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Downtown noise battle returns

Written by on Friday, November 10, 2023

After strong public reaction, Sarasota city commissioners table proposed rule changes, for now.

By Ramon Lopez

Original Air Date: Nov. 10, 2023

Host: New proposed city regulations revived the old downtown battle over what is entertainment to nightlife revelers and business owners, and a nuisance to downtown condo dwellers. Ramon Lopez was at the Sarasota City Commission to get an earful, and to report what commissioners decided.

Ramon Lopez: Despite vocal opposition from residents and some downtown businesses, the Sarasota City Commission on Monday held a hearing on possible zoning changes that concerned citizens feared would relax requirements for outdoor bars, nightclubs and intrusive loud parties. City Staffers studied the issue extensively and told the city commissioners that currently, there is confusion and lack of clarity pertaining to the definitions and standards for bars, outdoor bars, and nightclubs.

They said tying definitions to state licensing is not a reliable way to determine how an establishment will operate. This has resulted in establishments being classified as nightclubs that do not operate as such, while other establishments are classified as restaurants despite operating like nightclubs late into the evening.

The Zoning Text Amendment proposes to administer regulations for entertainment- oriented establishments, that is restaurants, bars, and nightclubs based on the “intensity of the establishment, including elements such as live, amplified entertainment and operating hours”. They said the commissioners should decide whether the existing downtown exemption area be expanded into other redeveloping commercial areas of the downtown. But the hearing included more than an hour of public testimony, mostly protesting the amendment. It showed that the change to the city zoning code is controversial and feared by Sarasota residents.

Take, for example, Flo Entler.

Flo Entler: I feel the ZTA makes it easier to approve bars and outdoor bars. Why are we including outdoor bars as a primary use? Do we need more public drinking creating more noise and possible nuisance? Do we want to be another Ybor City with a mass shooting? We are Sarasota, number one, for now. But how much longer if we make these changes? These definitions are more confusing and create loopholes. This seems to be a loosening of the rules. We seem to be making downtown an entertainment district. As the ZTA was to eliminate confusion, please do not approve this ordinance as written as the definitions lack clarity. We need better regulations to guarantee a safe, vibrant, livable city. 

 RL: CitiPAC founder Cheryl Gauthier also has serious reservations.

Cheryl Gauthier: CitiPAC opposes the ZTA because it will be bad for livability. Livability is essential for downtown’s long-term viability. Definitions may well need to be clarified. But this proposal doesn’t help with that objective, and it will do harm to the city in other ways. The city would do well to take a pause and use the best from other models. You are the stewards of our city. You work for all of us, not just for the bar owners.

RL: Sarasota newcomer Victor McTeer said more study is needed.

Victor McTeer: If you open the door through these Zetas to an infinite number of applications for potential sidewalk bars or rooftop bars, you are likely going to create more litigation than you can dream of. Pause. Ask the questions. Engage in what country lawyers call due diligence and see whether or not this is the best choice for this community. For those of us who have become investors in your town, we are investors in Sarasota. I’m a believer. I don’t want to stay here because I don’t know where I’m going to move next. 

RL: There have been complaints about the Corona Cigar Company’s downtown lounge on Lemon Avenue. Passersby and area resident patrons can easily smell cigar smoke. But Lou Donato, owner of the building that houses the cigar lounge, sees nothing wrong with how the business operates.

Corona Cigar

Lou Donato: I own the building where the cigar bar is. Complaining about a little bit of smoke in front of the cigar bar, well let me tell you what, that building sat empty for me for two years. I lost a lot of money and I don’t know if I pass a hat around right now how much money I’d collect because I did lose a lot of money. I went to the City Commission and I went to the city manager, I said what can I put here? You know, Sirla Tabla went broke, and you complain about a little bit of smoke. How about all the smoke and those buses sitting out in the middle of the road at the bus terminal?

RL: The commissioners heard from 15 citizens and the city staffers. They decided there were ambiguities in the code that needed to be clarified. They will hold a public workshop on Dec. 5 to further discuss bar, restaurant and nightclub policies. So, the commissioners voted unanimously to take a step back on the zoning text amendment and the matter is headed back to the drawing board.

This is Ramon Lopez for WSLR News.


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