Wednesday, May 25, 2016

City of Sarasota Mulls Immobility Plan - Lobeck

Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck offers this analysis of the city of Sarasota's new initiative to excuse developers from impact fees, concurrency, and more -- it mirrors trends at the county and state levels around the state:

Ban the Immobility Plan

On Wednesday, May 25 at 6 pm at City Hall, the City of Sarasota Planning Board will hold a public hearing on a scheme to exempt most developers from traffic studies and payments now required for needed road improvements, by excusing them from what is called concurrency.

This comes after the City Commission sharply slashed transportation impact fees (now called mobility fees) on developers in 2014, also depriving the City of needed funds to handle developers’ traffic impacts.  

The Planning Board heard this proposal on September 17, 2015 but after facing fierce opposition voted to postpone it.

City staff says these moves are to encourage development by making it easier and cheaper for developers.  Besides, they say, don't worry, we need to promote traffic congestion to "get people out of their cars" and walking wherever they need to go or riding buses that get caught in traffic too.

What this ignores is not only common sense but also the rising public outrage over development out of control and the intolerable traffic gridlock it creates.

What is serves is the undue influence of developers over local public policy.

The Planning Commission will make a recommendation to the City Commission, for consideration at another public hearing.

Should Developers Be Excused from Traffic Studies and Payments?

Consultants and staff for the City of Sarasota are seeking to exempt many new developments from doing a traffic study or paying their share for needed traffic improvements.

While this is called a “Mobility Plan”, it would reduce mobility, not improve it.   It is, as such, really an Immobility Plan.

There is no arguable public purpose for this in any way.  It would be a benefit for developers at the public expense.

Although some in the City say that increased traffic congestion should actually be encouraged, most believe that it should be controlled, to maintain mobility for residents, visitors and businesses; protect neighborhoods; limit air pollution; reduce life-threatening delays by emergency vehicles and preserve our quality of life.

The Mobility Plan argues that increased traffic congestion is good because the City should “move people, not vehicles.”  That ignores the fact that almost all  trips of significant distance take place in vehicles.  Walking and biking certainly have their place, but not for most transportation purposes.   And both cars and buses cannot move if the traffic congestion is too severe.

It’s really all just an illogical excuse to give away the store to the developers who have all too much sway over City policy.

City staff seems sensitive to the fact that their plan would be unpopular if its effects were known, as demonstrated by a County public opinion poll that shows growth, development and traffic as the number one concern by far, three times more than any other subject (schools and jobs being next).  That is why they have been less than forthright in promoting the Mobility Plan, including by a logo that says "Let's Get Moving, Sarasota", with speed lines coming off the letters.  They try to suggest that they are speeding up traffic when in fact they would bring it to a gridlocked halt.

What Would the "Mobility Plan" Do?

Under current state law, developers must perform a traffic study which shows the need for any transportation improvements to accommodate the development’s traffic, and the developer must pay its proportionate share of the added capacity provided by those improvements, such as for example a new turn lane.  This state law is called “concurrency” because the payment must be made concurrent with, that is at the same time as, the development’s impacts.
However, the state law allows a local government to opt out of concurrency.  The “Mobility Plan” would do that by repealing all references to concurrency in the City’s Comprehensive Plan and replacing it with the extremely weak Mobility Plan.

The proposed change would eliminate concurrency’s traffic studies and payments for developments below a certain very generous thresholds.  The thresholds are 250 trips per peak hour “Downtown”, 100 trips per peak hour in areas called Centers and Corridors and 50 trips per peak hour in zones called Single Use/Neighborhood.

The examples given would exempt the following developments.  Downtown: a “home improvement superstore” or a supermarket up to 40,000 square feet, offices up to 170,000 square feet (such as Northern Trust with 110,000 square feet) and a condo or hotel with up to 400 units (such as 1350 Main with 140 units).  Centers and Corridors: a “drug store with drive through,” a hotel with up to 160 rooms and offices up to 67,000 square feet.  Single Use/Residential: a Carrabba’s restaurant, an apartment building up to 80 units or offices up to 34,000 square feet.

Indeed, staff deliberately chose the limit of 250 trips for the Downtown District to generally reflect the maximum trip generation for parcels in that huge area, extending from east from the bayfront between 10th Street and Mound.

These thresholds would apply to all Site Plans, Building Permits or Subdivision Plats.  Somewhat less generous thresholds would be applied to Rezonings or Future Land Use Amendments, but those are rarely needed for a development, and would be needed even less often under the new "Form Based Code" which City staff is also pushing.

The City staff and consultants have said that they came up with the thresholds by looking at ten years of data in which the proportionate share payments usually would not exceed impact fees.  Under the state law, a developer gets a payment reduction for its impact fees.

