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Controversial development rules set for Monday vote in Sarasota

As the City Commission is set to consider the final OK to expand staff approval for developments that include attainable housing, all three candidates for two open seats line up in opposition.

The city offers administrative approval for inclusionary projects in the downtown core only.  (Andrew Warfield)
The city offers administrative approval for inclusionary projects in the downtown core only. (Andrew Warfield)
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When it comes to real estate development, time is money, and uncertainty can be a deterrent. And when asking a residential developer to include affordable and/or attainable housing in their projects, they want a minimum of both.

That’s the impetus behind what has become the most controversial of the city of Sarasota’s five comprehensive plan amendments, three of them incentivizing attainable housing units mixed with market rate dwellings, which in certain future zoning districts would require only a City Hall staff review and approval rather than going before the City Commission or through the Planning Board.

City staffers say if they want the development community to assist in helping solve the attainable housing crisis in the city, they want an efficient, predictable outcome. (Eric Garwood)
City staffers say if they want the development community to assist in helping solve the attainable housing crisis in the city, they want an efficient, predictable outcome. (Eric Garwood)

Called "administrative approval,'' that aspect has been the subject of hours of public comment and debate at City Commission meetings and candidate forums as the proposed comprehensive plan amendments have made their way through the political process and come before the commission for final approval at its Oct. 17 meeting.

Sarasota Planning Director Steve Cover has told commissioners that if they want the development community to assist in helping solve the attainable housing crisis in the city, they want an efficient, predictable outcome for approval providing they meet the requisite criteria. Administrative review, he has said, provides that.

Opponents of the concept, which include the three candidates running for the two at-large City Commission seats in this fall’s election — incumbent Jen Ahearn-Koch, Debbie Trice and Dan Lobeck — say administrative approval cedes too much authority to staff and limits input from the public.

“If you’re a prospective attainable housing developer that's interested in doing a project in the city, we can tell you we'll probably review and have your project ready in six months,” Cover said. Otherwise, such a project undergoing the political process can take up to 18 months from initial submission to approval, time that can significantly impact its cost and viability.

“That kind of gap probably will have projects just back off and just not do it,” Cover said. “We really do need to bring in new attainable housing stock into the city as easily and as quickly as we can.”

The city offers administrative approval for inclusionary projects in the downtown core only. A separate comprehensive plan amendment also on the agenda for second-reading approval Monday would add a new Urban Mixed-Use future land use classification — ostensibly along existing commercial corridors — for redevelopment that would include attainable housing units.

Administrative approval would then apply to those specific parcels, which would be identified in future text amendment changes.

Candidates united in opposition.

On May 16, the Sarasota City Commission approved transmittal of the comp plan amendments to Tallahassee for review by a 4-1 vote with Ahearn-Koch opposed. She continued her opposition in the first reading of the amendments on Sept. 19, with the exception of one that creates a “missing middle” overlay for workforce housing in Park East. 

Ahearn-Koch has been the lone voice in opposition to expanded administrative approval, and regardless of the outcome of November's election, the next Commission will have two dissenting voices. While that would still not be enough to derail final approval of the amendments — unless joined by at least one current commissioner — that has led to charges from some citizens that the process is being rushed through approval prior to the next commissioners being seated.

“I am adamantly against administrative approval,” Ahearn-Koch said at a City Commission candidate forum hosted by the Downtown Sarasota Alliance and Downtown Sarasota Condo Association on Sept. 22. “(Project approval) is a three-legged stool. There is the developer that needs to talk about the project, there’s the professional city staff to review it from their objective point of view, and there are the citizens that partake and be a part of that conversation. There are solutions that happen when the developer and the citizens come together and they solve problems. I can go through many cases where the project is better with the community's voice and the community's input.”

Ahearn-Koch’s fellow commission candidates share her sentiments.

“I'm opposed to the administrative approval because it cuts the people who know the area out of the process,” Trice said. “The residents know what ways that the building could be improved, what the access and egress should be so that you're not clogging up traffic, so just with that alone administrative approval should be eliminated.

“The other point is making it optional for the developer to include affordable housing is not going to address our needs. We need mandatory inclusionary zoning.”

Mandatory inclusionary zoning is permissible under Florida law, but it comes with strings attached. House Bill 7103, which was signed into law in July 2019, amended the authorization for mandatory inclusionary zoning, requiring that developers be kept economically whole in exchange for providing affordable housing.

Local governments must provide incentives to “fully offset all costs” the developer may incur as a result of any affordable housing requirement. Incentives may include a density or intensity bonus, reducing or waiving of fees, or other inducements that offset all additional costs above and beyond the market rate units.

Sarasota’s voluntary inclusionary zoning with base density and density bonuses has yet to yield results. Cover cites limiting administrative approval to the downtown core and the lengthy approval process elsewhere as the primary reasons for ineffectiveness. If the relevant comprehensive plan amendments are approved, incentives and administrative oversight for such projects would expand to commercial corridors.

At the forum, Lobeck said city standards for site plan approval require changes to be made in order to achieve compatibility with adjoining properties, adding that staff said during comprehensive plan amendment public hearings that it does not apply that standard because it is subjective.

“But it’s important,” Lobeck said. “If you have a Planning Board and a City Commission apply that section of the zoning code, there is a greater likelihood they are going to treat it seriously. That may not be predictable for the developer, but it is predictable for the public.”

Broader, but limited application

Administrative approval, Cover said, will follow the same process through all pertinent city departments as any other proposed development. Once submitted, the project will work its way through the city’s Development Review Committee, which is comprised of representatives of departments from public works to public safety to design and transportation. It will only apply to projects that meet the attainable housing criteria in districts identified in the comp plan amendments.

For example, a development on a piece of property that a permits 25 units per acre by right may increase density to 75 units per acre if it provides the requisite number of attainable housing units. Still to be determined when the zoning text amendments are made, should the comprehensive plan amendments be approved, Cover said that number could be between 15% and 25% of the total project.

Redevelopment along existing commercial corridors is conducive to attainable housing-inclusive developments because of lower land costs compared to downtown and access to transit options.

“Right now, if you go outside of the downtown area, developments have to follow whatever processes we have in place,” Cover said. “We’ve heard loud and clear, especially from affordable housing developers, that their profit margins are really tight. What they really need is a predictable, reliable, simple process. Providing administrative review process, they’ll know how much time it will take and they will not have to worry about having many deviations.”



Andrew Warfield

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.

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