Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Diverse Opinions

Diversity of opinion is valuable in shaping Sarasota's future

[By] Ken Shelin, Sarasota city commissioner. (Appeared in the SHT on Oct 10.)

Men are inclined to cherish or value different things and therefore may choose differently, and yet all may choose correctly. A good society must be open, tolerant, flexible, and receptive to change."-- John Locke

This statement paraphrases an understanding of the fundamental nature of mankind described by John Locke in his "Essay Concerning Human Understanding." James Madison, our fourth president, understood that honest and sincere people can come to different conclusions about the same set of facts and still be correct.

Recently, I visited Montpelier, Madison's ancestral home in Virginia. While there, I purchased an extraordinary biography titled "James Madison," by Ralph Ketcham. Reading it has reminded me that no matter how political conditions and circumstances change, certain principles are timeless. Many of the political issues and principles of government debated at the foundation of our country are especially relevant to the discussions of development and land use in the city of Sarasota.

A fundamental constitutional principle arising from the Constitutional Convention debates was that human rights and property rights complement and buttress one another; neither trumps the other. Our public discussions on land-use matters here in Sarasota will only come to a just end if we ensure that every person, whether a resident, property owner, businessperson or developer, is treated fairly and receives an answer that assures his or her rights. It is simply unfair to do otherwise.

Certainly unanimity is not expected in any great political debate involving significant change and this has been documented repeatedly, especially in the city of Sarasota's efforts over the years to revive and redevelop its downtown. In such discussions, as Madison said, a spirit of amity and mutual concession are always necessary.

Each of us has an obligation to expose his or her opinions and assertions to a fair and reasoned discussion. But our public debates are too often polarized by demonization of those with whom we disagree. Honest disagreement does not mean that the opposing side is wrong, stupid or evil.

As the city of Sarasota morphs into a more diverse, urbanized, cosmopolitan and dense city, especially downtown and in near-downtown neighborhoods, we need to recognize that time will bring change.

Sarasota has a downtown core that now attracts increased activity into a very compact area. This compactness is not only a challenge, but is an important asset because it is human scaled. Its scale has much to do with how quickly downtown has turned around from the empty and significantly unsafe era of the 1980s and early 1990s. It is certainly a work in progress because of public transportation and parking challenges, as well as the lack of significant retail. It is getting better and appears headed for even greater improvement.

We need affordable housing downtown. Many say that is unlikely with high land costs. Tools available to us and actions already taken have laid the foundation for future accomplishments in this area. In spite of multiple meetings and conferences, nobody has offered a more credible alternative than increased density to overcome high land costs. We need to manage increased density carefully, of course. Rejecting it, however, only increases the dislocation of our human resources in the city and encourages urban sprawl.

Let us celebrate the differences in our community instead of demonizing those with whom we disagree. Let us come together to gain the synergies for our community's future by cooperating with others whose ideas are different from our own.

As James Madison said, government that can overcome pettiness and give effect to the general and permanent good of the community finds safety in a multiplicity of forces.

Letter published Oct 12, 2006
What happened to Duany plan?

Regarding Sarasota City Commissioner Ken Shelin's guest column Tuesday on shaping Sarasota's future: change is inevitable. And there is good change and bad change. One strong principle for guiding us in the direction of good change is listening. Listening promotes discussion and community acceptance of change.

When decisions are made without community participation and understanding, the result is community dissatisfaction and anger. While this may lead to people saying some things that others characterize as "demonization," the root of the issue is lack of discussion, listening and compromise. This must start with the community leadership -- our city commissioners.

When our commissioners make decisions on major land-use changes before hearing from their constituents, and when they fail to elicit discussion about proposed changes, then the result will be anger and frustration.

We do not have an accepted vision that calls for Sarasota becoming an "urbanized, cosmopolitan, dense city", nor was this anyone's platform during the commission elections. Officials can expect angry, frustrated responses.

Sarasota developed a vision for downtown in 2000, the Duany plan. This vision was discussed and accepted by the community. While Sarasota is morphing, the vision has not been changed. Sarasota is morphing because of developer pressure and a lack of open, honest discussion with, and listening to, residents.

Bringing outlying areas into downtown, areas not included in the downtown plan nor allowed by the plan, is not a debate of human rights vs. property rights.

It is a change in the vision for our city made by a very small number of people against the will of the citizens and without citizen input -- as elicited in such an exemplary way by the lengthy, inclusive process used to develop the community vision for our downtown.

Richard Clapp

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