For those who are already dreading the latest round of seasonal traffic congestion in Sarasota, the prospect of the city undertaking an 18-month transportation study might not be too comforting.
But city Planning Director Steve Cover believes a master plan could become the foundation for building a better functioning transportation network in Sarasota — which means, eventually, some relief from traffic issues that have been building over the course of many years.
When Cover was hired in 2017, it was part of the city’s effort to re-establish a long-term planning division, which had been eliminated nearly a decade earlier in response to the economic downturn. Today, the city has $1.5 million budgeted toward planning, with nine planners working in the department.
With those resources in place, Cover is now focused on building long-term plans for managing growth in the city. Until now, issues such as traffic have lacked an up-to-date, comprehensive strategy.
“When I got here, we were totally in a reactive mode,” Cover said. “We couldn’t do any proactive planning. Part of the responsibility of the Planning Department is to look forward.”
Cover hopes to take a major step in that process Jan. 22, when staff will make a request to the commission to hire a consultant to lead the transportation master plan. Cover said the master plan would focus on all modes of transportation — not just cars, but cycling, walking and public transit, as well.
As the city has previously considered opportunities for encouraging the use of alternative modes of transportation, city officials and residents have expressed some skepticism about the ability to actually get people to walk, bike or use the bus in Sarasota. Cover, however, believes the interest will grow if residents believe those are genuinely viable options for getting around the city.
And he said continuing to focus on car-centric transportation planning would only exacerbate traffic issues, pointing to other cities as a cautionary tale for those skeptical of the multimodal strategy.
“If we continue to go down the same path, I think my question to them will be, ‘Do we really want to become a smaller Atlanta?’” Cover said. “I don’t think we do.”
As one long-term planning initiative begins in 2019, the city is also examining the best way to conclude another. Since 2013, the city has been working on the production of a new form-based zoning code. Planner Karin Murphy’s contract with the city ended last year, leaving Cover to oversee the process of implementing the draft zoning code Murphy delivered in October.
In January, staff will conclude a three-month period of reviewing that document and prepare recommendations for how to move forward. Although the city originally intended to adopt a new zoning code, Cover said staff’s recommendations will focus on addressing what officials consider to be the most pressing issues with the city’s development rules.
That will likely include high-profile topics such as downtown building regulations, sidewalk widths and public involvement in the development review process. Although Cover declined to delve into specifics before the recommendations are public, it likely won’t include any changes to regulations in the city’s single-family neighborhoods, despite Murphy’s recommendations.
“Right now, I think there are more pressing issues we’re going to be focusing on first,” Cover said.
Those are far from the only topics the planning division hopes to address in 2019. Asked for items on his agenda this year, Cover rattled off a list: an action plan for affordable housing, an updated historic preservation ordinance, the ongoing effort to redevelop the bayfront, the continued construction of roundabouts on U.S. 41, the expansion of the city’s public art program and more.
“Our plate is full, now that we’ve got a full Planning Department,” Cover said. “A year and a half ago, we never would have been able to do it.”