In 2013, the city embarked on the drafting of a brand-new zoning code, hopeful a switch to a new urbanist-inspired regulatory document could help improve the development process in Sarasota.
In March, when an initial draft of the code was made public, Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown expressed confidence the form-based code represented an upgrade from the existing zoning regulations.
“We’re talking about a much simpler, a much more reduced document,” Brown said.
As public criticism of the proposed code has mounted, however, officials have stepped back from their endorsements of entirely new citywide zoning regulations.
After code author Karin Murphy submitted a final draft in October when her contract with the city expired, staff said it would take three months to review the document.
By November, Planning Director Steve Cover indicated the city would not proceed with any zoning changes in residential areas. On Tuesday, at a City Commission meeting, he confirmed those recommendations: The city would not be making an effort to adopt the form-based code.
Instead, planning staff has identified eight specific priorities it hopes to address starting this year.
Cover said those priorities were informed by community and staff input. He called them the most pressing topics that must be addressed to improve the city’s development procedures.
Most of those topics were addressed in the form-based code. Although the city isn’t adopting the document, Cover called it an important process for community engagement and for developing a framework staff can use to develop its own proposed ordinances revising the existing zoning code.
“We have had a lot of public input,” Cover said. “We listened, and we heard loud and clear, and that’s why we’re moving forward with these eight initiatives.”
The form-based code project, originally expected to take 30 months, lasted more than five years before a final draft was finished. The city spent more than $1.4 million on the Urban Design Studio, the new department established to write the code.
Now that officials have put aside the prospect of adopting the entire document, how will these new planning priorities inform future zoning changes?
STOP and go
The top two priorities Cover identified overlap with areas of emphasis for STOP, a resident activist group formed in 2016 to advocate for changes to city development regulations.
Planning staff’s top priority is refining the city’s review processes — which includes administrative development review, a process that allows staff to approve projects it determines are compliant with applicable zoning regulations.
Administrative review has been a target of criticism for STOP. The group has pushed for the city to greatly reduce its use of administrative review downtown in favor of holding public hearings on proposed developments.
Cover said staff isn’t just interested in considering changes to administrative review. He said the city would pursue adjustments to how it reviews permit, rezoning and historic preservation applications. And although residents have issues with administrative review, Cover said the city needed to consider the needs of other stakeholders, including developers and architects.
“For staff, is it most efficient for us?” Cover said. “For applicants, is it clear?”
Although staff didn’t single out administrative review as a priority, some residents and commissioners are already pushing for a more aggressive timeline to address that specific topic. On Feb. 4, STOP intends to present a proposed zoning text amendment that would restrict the use of administrative review downtown.
City Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch, who was a founding member of STOP before joining the commission, encouraged staff to move quickly toward a resolution on that item. The commission agreed to hold off on setting a timeline for administrative review until that Feb. 4 meeting.
“It is something that is of utmost urgency and importance,” Ahearn-Koch said.
The second priority, adjustments to setback regulations and sidewalk widths, is another goal for STOP. Cover said staff believes the existing development regulations, which can allow for 4-foot-wide sidewalks on streets such as Fruitville Road, are not acceptable.
“We quickly realized, OK, we can’t do this,” Cover said. “This is not going to produce a pedestrian-friendly city.”
R.N. Collins, head of the City Coalition of Neighborhood Associations subcommittee on the form-based code, was encouraged by the priorities staff identified. He spoke at Tuesday’s commission meeting to encourage the commission to address the items in the order listed.
Collins, a critic of the form-based code, said he was happy with the work the planning department is doing.
“We think they have identified the most important aspects, and I believe the staff is fully capable of bringing forward solutions,” Collins said.
Salvaging the code
During Tuesday’s discussion, Commissioner Hagen Brody expressed some concern about the city abandoning the form-based code. He questioned whether the city was picking individual priorities and failing to adopt a comprehensive strategy for managing development.
Brody also said he was worried the priorities were being driven by groups such as STOP, which he believed aren’t representative of the broader community.
“I’m concerned we’re plucking out some of these things that in my opinion aren’t coming up from the whole population, but from a small group,” Brody said.
Cover pushed back against that assertion, stating staff has picked this approach because it wants to move quickly on adopting priorities it has identified. He said the process of adopting an entirely new code would be time-consuming, and he hoped the priority list would allow the city to move forward in a way that is more efficient and easily understandable for the public.
Cover said the city isn’t totally discarding the form-based code. He said some of the identified priorities would allow the city to build on concepts proposed in the code. That could include changes to setback regulations, affordable housing incentives, retail frontage design standards, transit initiatives, street designs and more.
“This is all stuff that’s in the form-based code that’s going to be part of those ordinances,” Cover said. “It was a really good work effort, and I think it gave us a clear direction as to where we need to go forward.”
The commission encouraged Cover to refine the timeline for considering each priority so the public was well aware of when it could engage in the planning process.
“Once we have a calendar, let’s stick to it,” Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie said.
Now that the commission has offered its endorsement of the priorities staff has identified, Cover said staff would do that.
“Obviously as we’re moving forward, we’ll have plenty of opportunity for public comment,” he said.
Cover said the Planning Department intends to get to work right away in hopes of moving briskly toward concrete proposals.
“These are the issues we need to focus on first,” Cover said. “I think we know it, and I think everyone knows it.”