For four of five Sarasota City commissioners, decades of talking about the looming, and now occurring attainable/affordable housing crises is long enough.
During Monday’s nearly 11-hour meeting, which began with debate resulting in City Manager Marlon Brown requesting a vote of confidence, commissioners approved by 4-1 votes the first reading of four of five ordinances to amend the city’s comprehensive plan. The no votes were cast by Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch, who sided with citizens charging that the process is being rushed to approval prior to this fall’s general election and lacked adequate public input.
The fifth amendment, one that codifies a “missing middle” district in the Park East neighborhood, was approved unanimously.
All of the amendments are intended to address a shortage of housing in the city — a slowly growing challenge that accelerated during the pandemic — most of them paving the way toward incentivizing attainable housing in new developments, largely in the urban core. Attainable is defined as housing priced within the affordability range of 80% to 120% of the county’s average median income. According to the 2020 U.S. census, the average median income in Sarasota County is $32,535 for an individual and $64,44 for a household.
The comprehensive plan amendments discussion and public comments dominated the first seven hours of the meeting, which was briefly adjourned for a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. for the second reading and adoption of the fiscal year 2023 budget, setting the property tax millage at 3.00. It resumed for another four hours, during which time each of the measures was debated and approved.
Throughout the day, commissioners heard mixed reviews from the public. On one side was support of the effort to incentivize higher densities with the goal of achieving lower-cost housing. On the other were criticisms of a lack of public engagement in the process, accusations of backroom deals and density give-aways that will result only in more high-priced housing in the city’s urban core.
Ahearn-Koch voiced similar objections throughout the process. She also cast the lone dissenting vote in May when the commission approved transmittal of the comp plan amendments to Tallahassee for review.
Brown and staff told commissioners that the comprehensive plan is a broad vision for the city and that any meaningful text amendments, rezoning and site plans are where the real work and more direct public involvement will take place.
“Knowing how the community reacted to this first phase, I will commit to you that we will do a better job with the zoning text amendments,” Brown said. “That’s where the rubber hits the road.”
Greater densities, Brown and staff said, won’t be granted unless the additional units meet the attainable housing criteria.
Comprehensive plan amendments approved were:
- A new Urban Mixed-Use Future Land Use Classification to provide for attainable housing incentives, and a definition of "base density;” to amend the definition of attainable housing units; to provide for an attainable housing density bonus; and to consider an inclusionary housing land development regulation.
- An administrative review process for attainable housing in order to provide greater flexibility during implementation when a minimum number of attainable housing units is included. That minimum number of attainable housing units will be determined when implementing land development regulations are drafted and publicly considered.
- Removing residential frontage requirements that duplicate regulations also adopted in the zoning code and removal of master plans as specific master area plans are not planned for the near future.
- Amending Urban Edge, Downtown Core and Downtown Bayfront land use classifications to provide for an increase in residential density over the base density when a portion of the additional residential units are attainable; and clarifying application of bonus height, which allows an 11th story in certain identified situations in the Downtown Core.
Approved unanimously was an amendment to create one or more Missing Middle Overlay Districts that provide for an increase in residential density over the base density when a portion of the additional residential units are attainable; and amending Urban Neighborhood land use classification text to provide for that increase in residential density.
Throughout the day, staff cautioned commissioners that the comprehensive plan amendments are not an overnight fix to the city’s attainable housing situation, and that it will take more than a year to work through some applicable zoning code text amendments, which undergo a requisite public process, and then to begin receiving plans from developers relative to the changes.
“Is there really a silver bullet? No, but we are at a point where we could go in two directions,” said Commissioner Hagen Brody. “If we don’t do anything, this would be a playground for the rich and famous and that's it. This would be a resort town, and virtually nobody would be able to live here who works. That's the reality of some cities in America. I don't want that for Sarasota.
“I think that we really need to embrace our future as a world-class, small city that has all of the diversity and vibrancy of a city, and I think that this really fills a void that that needs to be filled.”
The text amendments will come before the commission for a second reading at its Oct. 17 meeting.