Few topics raise more interest at Sarasota City Hall like a discussion about changes in zoning on St. Armands Circle.
At its Nov. 21 meeting, the Sarasota City Commission heard a request by the St. Armands Business Improvement District to direct staff to study possible changes to the Commercial Tourist Zoning District with the intent to “promote mixed use development in the area, improve upon the existing functionality and aesthetics of the circle, and lay out framework for future development.”
Under consideration was a request to begin a new process that would have required additional community workshops and public hearings. Still, more than a dozen people spoke out against the BID’s request primarily because changes sought include raising the maximum building height from 35 feet to 45 feet above the FEMA design flood elevation, a review of additional density and the addition of hotel as a conditional use.
Opponents saw that as an opportunity for commercial property owners on the circle to go vertical with their buildings, add short-term rental housing above retail.
Traffic in and around the circle was the main objection.
St. Armands BID Chairman Tom Leonard told commissioners the primary objective is to allow owners of the century-old buildings to bring them up to contemporary standards, if they were so inclined.
“I've reached out to every property owner on the circle and the majority of those operators feel that St. Armands needs more flexibility to allow it to maximize its potential,” said Leonard, who owns Shore restaurant there. Many buildings, he said, have eight-foot ceilings and non-conforming parking, which limit their owners’ ability to renovate.
“Our hands are tied out there,” he said. “We’re not asking you to vote on this to approve it. We're just asking you to vote on it so we can go through the public scrutiny process.”
This isn’t the first time the BID has attempted to affect zoning changes on the circle. In 2008, it commissioned a study that resulted in an expressed need for a hotel and grocery store on the key.
“Not 10 grocery stores, not 10 hotels, one of each,” said Chris Golia, president of the St. Armands Residents Association. “But the matter before you today would allow every single commercial building on St. Armands to have hotel rooms if the owners wanted to do that, so we're very concerned about that.”
Golia cited community workshops in August 2021 and January 2022, during which an overwhelming majority of participants objected to the proposals being brought by the BID.
Prior to the City Commission meeting, the St. Armands Residents Association reported a recent survey with nearly half of the residents responding resulted in 90% opposing a commercial building height increase and 87% objecting to a zoning text change that would allow boutique hotel usage and the potential for Airbnb’s.
“To anybody who says all you're doing is opening it up to public scrutiny, it’s already been done,” Golia said.
Carl Shoffstall, a Lido Key resident, neighborhood association president and candidate for City Commission this year, objected to the BID bringing the matter to the city.
“It has nothing to do with I got mine and nobody else should get theirs,” Shoffstall said. “We don't need hotels. There is a hotel approved already. I really have a serious issue with the people who are pushing this forward. We vetted this for over a year-and-a-half and it was resoundingly voted down, and here we are back at picking at the scab.”
A big ask
“We're not trying to build towers out there,” Leonard said. “What we're trying to do is bring St. Armands up to a developmental standard that makes it current with other cities like Naples, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Tampa and St. Petersburg.”
Leonard and Julie Ryan, the BID’s city-appointed business manager, told commissioners that the BID itself is up for renewal in 2023, and progress toward a zoning change may help ensure property owners there approve. As a special tax district, the city returns the additional ad valorem revenue for BID use to enhance business on the circle.
Erik Arroyo, supported by his fellow commissioners, told Leonard that on the heels of the approved comprehensive plan amendments and the myriad zoning amendments to enhance affordable housing efforts that will follow, staff is already overburdened to take on a zoning study.
City Manager Marlon Brown asked Planning Director Steve Cover to articulate the staff’s workload, and when it might be able to fit the BID’s request on its schedule.
“We do have a very heavy year ahead of us with the zoning text amendments related to downtown, which we're going to be jumping on early next year,” Cover said.
Could it be done in 2023, Brown asked?
“To really fit comfortably, make it 2024,” Cover said.
Rather than tackling a year-plus-long process to review a wholesale text amendment change, Arroyo suggested property owners should bring proposals for specific projects individually rather than wholesale under the cover of the BID.
Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch agreed.
“When I read this, it's to authorize city staff to prepare a zoning text amendment, which is a big ask of staff, and then it very specifically says review additional density in the comp plan,” Ahearn-Koch said. “I see this as a wide open door. It's not targeted. It's not specific. We've not had a plethora of people coming down asking for any of this. To Commissioner Arroyo’s point, we have a lot going on, and to put this out there without it being targeted, I think we're asking for problems.”
City Attorney Robert Fournier settled the matter among commissioners’ minds with a timely legal interpretation of the BID’s request.
Specifically, it isn’t specific enough.
"If the BID has amendments that they want to request, they ought to be able to articulate them or to specify what they are. I don't think they've done that,” Fournier said. “The BID says the changes are necessary, and the residents say they aren’t. I think it's unwise to authorize a zoning text amendment unless you know exactly what the proposed amendment is, and I think this is a little too open ended for that.”
Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.