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The search for two new members of the Sarasota Planning Board turns controversial

Written by on Saturday, July 1, 2023

A city planning board is usually a low-profile affair. But the hunt for two new members of Sarasota’s Planning Board has prompted public concern and scrutiny.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: June 30, 2023

 

Official Transcript

Host: A city planning board is usually a low-profile affair. But amid a luxury building boom in the city of Sarasota and litigation in the Quay area over a project called One Park, the volunteer board and one city commissioner have been the target of a police investigation. On Monday, city commissioners will pick two new members for the Planning Board from eight candidates and that has prompted public concern and scrutiny. The WSLR news team is bringing you details on this.

At the property known as the Quay in Sarasota near the downtown bayfront, one luxury condo building after another is rising into the blue Florida sky. There’s litigation by condo owners in a brand new tower over air rights against the developer of One Park, a nearby tower that is on the drawing boards. The One Park project also triggered contentious City Commission meetings and prompted the city attorney to suspend a Planning Board meeting after a member and architect asked whether he had to recuse himself if he was offered a job by the developer in an unrelated project. That move prompted a police investigation.

The five member City Planning Board is a volunteer-driven panel that is appointed by the City Commission. Members must quote possess the technical professional financial, business or administrative skills necessary. It jumps into action if a developer wants to go beyond what existing rules and zoning allow. In general, it makes sure development projects conform with the city’s big picture plan.

One resident-powered group called City PAC argues that the Quay projects are violating the spirit of the downtown Master Plan drawn up in the early 2000s by new urbanist planning guru Andres Duany, which in turn suggests the Planning Board has failed to do its job.

Now on Monday, the city commissioners are scheduled to appoint two new Planning Board members from eight candidates. In the run up to the Monday City Commission meeting, City PAC produced a catchy report card: a graphic of a barometer that puts five of the eight candidates on the “rainy” side and three on the “sunny” side. Those on the rainy side mostly have ties to developers in the construction industry that could present them with conflicts of interest. Kelly Franklin, a steering committee member of City Park explains.

 

Kelly Franklin: I was fairly shocked, I think we all were in this City Park group when we realized, hey, more than half of the folks that have applied for this role, I don’t feel comfortable that they’d be able to be neutral in their decision making. And that’s not a statement on them, it’s the statement on the fact that the developers have become so aggressive about trying to build their vision, and they seem to have lost sight of the fact that there is an actual plan here. And we the people and a government that works for us need to follow that plan, consistently, for everybody, objectively.

Host: Among others, City PAC has concerns over Jordan Allison. She is currently a project manager employed by the Bay Park, a nonprofit that is developing an urban park near the Quay. The Bay Park has been offered a million dollar donation from the developers of One Park, but only if they are able to build their tower. And then there is Carl Shoffstall, whose 2022 City Commission campaign accepted more than $60,000 in large donations from high profile local developers.

KF: And they were large donations from a PAC registered in Tallahassee, even though our charter requires those donations, those kinds of PACs usually to be registered at City Hall. And they were for significant sums from developers who have big projects coming before the City Commission, one of which was One Park. Another was Benderson. And then the person that that ran for City Commission and that City PAC actively raised those concerns about them, has applied to serve on this Planning Board.

And that suggests a certain disconnect between how this looks to the outside world, and maybe the individual’s perception of their ability to be neutral, but I as a resident do not want to see commissioners or charter officials or anybody involved in, you know, things that look uncomfortably like financial influence on decision making. It really should be based on our city plan and the guidelines for designing a healthy, vibrant, livable human-scale city.

Host: Efforts to reach Shoffstall and Allison were not successful by deadline. City PAC suggests that the city commissioners, in order to avoid a eroding public faith or hobbling the board with too many recusals, should appoint their recommended candidates. Beyond builders, developers and architects, Franklin has concerns about the presence of active lawyers on the board. The best candidates, she believes, are retired professionals.

KF: The level of concern that’s raised by this, that they take these questions seriously. And look at, how do we compose a planning board that can function well, give us the advice we need, make sure our our code and our design intent and our vision for how the city grows is followed. And I hope that they will, you know, follow the advice we gave to look towards the candidates with the least obvious conflicts. And then when it comes down to deciding whether to take active attorneys, I think they just need to know that that’s a risk, that attorneys have to recuse themselves if there’s a conflict. And they really should and generally do if there can even be a perception, so that’s just a downside of putting an attorney on a volunteer board in a volunteer role.

Host: Ben Wilcox, co-founder and Research Director with Integrity Florida, a Tallahassee-based ethics watchdog, applauds the City PAC efforts.

Ben Wilcox: It’s crucial for the public to have all the information about these candidates for local boards. Yeah, I think I would commend the citizens group for reaching out and researching the candidates and making that information available to public.

Host: But the ultimate arbiter, Wilcox suggests, should be the voters who elected city and county commissioners.

BW: I mean, it’s up to the City Commission, who they want to serve on those boards. So if they are comfortable with a developer serving on a planning board, then maybe that’s something that voters should be concerned about.

Host: This was Johannes Werner reporting for WSLR News.

 

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