Park are particularly concerned about the rate at which older homes in the historic district are being torn down and replaced with houses built as tall and large as zoning allows.
Still, the Laurel Park Neighborhood Association has determined the problems in place are preferable to the prospect of change. That’s why, when the city decided to produce a new form-based zoning code that would rewrite building regulations throughout Sarasota, Laurel Park asked for its rules to be kept as-is.
“We said, ‘Don’t change our zoning,’” said Lowman, a former neighborhood association board member. “We’ve been there, we’ve done that, we’ve fought it over. Nobody thinks our zoning’s perfect, but we want to live with it.”
The city began working on the form-based code in 2013. After a series of delays and rescinded drafts, Urban Design Studio Director Karin Murphy turned in her final version of the code in October. Murphy’s contract with the city is now up, leaving city staff to review the proposal without its principal author.
Staff is still in the process of reviewing the code, a task expected to continue through the end of the year. But already, neighborhoods throughout the city are expressing opposition to the changes proposed.
That’s true in Laurel Park, where Murphy proposed allowing the construction of duplexes and town homes without a public review process. At a neighborhood association meeting Nov. 13, Lowman said the changes hadn’t been run by Laurel Park residents. And she saw the proposal as something that could radically alter the character of the single-family neighborhood.
And it’s true throughout the city: On Nov. 3, representatives for neighborhoods in attendance at a Coalition of City Neighborhoods meeting overwhelmingly supported a motion to ask the city to set aside the entire form-based code, pursuing other options for revising the city’s zoning regulations. No neighborhood representatives voted against the motion, and two abstained.
Ron Collins, head of the CCNA subcommittee reviewing the form-based code, said the proposal failed to adequately incorporate the input of resident groups. Although a formal public review process has not yet begun, Collins said neighborhood leaders are skeptical the proposed code can be salvaged.
“The people that represent the neighborhoods have had enough input over the past five-and-a-half years, and they feel that input has fallen on deaf ears,” he said. “They have a document that is fundamentally contrary to their wishes.”
Steve Cover, the city’s planning director, said staff is still working on developing recommendations for how to proceed with the form-based code. Any determination is unlikely to be made before early 2019.
Already, though, there are signs staff may be shying away from major changes in residential areas. Cover said the staff wanted to prioritize elements of the code that focus on high-profile issues the commission has expressed an interest in addressing: downtown zoning, sidewalk widths, setback rules and development review procedures.
One thing staff doesn’t see as a high priority? Zoning in predominantly single-family neighborhoods.
“There aren’t a whole lot of problems in our residential communities right now,” Cover said.
While Murphy was still with the city, she repeatedly mentioned town homes as an opportunity to introduce new housing types into single-family neighborhoods. Permitting attached housing would encourage the construction of smaller units while creating a more inviting building interface for pedestrians, she said.
Murphy said the city needed to encourage a diversity of housing options to create more affordable, walkable neighborhoods. New- urbanist planners such as Murphy have said a historic emphasis on building single-family homes has contributed to urban sprawl and a shortage of attainable housing in cities nationwide.
But residents such as Lowman said they don’t believe the proposals in the code will promote affordability where they live. She said the most affordable units in the city tend to be older structures, and she feared the form-based code would encourage the demolition of those buildings.
Lowman acknowledged that older homes in Laurel Park are already being replaced with larger houses under the current zoning regulations. Still, she didn’t see the code’s proposals as a good response.
“Slowly, alas, as houses are being torn down, some of the more affordable units are disappearing,” Lowman said. “But I can tell you that ripping down even more houses and putting up duplexes or town homes is not going to bring more affordable housing to the neighborhood.”
Collins is a resident of the Granada neighborhood, another section of the city where residents have expressed strong opposition to the notion of introducing more attached housing.
But Collins said duplexes and town homes aren’t the only issues with the new code. At the CCNA meeting, he mentioned a variety of topics in the code affecting neighborhoods citywide: setback regulations, administrative site plan approval, architectural guidelines and more.
While drafting the code, Murphy said she would incorporate neighborhood feedback, but not hold back recommendations at the expense of what she believed were best practices in planning. Collins, however, believes neighborhood input was not just occasionally overruled — it was largely ignored.
“We were a major stakeholder in the process,” Collins said. “If our opinions don’t count, I guess we should not have been named as a major stakeholder. We should not have spent five years of our time trying to offer some input that made sense for our own neighborhoods.”
Even neighborhood leaders who had a cordial working relationship with Murphy were disappointed when they saw the latest draft of the code.
St. Armands resident Hugh Fiore said Murphy initially appeared to be receptive to neighborhood input, conducting walking tours of the area alongside residents and engaging in a dialog with those who wanted to share thoughts about the development regulations.
When a final version of the code was being produced, however, Fiore was confused after learning Murphy was proposing smaller setback requirements in the St. Armands neighborhood. Fiore said residents hadn’t discussed that with her and weren’t in favor of the idea. As a result — and based on the input of the CCNA subcommittee — he supports the notion of setting aside the form-based code.
“She came up with stuff that we never talked about,” Fiore said. “I’m in favor of going back to the drawing board.”
So if the city doesn’t go forward with the form-based code, how would these neighborhood leaders like to see officials proceed with potential changes to the existing regulations? Most agree that improvements can be made. Some, like Lowman, are hesitant to have the city tinker with the rules in their neighborhood. Others, like Fiore, think they can work productively with city staff, though he doesn’t see the zoning regulations in neighborhoods as a high priority.
Regardless of their preferred course of action in the future, neighborhood leaders are first working to convince city officials not to proceed with the form-based code.
“If they don’t have the appetite, they can spare us the pain,” Collins said.
This article has been updated to correct the proposed zoning changes in Laurel Park.