Topics including downtown building heights, inclusionary zoning, affordable housing, growing administrative powers — and some alleged political espionage — highlighted the Sarasota City Commission candidates forum June 11, hosted by the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations at Bayfront Community Center.
Five of six candidates vying for two at-large seats, including incumbent Jen Ahearn-Koch, were grilled for 90 minutes by moderator Dan DeLeo, a partner with law firm and event sponsor Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick. The collegial discussion was briefly interrupted by the nearly hour-late arrival of candidate Sheldon Rich, who claimed he was duped into missing the forum by a false email instructing him the event had been changed from in-person to online.
“I received a GoTo Meeting invitation that stated the meeting has been switched to online, so I've been online at my home since 8:55 this morning waiting for anybody to join,” Rich said. ”No one was there, and I thought I better scurry on up here and see if it hadn't been changed. I must be causing some ruckus and maybe my candidacy is causing some feathers to be ruffled.
“Somebody went to an awful lot of effort to send me a bogus invitation to a GoTo meeting. My intent was to certainly participate in this meeting from the very beginning.”
In addition to Ahearn-Koch and Rich, City Commission candidates Debbie Trice, Dan Lobeck and Carl Shoffstall participated. Sarasota Planning Board Chair Terrill Salem, who is also running, did not attend.
At least one new commissioner will be elected; Commissioner Hagen Brody is vacating his seat to make a run at the Sarasota County Commission. The Aug. 23 primary will narrow the field of candidates from six to three, of which two will be elected in the Nov. 6 general election.
The CCNA Executive Committee drafted a series of questions for the candidates, indicating its primary concerns regarding the future of Sarasota. Here is how the candidates addressed some of them. The forum can be viewed in its entirety here.
On including neighborhood stakeholders in the strategic land development process
Ahearn-Koch: “It is essential that the citizens and that the neighborhood leaders have … not only a voice at the table, but a meaningful voice at the table, which is the question: When is your voice the most meaningful and the most powerful? … It’s in the process a little bit later on, when the neighbors can know exactly what is being proposed. Not only there, but to continue to have your your voice represented at the planning board and at the City Commission where you elect your representatives directly to represent you.”
Lobeck: “You deserve a seat at the table at the Development Review Committee meetings. … You can talk all you want to the developers at their workshops. You can talk as much as you want to staff who tends to go with the developers, although they're doing a little bit better. But you need the right to continue to give your input to the city commissioners that you elect and the planning board members among the citizens that they appoint. This whole idea of administrative approval needs to be squashed and eliminated.”
Shoffstall: “I've been involved with CCNA for many years and that is one of the most important things that we've got to try and do. Everybody here is basically saying the same thing, but how that's going to get done is that we need to be listened to, we need to be able to interact with the commissioners as well as staff, and I think it is absolutely crucial that we get to say at the table as neighborhood associations.”
Trice: “I would change the development review process while the developer is still creating plans and when they're doing a feasibility study. One element of the feasibility study should be finding out whether the neighborhood that they're wanting to build in is going to be supportive, or is going to fight them every step of the way. … I’m suggesting that we have a community workshop of sorts, early in the process.”
On changes they would make two gateway corridors and the North Trail
Ahearn-Koch: “The most pressing issue on the North Trail is the proposed mixed-use land use change. … It removes the citizens’ voice and removes the neighborhoods’ voice because it uses the administrative approval process. I think that that is one of the key changes that will impact our city to the tune of billions of dollars over the next several years. Administrative approval is something I absolutely do not support.”
Lobeck: “I couldn't agree more with what the commissioner has said about not stripping away the commission's decisions with regard to development that might occur. Developers want predictability for what they want to accomplish, and sometimes things need to be done to improve compatibility with the neighborhoods all along the North Trail. You've got non-residential uses abutting neighborhoods. The neighborhoods deserve consideration.”
Shoffstall: “The North Trail absolutely needs to be improved. It takes a commissioner to be able to sit with all parties and listen to everybody. I am for removing administrative approval and everybody has to be at the table. It has to be early. ... We need to listen to what the neighbors have to say. You're not going to stop the city from growing. And North Trail is a very important piece of that puzzle.”
Trice: “All of our major thoroughfares should be beautified, like we're seeing is happening in Ringling and Boulevard at and 10th Street. When you start talking about the buildings along the North Trail, it's imperative that we really do include the neighborhood voices. I'm hearing complaints about gentrification already, and a lot of the people in that area are left out of the room. We need to make sure that the voices of people in the neighborhood are heard before we try and make major changes.”
