After months of protest — and a marathon public meeting — opponents of plans to redevelop the Lido Beach pool and pavilion under a private operator scored a victory.
That’s when the city’s Planning Board, after five-and-a-half hours of discussion, voted 4-1 Sept. 12 to recommend denial of the site plan for proposed pavilion project.
Because the Planning Board is just an advisory body, the decision isn’t final. The plans will advance to the City Commission for another public hearing and decisive vote. But Planning Board members echoed the long list of concerns project critics raised at the Sept. 12 meeting, stating there were valid reasons to reject the site plan application.
Representatives for Lido Beach Redevelopment Partners LLC submitted plans to the city earlier this year to modify the operations at the city-owned beachfront property. The plans include a 200-seat restaurant, a 33-seat Tiki bar, a splash pad, playgrounds, a new shade structure above the pavilion seating area and rental cabanas by the pool. The changes would not modify the footprint of the existing pavilion building.
The City Commission voted 3-2 in November 2017 to approve a lease with Lido Beach Redevelopment Partners. That deal outlined the general scope of the plans reviewed at the Sept. 12 Planning Board meeting. City staff recommended approving the site plan and major conditional use application.
But the plans have been a source of controversy among residents, particularly those living on Lido Key. An online petition has gathered more than 3,300 signatures opposing the planned redevelopment. At the Planning Board meeting, representatives for the Lido Key Residents Association said an informal poll of its membership showed 88% of respondents were against the proposal.
During the Planning Board meeting, speakers talked at length about their concerns regarding the plan. They feared allowing liquor sales and expanding beyond the current concession’s hours of operation would change the character of the commercial activity on the property. They questioned how the project would affect traffic and parking in the area.
They argued the project was a fundamental change of how the pavilion operates. A concession stand is one thing, they said. A restaurant and bar would become a destination, not a complement to the beach.
“This is making a conscious decision to commercialize, to monetize, this beach,” said Kevin Hennessy, an attorney representing Lido Key residents Carl and Cindy Shoffstall.
Ahead of the meeting, a group of project critics held a news conference at the Lido pavilion to focus on one specific line of criticism. Lido Key resident David Riedlinger said the redevelopment group has shown no evidence the plans will comply with Federal Emergency Management Agency regulations.
For buildings constructed in a flood zone that no longer comply with modern standards, FEMA states that no more than 50% of the building’s value can be put into improvements unless the property is brought up to code. Because the pavilion is valued at $437,300, Riedlinger questioned how the private operator could possibly invest more than $3 million into the property, which the group stated it would do when the lease was being reviewed.
“The plans are not in compliance,” Riedlinger said. “To me, it’s just a train wreck of bad decisions being made by the city.”
Gavin Meshad, a member of Lido Beach Redevelopment Partners, said the group had no choice but to comply with FEMA standards. He said certain elements of the improvements will not count toward the 50% rule. He said the redevelopment team was waiting for site plan approval before finalizing a strategy for FEMA compliance.
He took issue with suggestions the project might be built without meeting FEMA regulations.
“It’s unbelievable what comes out that’s inaccurate,” Meshad said before the Planning Board meeting.
The redevelopment team contested the broader public characterization of the project, too. They argued the project represented a modest increase in scope from what’s currently at the pavilion, an increase of 69 seats. Although the property would be adding a bar and a full-service restaurant, the group argued those elements were less a destination and more an enhanced amenity targeted at beachgoers.
“I kind of equate it to putting a Chili’s in the airport,” Meshad said at the meeting. “Nobody comes to the airport to eat at Chili’s.”
City staff said the proposal complied with the relevant standards for review. Gretchen Schneider, the city’s general manager of development services, dismissed several arguments from opponents of the project at the Planning Board meeting. In response to questions about the FEMA standards, Schneider confirmed the city would review whether the project was compliant before issuing a building permit.
And to those who said the project represented an impermissible commercialization of government-owned parkland, Schneider pointed to similar restaurant operations at Bobby Jones Golf Club and Payne Park.
“We do have plenty of facilities in our parks that are utilized in a very similar way,” Schneider said.
The Planning Board ultimately decided the application failed to meet the standards for review. Board members listed a variety of concerns, including compatibility with the surrounding residential area and the intensity of the proposed project.
“I can’t really buy this is an accessory use,” Planning Board member David Morriss said. “It really is a massive shift from a snack bar to a full-service restaurant with liquor sales.”
In October, the commission will schedule a special meeting on the pavilion plans. Opponents will attempt to convince at least one city commissioner who voted in support of the lease agreement to cast a vote against the site plan. The redevelopment team will once again argue the proposal complies with city regulations.
Although the consideration of the site plan is centered around a series of specific standards outlined in the city code, the debate over the future of the pavilion continues to carry strong emotional resonance for those involved.
“This is a place that I think is in the heart of Sarasota,” Morriss said. “I think it’s in everybody’s heart. Disrupting that for any reason, I think, is a dangerous thing to do, unless it’s extremely well considered.”