Host: That went even worse than community organizers feared. The first so-called neighborhood workshop – to discuss a 5,000-home expansion of Lakewood Ranch into the rural northeast of Sarasota County – was held virtually, via Microsoft Teams. For at least two participants, the presentation fell silent after 15 minutes, and stayed silent for the remaining 45 minutes. Participants had no possibility to see all the questions asked, and those shut out did not get answers until two days later. Our news team has been trying to find out what happened.
Johannes Werner: If you wonder about the silence: This is what at least two participants of an online workshop for neighbors mostly got from the developers behind the mega-project. A month after an administrative judge ruled against opponents of Lakewood Ranch Southeast – a project that would swallow thousands of acres of pasture land around Old Miakka – developer LWR Communities took the first step in the process towards construction.
But that first step looked more like a slip-and-fall. A so-called neighborhood workshop organized by consulting firm Stantec left participants scratching their heads. The workshop was nominally about a rezone for Area 3, the northeastern portion of the 5,000-acre project, maybe one-sixth of the proposed project. Area 3, according to one of the slides, is planned for 1,000 homes: 850 single-family, 150 townhomes.
Informing neighbors and getting their input is a required procedure for the developer who is asking the county for a rezone of thousands of acres of agricultural land. Inform, the consultants kind of did, showing a series of slides, although mostly without sound. One of the slides said the attempt behind the rezone of agricultural land was to “enhance life in the county.”
According to at least two participants, the presentation fell silent after 15 minutes. During the silence, participants feverishly typed questions in the chat. Becky Ayech had many questions, so did a Stev2, and one or several anonymous participants. No spoken questions could be submitted by online participants. You had to call in to submit spoken questions, but the phone signal in Old Miakka, where affected neighbors live, is notoriously bad. Becky Ayech described her experience.
Becky Ayech: I called in, they started a couple minutes late, according to my computer clock, and at 6:15, they took a break, and said that that was to provide an opportunity for attendees to provide questions. At 6:57 I still just had a screen in front of me with the final slide and had no conversation. No one ever got back through the video feed, so I called on the phone. And I don’t know how she can say she wasn’t aware of it, Ms. Labar, because I believe in my phone conversation, I said that the video had stopped, and she said that since it was going to be on a live loop, I don’t know what it’s called, but you could go to that site and you could see the video recording that they made. And then I asked her if we were going to see any people and she said no. So that was my experience of what happened.
JW: Did you get any chance to have your questions responded to?
BA: I have not a clue because I did not go back at that moment and revisit it. I had other things that I needed to do that were more pressing, animal husbandry things. And so, no, I haven’t looked at it yet to see if they responded to my questions or not.
JW: Immediately after the workshop, WSLR called a Stantec number for the project manager provided in the slideshow. Calls were directed into the office’s general voicemail box. Reached by phone the next morning, Project Manager Katie LaBarr said she was not aware of any technical problems during the workshop. LaBarr declined to be recorded for the interview and said she would respond to questions by email. If indeed there were any problems, she told WSLR News, she would confer with county staff whether the workshop should be repeated.
There was no way to see how many participants were in the meeting. No pictures of speakers could be seen, let alone participants’. Nor was it possible to see all questions. The “featured questions” column apparently showed only questions the moderator posted. Old Miakka organizer Becky Ayech would very much prefer in-person meetings. But that, she says, was prevented by the county commission.
BA: I definitely think it should be repeated. So, here’s the things that I offered to Anna. First, the total amount of time given to explaining the proposal was 15 minutes, and I’m being generous with that. And then, as I said, the break appeared to be 45 minutes long. There wasn’t an opportunity to see what questions were posed by others, because you couldn’t see anything.
And then, that abrupt ending at 6:15, I had to call to say I wasn’t getting any feed, and the response was, as I said earlier, that I could go to the site and watch it. Now, when they send out the little neighborhood workshop notice, one of the things that they tell you is that this is your opportunity, let me find it, to discuss the concept plan.
And so, if you’re watching a prerecorded video, I really don’t see how that offers you an opportunity to discuss anything, which is what I told to the planner. How does a discussion occur with a video playback? There needs to be another neighborhood workshop, which is meaningful. Now, would I like it in person? Yes. But you know that was shot down by the commission.
JW: Reached by phone the morning after the meeting, Stantec planner Katie LaBarr said she was not aware of any technical problems, and said she would confer with county staff, if indeed there were any technical problems. She declined to be recorded for an interview and said Stantec would respond to questions via email. A day later, WSLR News received a link to a recording of the workshop, which included questions read and answered by a moderator.
If the workshop is recognized as valid, the developer will submit its rezone application, and the county planners will review it. Next stop: A public hearing before the Sarasota County Planning Commission. Final stop: A County Commission hearing.
This has been Johannes Werner, reporting for WSLR News.
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