On increasing building heights in the downtown area as proposed in comprehensive plan amendments
Lobeck: “There are those, perhaps even a commission majority right now, that would raise building heights. People move here not because of skyscrapers. They move here because of our charm and our character. I'm opposed to those increases, and certainly not as a giveaway to the developer in turn return for providing new units the way it's now worded for attainable housing for a family of four making $108,450 a year. That's a scam, honestly. This amendment that's moving forward specifically says that no longer will you have commission approval, you will have administrative approval, if there's that little teeny increment of what's really unaffordable housing. That needs to be squashed.”
Shoffstall: “Regarding heights, what we have now is working. The gentrification problem that everybody's talking about is of great concern. (We need to) utilize modern urban design, we need larger sidewalks and walkability. For plan with extended heights, if a plan is unique enough that requires a comp plan change, it should be able to withstand a 4-1 vote. So I am all for keeping the height at what it is now.”
Trice: “When it comes to building height, our current rule is far too weak. When they first went in, ceiling heights were probably 8 feet, so when you're talking about 10-story building, you're talking not much more than an 80-foot building. Now we're seeing some buildings with 16-foot ceilings, so you're doubling the actual height of the building without changing from 10 stories. I would advocate that we change it to a limit in feet, and the added benefit of that if you've got 16-foot ceilings, that's going to be a luxury apartment. A builder who puts in 8- or 9- foot ceilings is going to make smaller units, … and those are going to be more moderately priced units.”
Ahearn-Koch: “I'm against increasing the height. I voted against it. I voted to pull it out of the discussion. I would have stopped that discussion altogether if I could have. I am not at all in favor of increasing the heights in downtown or anywhere else in our city.”
On creating inclusionary zoning in new development
Shoffstall: “We must recognize that workforce housing is an issue that requires complex solutions. It will take private property owners and government working together to create permanent long-term solutions. … It’s going to take everybody at the table to sit down and try and get this figured out. It is a major issue in this town as well as all over state, and all over the country.”
Trice: “For every 100 people coming into Sarasota, you’re going to need 30% workers, whether it's teachers or firefighters or nurses. We can't bring in more luxury residents without adding the people to work to sustain those residents. … If we give away to the builders increased density and all sorts of incentives for lower-priced housing, it will cost us a lot more in the long run when or if we decide to include inclusionary zoning.”
Ahearn-Koch: “We have been pre-empted from doing (inclusionary zoning) in the state of Florida, but Miami has found what we're calling the inclusionary zoning workaround, and I'm advocating that this be one of the tools that we use. It’s not a silver bullet. It's not anything that's going to solve the crisis. A crisis needs an immediate response. This is at best, something that could help in a year … and so on, but it builds in that community housing for that community. It's the only thing that addresses the demand side of affordable housing.”
Lobeck: "When the Lido Pool has to be closed on some days because they can't find people to be lifeguards, and restaurants and other businesses can't find workers, it's a reflection of the fact that it's too expensive for a lot of those workers to live in Sarasota. I would say that my number one issue is affordable housing. … The comp plan amendment would give away to Benderson Development, that just bought the Southgate Mall, a base density of 50 units per acre without any affordable housing, not even this ridiculous, attainable housing of 120% area median income. And then beyond that, if they provide this little increment of not-affordable housing, they get even more. What happened in the Rosemary District is evidence that doesn't work.”
On what the city needs to do to make certain its investment in the Bobby Jones Golf Course project is a success
Sheldon Rich: "I am very concerned that we are going to have enough folks playing that golf course to not get intofinancial problems with the city. I guess the only answer at this point because the money's been allocated and the construction has begun is to make it as first-class as it possibly can be. Make sure that the greens fees are set in a manner that encourages people to play.”
Lobeck: “I think the solution that City Commission came up with is brilliant. … The idea of shrinking the number of holes to a smaller but still substantial golf course gives us the opportunity to maintain and operate and improve that remaining golf course in a viable way.”
Shoffstall: “Looking at this from a business aspect, we're going to have to have somebody that can manage it. I don't have any problem with staff, but I didn't think that they were capable of the actual management of a golf course. It is a public piece of our history and I think it needed to stay, but it's going to be critical how we manage it and maintain it as far as the business aspect of running it.”
Trice: “I think it's wonderful that by including the nature trail, we are expanding the use of the park. We're seeing in general several golf courses going under, but we're also seeing a rebound in interest in golf. I think that that's going to work to our advantage in the future with less competition and the rebound in golfing, but of course we do need to manage the site appropriately.”