Critics of the amendment changes say public comment is cut out of the process.
The Sarasota City Commission recently took the final step to approve amendments to the city's comprehensive plan. The moves are intended to address the city's affordable and attainable housing crisis by incentivizing voluntary zoning techniques for new residential and mixed-use developments.
On Oct 17, the City Commission approved all five amendments by votes identical to their first reading on Sept. 19, one unanimously, as part of the consent agenda and the others by 4-1 vote. Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch, as she did previously, casted "no" votes.
The amendment that extends administrative approval to projects that include attainable housing in identified corridors citywide was the subject of hours of public comment and debate at commission meetings — including on Oct. 17 — as the changes made their way through the political process, eventually receiving Monday’s final approval.
Sarasota Planning Director Steve Cover has told commissioners that if they want developers to assist in helping solve the attainable-housing crisis, they’ll want an efficient, predictable outcome for applications providing they meet certain criteria. Subjecting those projects only to administrative approval, he has said, accomplishes that.
Administrative approval, Cover adds, will follow the same process as any other proposed development. Once submitted, a project will work its way through the city’s Development Review Committee comprised of representatives of departments from public works to public safety to design and transportation. It will only apply to projects that meet the attainable housing criteria in districts identified in the comp plan amendments and zoning text.
For example, a development on property that permits 25 units per acre may increase density to 75 units per acre if it provides the requisite number of attainable housing units. Still to be determined by zoning text amendments, Cover says that number could be between 15% and 25% of the total project.
“Right now, if you go outside of the downtown area, developments have to follow whatever processes we have in place,” Cover says. “We’ve heard loud and clear, especially from affordable housing developers, that their profit margins are really tight. What they really need is a predictable, reliable, simple process. Providing administrative review process, they’ll know how much time it will take and they will not have to worry about having many deviations.”
Opponents of the concept, including the three candidates running for the two at-large City Commission seats in November’s election — incumbent Jen Ahearn-Koch, Debbie Trice and Dan Lobeck — say administrative approval cedes too much authority to unelected city staff and limits input from the public.
Administrative approval was previously available for developments in the downtown core only plus a handful of smaller developments or additions meeting specific criteria. A separate amendment also created a new Urban Mixed-Use future land use classification — ostensibly along commercial corridors — for redevelopment that would include attainable housing units.
On May 16, commissioners approved transmittal of the comp plan amendments to Tallahassee for review by a 4-1 vote with Ahearn-Koch opposed. She continued her opposition in the first reading of the amendments on Sept. 19, with the exception of one that creates a “missing middle” overlay for workforce housing in Park East.
The next commission would likely have had two dissenting votes, enough to derail the comp plan amendments, which require supermajority votes. That prompted charges from some that the process was rushed through approval prior to the next commissioners being seated.
“I am adamantly against administrative approval,” Ahearn-Koch said at a City Commission candidate forum hosted by the Downtown Sarasota Alliance and Downtown Sarasota Condo Association on Sept. 22. “There are solutions that happen when the developer and the citizens come together and they solve problems. I can go through many cases where the project is better with the community's voice and the community's input.”
Ahearn-Koch’s fellow candidates shared her sentiments.
“I'm opposed to the administrative approval because it cuts the people who know the area out of the process,” Trice said. “The residents know what ways that the building could be improved, what the access and egress should be so that you're not clogging up traffic, so just with that alone administrative approval should be eliminated.
“The other point is making it optional for the developer to include affordable housing is not going to address our needs. We need mandatory inclusionary zoning.”
Although such a mandate is permissible under Florida law, Sarasota’s voluntary program offering base density and density bonuses in downtown has yet to yield results. Cover says limiting administrative approval to the downtown core is one reason why.
“If you’re a prospective attainable housing developer that's interested in doing a project in the city, we can tell you we'll probably review and have your project ready in six months,” Cover adds. Otherwise, such a project undergoing the political process can take up to 18 months from initial submission to approval, time that can significantly impact its cost and viability.
“That kind of gap probably will have projects just back off and not do it. We really do need to bring in new attainable housing stock into the city as easily and as quickly as we can.”