Ahearn-Koch Sees Lingering Threat to Public Input

Todays News

Sarasota City Commissioner Jennifer Ahearn-Koch’s voice lifts as she discusses achievements at City Hall in her first five years of office. “How much time do you have?” she said. “I could rattle off a laundry list on the commission of things we have accomplished.”

A new wastewater system now sets Sarasota apart as the most advanced in Florida, sans the one at Walt Disney World. Efforts strode forward on a North Trail overlay district. Retail space on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way that stood vacant since the 2009 recession now has locally owned stores operating at Janie’s Garden. Parkland preserved at The Bay has started to come online. 

But Ahearn-Koch hesitates to take too much credit, even as she runs for a second term in office. “None of it is my accomplishment,” she said. “We are a body of five people. We agree or don’t agree, we discuss, debate and compromise. Everything we have done in the past five years was as a body of government, and I contributed one fifth of that.”

There’s a cooperative spirit Ahearn-Koch espouses that’s somewhat atypical among activists-turned-politicians. But that’s not to say she doesn’t see threats to City Hall, many of them the same ones that spurred her to run for office in the first place.

On the immediate horizon, she warns against a fresh push to expand administrative review further from the city core. “The public voice is essential for big, impactful developments and especially for those contiguous to single family neighborhoods, which are big part of the mix of our city,” she said.

She sees a proposal for a mixed-use corridor as a massive expansion of administrative review that, while done under the guise of constructing more affordable housing, would result in eliminating a critical voice from planning decisions.

She rejects a characterizing that staff approvals without public hearings would streamline development. Instead, she compares the planning process to a three-legged stool supported by the developer application process, city staff review and public input. Eliminate that third leg and the whole stool falls over.

For a comparison, she points to an apartment project near her own neighborhood where developers initially planned a pool with facilities near existing neighborhoods. Nothing violated city development regulations but neighbors asked that developers move the potential high-use pool to a part of property away from existing homes. The developer took the suggestion, the neighborhood presented no opposition to the plan and the cost for the project actually went down.

Developers have often complained a city public hearing where an unruly crowd opposes a project can result in projects being shot down after years of work. But Ahearn-Koch rejects the notion that giving up those hearings for an administrative process will streamline anything. For one thing, projects face other uncertain factors from supply chain issues to market uncertainty. But cutting out citizens early in the process also potentially could result in problems later. “It could be crippling to project after it is designed and built to then have citizens say, ‘Hey, you put a dumpster next to my kids’ bedroom,” she said. 

She’s now running for another term. She faces five other candidates: Dan Lobeck, Sheldon Rich, Terrell Salem, Carl Shoffstall and Debbie Trice. The top three vote-getters in August go to a November runoff, with the top two there winning seats. To date, Ahearn-Koch feels good about the campaign tone.

“I’m honored to be surrounded by five other really qualified and caring candidates,” she said. “Everyone brings something valuable to conversations.”

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