Six months spent crafting what was presented as a clarification of definitions and regulations of bars and restaurants in the downtown area, plus multiple rounds of public engagement, weren't enough for city commissioners.
So they unanimously tabled consideration of a zoning text amendment intended to clarify definitions and regulate operations of bars and nightclubs in downtown.
During their Nov. 6 meeting city commissioners agreed to instruct staff to schedule a City Commission workshop in an effort to clarify the proposed changes.
During the first reading of the text amendment, the testimony of a dozen speakers convinced commissioners the amendment's details aren't ready yet.
Staff undertook the task because Sarasota’s current definitions and standards for bars and nightclubs are tied to state licensing and seating requirements, which has resulted in establishments being classified as nightclubs that don’t operate as such while others are classified as restaurants despite operating like nightclubs late into the night.
The goal of the ZTA, according to staff, is to clarify and administer regulations for entertainment-oriented establishments based on the intensity of the business, including elements such as live, amplified entertainment and operating hours.
Speakers who appeared before the City Commission expressed concerns over sweeping by-right approval of bars and nightclubs and expanding the downtown exemption area map to include redeveloping commercial areas such as north of Fruitville Road and east of U.S. 301.
“What began as a noble attempt by the city manager urged by the City Commission to clarify some definitions on the subject before you has morphed into the creation of even more confusion, ambiguity and internal conflict and has taken upon the character of radically expanding what will become, if this is passed, a rampant proliferation of bars and nightclubs throughout the city,” said downtown resident Dan Lobeck.
According to the staff’s presentation, the text amendment proposes to update definitions of:
Restaurant: An establishment whose the principal business is preparing and serving meals selected from a menu to customers during all operating hours. Meals are prepared within a structure or out of view from the public right-of-way, on or off-site, and may be served and eaten on premises.
Bar: An establishment whose principal business is the sale of alcoholic beverages for consumption on premises and at which the location of the counter where alcoholic beverages are served is within a building fully enclosed by windows and doors.
Outdoor bar: An establishment whose principal business is the sale of alcoholic beverages for consumption on premises and at which the location of the counter where alcoholic beverages are served is outdoors or located in a building that is not fully enclosed by windows and doors.
Nightclub: An establishment that operates after 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and after 11:59 p.m. Friday, Saturday and the day prior to a holiday that includes a bar and live amplified entertainment and may include a dance area or a restaurant. Windows and doors shall remain continuously closed after 11 p.m., other than to allow the ingress and egress of patrons.
Additional provisions include separation requirements of bars and nightclubs from churches, schools or another similar establishments, and from residentially zoned property; as well as buffering and screening from adjacent properties.
Whether that results in "rampant proliferaton" throughout downtown is one of the matters of confusion commissioners would like to clear up.
“I've heard comments that we've gone too far,” said City Manager Marlon Brown. “No one gave us direction to do outdoor bars, but I think we need to distinguish between the two. It's a conversation for the commission as to how you want to regulate the difference in terms of a bar and outdoor bar. I think it's important for us to distinguish between the two, hence the reason we've separated bar and outdoor bar.”
Commissioners were left with lingering questions about general confusion among the public and the operation of a rooftop bar — for example, is it really an indoor bar just because the serving area is inside but the bay doors open to outdoor seating?
“I think this is a really step in the right direction,” said Vice Mayor Liz Alpert. “It certainly solves the problem of the restaurants that turn into a nightclub, so I think we need keep going and maybe continue this first reading.”
That met with the approval of Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch, who said she has multiple questions, many of which can be addressed in a workshop.
“I have 10 pages of questions, and they start with Page 2, paragraph 2,” Ahearn-Koch said. “If that is the direction that we're going to go in continuing this to workshop where we can have more detailed Q&A involvement with the public and with the staff, I would be very supportive of that. I do have a lot of questions about the exact text the words the sentences, the meanings, and some inconsistencies that are going on in here.”
The workshop will be held at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 5 in the Commission Chambers.
This article was updated to clarify the nature of Banditos' proposal and with the date of the upcoming zoning text amendment City Commission workshop.
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.