Bring Citizens Back to Approval Process


According to last week’s column from Christine Robinson, the executive director of The Argus Foundation, the City’s original adoption of the Duany plan in 2001 stipulated “administrative approval” of new buildings, which is to say no formal public input into the approval process. Furthermore, she argues that this system of excluding citizens resulted in a transformation of the city from a “ghost town… on life support” to the current boom. Both statements are absolutely incorrect.

In fact, when the City Commission initially adopted the plan, it did not contain administrative approval, and this process was only included after the development community (including Argus) initiated a challenge against the city. There were many complaints in that. Two of those—by no means the most important—were a lack of certainty and a lack of incentives.

Developers argued that allowing citizen input would prevent the certainty of development approval. Apparently the sitting Commissioners 1) wanted to end the challenge, and 2) believed the code would be so good that citizen input was not needed.

Much of the negotiation process was carried out behind closed doors, resulting in little public discussion of the merits of administrative approval vs. public hearings. There was no discussion of adopting alternative methods to facilitate the approval process—public input was viewed as an all or nothing proposition, and the City Commission chose nothing.

Seventeen years later, we are all living with the results, and they are not as rosy as promised. The concept of “certainty” to be provided by the zoning code has played out in full for developers, but not so much for citizens. Narrow sidewalks, lot-line to lot-line buildings, unsafe construction practices and a general failure to consider quality of life or compatibility all mar the picture. Citizens and commissioners alike are excluded from the approval process and staff—which is reluctant to enforce compatibility on its own authority—bears the brunt of citizen anger at the results.

We all love Sarasota—that is why we live here. But it is time to bring citizens back to the approval process for new buildings and it is time to fix the most problematic parts of the code. In fact, it is past time, and our City Commissioners and Administration must take on this task.

Kate Lowman is a steering committee member for STOP!

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