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96 affordable apartments approved for north Sarasota property

The site layout for New Trail Plaza.
The site layout for New Trail Plaza.
Courtesy image
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Another 96 affordable housing-designated apartments appear to be on their way to the North Trail Overlay District in north Sarasota, but not without some fierce debate among a divided Planning Board over some members adding new requirements for approval.

Although a motion to approve the project with conditions was approved 3-2, members were in unanimous agreement that the project is needed to help address the city’s attainable housing crisis and that it is an appropriate use of the county-owned 3.5 acres within the North Trail Overlay District. 

The motion to approve — with too many strings attached for board members Daniel Clermont and Terrill Salem — was supported by Shane Lamay, Vice Chairman Daniel DeLeo and Chairman Michael Halflants.

At issue were accusations that DeLeo and Halflants were attempting to redesign a much-needed affordable housing project three years in the making, one that had conformed to all zoning criteria, sparking a debate over the role of the Planning Board itself.

Tampa-based Blue Sky Communities is planning to acquire 6.2 acres from Sarasota County and develop the westernmost 3.5 acres into New Trail Plaza. The vacant site is on the east side of U.S. 41 between 46th and 47th streets. Assuming Blue Sky intends to close on the site and move forward with new conditions placed on the project by the Planning Board, it has no plans at this time for the remaining 2.7 acres of the site designated Single Family-Low Density on the city’s Future Land Use map.

The site for the planned New Trail Plaza is outlined in red between 46th and 47th Street on North Tamiami Trail.
Courtesy image

Plans for New Trail Plaza include a four-story, 90-unit apartment building plus a three-story building with just more than 3,000 square feet of commercial space beneath six more apartments, three each on two floors. The commercial space will be leased as offices to CASL (Community Assisted & Supported Living).

The rental apartments will be priced in three tiers: 30% or below, 60% or below and 80% or below area median income (AMI). Affordability is defined as no more than 30% of the household’s income to be spent on housing, including utilities.

Although the NTOD requires only one-half parking space per each affordable housing unit — in this case 57 — Blue Sky proposed 106 spaces, losing two of them to a Planning Board tree-saving adjustment.

That was just one of the points of contention among the board as both Clermont and Deputy City Attorney Michael Connolly objected to the 11th-hour quarterbacking.

“What I don't want to do is throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Clermont said. “We don't get too many offers where we can get 30%, 60% and 80% AMI projects in this number right along a main thoroughfare. To me, it's a very good project. That doesn't mean it's perfect.”

Still, DeLeo, an attorney, and Halflants, an architect, pressed their points. DeLeo insisted that despite sign-off by the city arborist that all the grand trees that could be preserved had been, the project is not in compliance with the city’s tree ordinance. And although Halflants’ wanted the building raised by two feet to provide greater privacy for first-floor residents from a nearby sidewalk and the parking lot, that condition was not included in the final motion authored by DeLeo.

The ongoing discussion brought project consultant Joel Freedman back to the dais to proclaim, “I've been here a long time doing this, and Mr. Clermont is right on the money. I know you guys want to create great projects, but we're meeting the code. However, you're now impacting some major things.”

Among those “things” is the possibility that should Blue Sky be required to make another run through the staff gauntlet to make modifications to the project that may be contrary to other aspects of the zoning code, any added delays could potentially kill the project due to complexities associated with tax credits, etc. In addition to sacrificing parking spaces, for example, some utilities structures may need to be moved to preserve other trees.

“We did apply for tax credits through the state and there are some significant timing delays if we aren't meeting our closing deadline,” said Blue Sky Communities Senior Vice President Greg Giakoumis. “There are strings attached. We’ve gone through this process for years, and here we are. This would be a major impact to that financing and could put it in jeopardy, so that is something that must be considered."

Blue Sky Communities plans to build a 96-unit all-affordable housing apartment complex on this currently county-owned site on North Tamiami Trail.
Photo by Andrew Warfield

As positions hardened on both sides, Connolly interjected, telling the board it has two choices: vote yes or no on the project as presented.

“I have a real problem with the discussion we've had for the past hour or so,” he said. "It's the applicant’s application. It's not ours. We cannot change the applicant's application in any way, shape or form. We can vote it up, or we can vote it down. Period. I have people on this board who insist on redesigning the project. You can't do it. I've been sitting here quiet for too long. You can't do it.”

DeLeo was not swayed, insisting only minor modifications are needed to preserve trees and comply with the ordinance. “I don't know why the city is trying to make it difficult for us to have a simple motion where we have them comply with the tree ordinance,” he said. His motion was for approval included Blue Sky preserve four of 11 grand trees and relocate a sidewalk around one tree, and to require the developer work with staff, including the utilities department, to ensure compliance.

“That’s too much for me,” Clermont said before the vote. “That's not what they brought us, and we're going to go crazy doing this.”



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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