Monday, November 21, 2005

Giving Away Public Space

We have spoken in the past about giving away public property to developers with out any benefit to the citizens. The space over the downtown sidewalks and the arcade issue is a prime example. The developer would get very valuable space to sell and the public gets a narrow street with concrete edging. Good for the developer, bad for the citizens of Sarasota.

Another issue has been "smoldering" recently. The basic story is that a developer proposed a project along Whitaker Bayou, but needed the city to vacate a public street (small and little used) in order to build 3 houses instead of 2 houses. The immediate and nearby neighborhood associations objected to the street vacation for a variety of reasons including: removes potential MURT connection, removes access to and from the Yacht Center property and no public benefit was shown, as required. The developer would gain the ability to build and sell another $2M house if the street was vacated.

At the public hearing (quasi judicial) for this proposal, three commissioners voted against the project.

The next day the developer began lobbying for reversal of this decision. At the second reading, Commissioners Servian and Shelin rescinded their votes and the Commission voted 4-1 to approve the project. This happened with no public input allowed.

Today the commissioners will vote again (second reading) on whether to allow this project to go forward. In the past couple weeks, the Tahiti Park Association has persistently asked how the vote could be changed without public input and they have determined that the rescission vote was based on inaccurate information.

Below is an e-mail sent to the commissioners by the Tahiti Park Association as the Commission gets ready to vote on this issue:


I wanted to thank most of you for having met with or spoken to, both Pola Sommers and/or myself in the past couple of weeks about the street vacation in the proposed Whitaker Views property in our Tahiti Park neighborhood. As you may recall. A request was made for a street vacation in this area.

A public hearing was held and the City Commissioners voted NOT to vacate the street.

Today, Monday November 21, 2005 there will be a second reading of an ordinance for a rescission vote. I ask you to not allow this rescission to go forward.

The original rescission vote was called based on a misunderstanding. It is all a little confusing I must admit.

Please consider the following points:
  1. The original intention of the City Commissioners was to not vacate the street.
  2. This street could be designated as an emergency an exit for both Whitaker Landings and Tocoboga Bay. In the past three years, there have been at least two instanced where the one and only entrance and exit was blocked by a large fallen tree during storms. Why give up a potential emergency (fire/ambulance) entrance or exit to these subdivisions? What if someone were in need of emergency care and we had no alternative route because the City gave it away!?
  3. Consider the adjacent Yacht Center Property. This property is still in transition. The Boat-a-Minimum has neither been approved nor denied, they are in the beginning stages of the process. Their application to become a boat club has been denied because the proposed use is one of a marina and not a boat club and the zoning is not Commercial Marina. Residential use has not been ruled out either. We have no idea if this property will become residential or commercial. Either way, the street in question could prove useful to our neighbors who might want to become boat club members in the proposed commercial project. At least one of our Tahiti Park neighbors has expressed their desire to access the proposed boat club through the street in question (should it go forward) in our neighborhood. The boat club representatives have expressed a willingness to consider such a request, a back entrance of sorts.
  4. If you give this street access away now, in the midst of so much transition, we can not take it back. We can, however, vacate the street later, if necessary, in three months or three years.
  5. There are still too many unanswered questions about the property. Is the street’s square footage included in the square footage of each parcel of land, ie should the street be moved, would the aggregate property square footage still allow for three houses? What about the mysterious street vacation of Palmetto lane down to the Bayou? Still under question!!!
  6. One of the main goals of the City Commissioners is to protect neighborhoods. Why allow the further segmentation our old, established neighborhood, and others like ours, by creating, not only a precedent for fake subdivisions, but a trend towards unnecessary walls, gates and innumerable boat slips.
  7. Last but not least, the burden of proof lies “on the petitioner” to prove how this will benefit the public. The developer has not given one single valid reason how this will benefit the citizens of Sarasota. There are plenty of arguments about how this will benefit the developer directly, but not one about how this will benefit the citizens of the City of Sarasota. Tax money is a moot point. He has made it clear that, should he not have the right to build three houses where two once stood, he would make a “larger foot print” and develop two super mega houses instead of just three mega houses.

Please do not allow the vacation of this street, at least not just yet. There are still too many unanswered questions and this was not your original intention to allow for this street vacation.

Please just honor your original decision to not vacate the street in Tahiti Parkway.

Thank you so very much for your time.


Jennifer Ahearn-Koch

It appears that our process for making important community decisions has been compromised. Here, a decision was made based on competent and substantial evidence (as required) at a quasi judicial public hearing. Lobbying by the developer, after the public hearing and in private, convinced two commissioners to reverse their votes. Subsequent meetings between commissioners, the city attorney and the neighborhood showed that inaccurate information had been provided in the decision to reverse the original vote.

This is not the way to run city government and it is not the way to gain public confidence in the process.

We hope the commissioners do the right thing today and go back to the original decision. If the developer wishes to re-submit his plan and follow a public process, he is free to do so. Lobbying commissioners behind closed doors and rescinding decisions made in a quasi judicial public hearings is wrong.

1 comment:

Stan Zimmerman said...

Want a better example of give-away? Today’s city commission meeting saw the amendment of the Marina Jacks’ lease extending it to the year 2049, when I’ll be 101 years old. The agreement includes not only Marina Jacks restaurant and marina, but also the old O’Leary’s property and the new Island Park mooring field. In effect, today the city commission created a monopoly on Sarasota’s bayfront till death do us part.

Giveaway? First the TIF money, then the Police Station, then the bayfront, then the street vacation near the Githler marina, and soon the downtown parking lot to the Isaac Brothers. When will it end?

Yesterday, a sailing chum with a long romance with his 24-foot sloop told me he called Marina Jacks asking about a slip. He was told they have only six slips for boats smaller than 30 feet. The proposed mooring Marina Jacks will administer has only one-third of its spaces available for boats 30 feet or smaller.

Some day, my friend said, a condo resident will look over the bay and wonder, “Where have all the pretty sailboats gone?” As one day, we’ll all wonder, “Where have all the local merchants gone?” And our children who are growing up here now will say, “What happened to my Sarasota?”

This is an important juncture in our municipal history. A time to either stand up and be heard or forever bury our heads in shame. So many of my friends of 30 years or more are voting with their feet, moving away because this city is evolving in ways that disgust them. Are they the canaries in the coal mine?

I sometimes feel the objective of the city commission is “develop it in my lifetime.” This approach is in opposition to the policies of city commissions in the past, who hoped to preserve and expand public spaces. Today’s commission seems intent on giving those public spaces away, and I grieve for my city.

s/Stan Zimmerman