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Sarasota commissioners discuss big zoning changes

Written by on Thursday, January 11, 2024

Some describe it as a silver bullet for affordable housing. Others call it a billion-dollar giveaway for developers.

By Ramon Lopez

Original Air Date: Jan. 10, 2024

Host: Some describe it as a silver bullet to end the affordable housing crisis. Others call it a billion-dollar giveaway to developers. On Monday, the City of Sarasota commission discussed major zoning changes, and WSLR News reporter Ramon Lopez was there, trying to translate zoning lingo and understand the concern of at least one commissioner and outrage by some neighborhood activists.

Ramon Lopez: Affordable housing was on the menu at a Sarasota City Commission workshop on Monday, as a Sarasota zoning amendment could boost such living space. But some fear overgrowth.

Map of the proposed zoning changes in the City of Sarasota. The areas in green will allow higher density.

The city commissioners weighed the pros and cons of a zoning text amendment drafted by the city planning department. It would create three new zoning corridors to promote “attainable housing”, also referred to as workforce housing. That means affordable housing for city residents earning between 80 percent and 120 percent of the area’s median household income, which is close to $100,000.

The amendment would allow a triple-density bonus for projects that designate at least 15 percent of the units as attainable.
At least a third of the affordable units must be priced at or below the 80 percent, and no more than a third can be sold at or above the 120 percent. The units must stay affordable for at least three decades. The amendment provides for building height bonuses when additional attainable housing is factored in at the area’s commercial centers.

This zoning amendment is the final step in a series of city zoning ordinances aimed at increasing attainable housing. It’s tied to Urban Mixed-Use Future Land Use. As designed, ailing shopping plazas and corridors along the Tamiami Trail and Fruitville
Road would evolve into mixed-use developments.

Chief Planner Briana Dobbs told the city commissioners that area middle class workers should be able to live in Sarasota.

Sarasota City Manager Marlon Brown stepped in to make a point here.

Marlon Brown: I just want to step in right there. I just sent you all an email from also Ms. Panica, regarding the Administrative Review process, and clarifying some misconceptions about what it is. So when you have a chance, take a look at that, because it surely walks you through how the public is involved in the Administrative Review process. It just seems to be this boogeyman out there, that this is all done behind closed doors, that this panel makes a decision without any public input, any review or public comments whatsoever.

RL: Community activist Kelly Franklin doesn’t like the zoning amendment designed to boost workforce housing, as drafted. She says it would raise building heights and otherwise produce little if any affordable housing for Sarasota workers.

Ron Kashden, another civic activist who is running for the City Commission District Two seat, also has concerns.

Ron Kashden:  Shockingly, the conditions, objectives, directives were not followed. And what was included in this text not only increases the height in the corridor, but multiplies it by a factor of two to three times greater than the current code allows. This ZTA will turn the corridor into a concrete canyon with 90-foot buildings facing the street.

Illustration of building height and setback in the proposed zoning change.

RL: Planning Director Steve Cover responds.

Steve Cover:  A gentleman last week gave a presentation on this. I’d just like to address it. Not only is it unrealistic, but it simply cannot happen. The first thing that was mentioned was that every building, assuming that every building, will have attainable housing and will go for the extra height. We all know that that’s not going to happen. Everybody also assumes that every building would have 14 feet from floor to ceiling. Speaking with the development services department, just most buildings actually have 10 to 12-foot floor to ceiling heights. Forteen feet obviously would be much more expensive to build, and probably will not be used in projects that are proposing attainable housing. So that’s not going to happen. The last thing that was said is that the legislation that we’re proposing is going to create a concrete canyon, with every site having a 91-foot building on it. Well obviously that’s not going to happen to all buildings. Obviously, in my previous remarks and what Briana has presented, this is not going to happen. Only 35 out of over 700 properties are eligible for this.

RL: Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch worries about a worst-case fallout from the proposed zoning change. She fears developers will consolidate lots — as is happening in one case on the North Tamiami Trail — and building bigger will lead to overgrowth and unsightly urban sprawl.


Jen Ahearn-Koch:  Is there anything preventing somebody from assembling parcels like they’ve done on the North Trail? So that three-acre list is not a definitive list? You’ve not said anywhere, proposed in here, ‘This is it — no more three acre parcels’? Okay, so someone could, in fact, just assemble parcels and make a whole new three-acre parcel, right?

Steve Cover: That is possible, but yeah, in terms of this concrete corridor, it’s very unrealistic.

Marlon Brown: The setbacks, and everything that they had to be wall-to-wall …

Ahearn-Koch: First of all, I’m just addressing the three-acre issue. It’s not a list that’s defined, and done and over. Somebody could assemble parcels and make a whole lot more three-acre parcels. Right? I mean, that’s a possibility. Right? Okay. So, when we have these kinds of things that are conceptual, purely conceptual, we have to consider — because we don’t have anything definitive — the worst case scenario the biggest the highest, the most intense use.

RL: At the workshop no final decisions were made. Mayor Liz Alpert said she liked what she heard from the city staffers. This zoning amendment will go before the city planning board on Jan. 24 and, if recommended for approval, it will go before the city commission sometime this spring.

This is Ramon Lopez for WSLR News.


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