One problem with that is effective October 1, 2014, the City, at the urging of the same staff, slashed transportation impact fees on developers, way below the already very reduced impact fees charged by Sarasota County.  Even if impact fees are ever fully restored, there would be instances in which a developer’s proportionate share exceeds its impact fees.

However, if the traffic study is not required it will never be known when concurrency requires more than impact fees and the extra money needed for traffic improvements will be lost.  The City will also not even know what improvements are needed to accommodate the developers’ traffic, in order to plan properly.

For example, the City is planning improvements at Gulfstream and US 41 and at Fruitville and US 41.  Under the current rules, a developer must pay its proportionate share of the cost of those improvements for its traffic impacts on one or both of those intersections.  Under the Mobility Plan, unless it is over the very high threshold, it would not.  Indeed, a traffic study showing the development’s impacts on those intersections would not even be required.
Additionally, without a traffic study, the City will not have what could be important information to weigh whether to approve a development for other reasons, such as neighborhood impacts.

Any further consideration of this Mobility Plan should continue to be deferred until mobility/impact fees are brought up to their full levels.

If the Plan does move forward, now or later, it should be defeated as it robs the City’s transportation program of needed funds, lets many developers off the hook for their traffic impacts and deprives the City of traffic studies needed to plan improvements.

Mobility – real mobility – is too important to sacrifice for the benefit of developers at the public expense.

Dan Lobeck
President, Control Growth Now

Friday, May 20, 2016

"I have been broken"

A comment found on Sarasota Voices, regarding the proposed revisions to the Comp Plan:

I attended sessions along the way to updating the County Comprehensive Plan and I never heard anyone say they wanted increased traffic, geometrically increased density east of I-75 and paved over wetlands and other important natural resources. Yet I went to the hearings before the Planning Board and one could tell decisions had already been made to allow for all of the above. After the perfunctory public hearings, motions were run through so quickly that my head was spinning and of course all was approved. Now we have public hearings before the County Commission and I have been broken. I will not attend.  (Emphasis added)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Comp Plan Updates: Are our appointed boards representing us?

Two significant presentations of the latest draft of the Comprehensive Plan are coming up June 8 and 10. Each meeting addresses important matters, like economic development, land use, quality of life and the environment:

Here's a question: When you read, "This draft includes public comment and recommendations from the Planning Commission," how do you relate to that statement?

Does the Planning Commission as currently composed seem balanced, fair, open to different perspectives? If not, why not, and how could that be remedied?

Is it time to consider how well Sarasota's appointed Boards are managing to reflect the diversity of thought and assumptions about the economy, growth, and planning that exist countywide? If so, how could they be improved?

Feel free to share your thoughts with

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

CRB votes to consider becoming an appointed board

Sarasota County's Charter Review Board by a vote of 6-2 Wednesday decided to call a special meeting of the entire Board to consider Bob Waechter's proposal to transform it from an elected to an appointed entity that would meet only on an "as-needed basis."

Two CRB members were not present. A couple of those in attendance made it clear that their vote to proceed to committee consideration was no indication that they were in favor of the proposal, which was presented briefly and without detail by Waechter before the vote.

Charter Review Board
Prior to Waechter's presentation, 15 people spoke during the "Open to the Public" segment of the meeting. Fourteen spoke against the proposal, some in very strong terms, arguing that a move from elected to appointed status would open the Board to cronyism and influence peddling.  Just one speaker, former board member Cathy L. Layton, spoke in its favor.

The CRB plans to call a special session well in advance of its next regular session in October. That meeting will be open to the public. No date has yet been announced.

Herald Tribune story here.

Meeting link.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Bob Waechter's Idea: De-Democratizing the Charter Review Board

Sarasota County's Charter Review Board is a elected board that serves as a conduit between citizens and the Charter, the mini-constitution of this home rule county. Its ten members serve staggered four-year terms

The Charter is the ultimate set of rules for County governance. Citizens who believe governance might be improved can go before the board to propose changes. They can also gather signatures and get a referendum without going through the board.

An example of the latter procedure occurred in 2007, when citizens used the ballot box to require a supermajority vote to approve increases in density in land use plans (e.g. a vote of 4-1 instead of 3-2 is necessary).  Arguably such measures have tamed impetuous developer activity at times, allowing for slower, more thoughtful growth.

That measure passed just as the last cycle of rapid growth was crashing. Now, with the new aggressive frenzy of development, Bob Waechter is suggesting that the Board should be restructured, in two ways:
1. The Board would be appointed rather than elected.
2. It would not meet regularly, but can be summoned into existence "on an as-needed basis," maybe every five or ten years.
The CRB currently meets three times a year to consider proposals which can come from any citizen. The review is guided by a set of bylaws and procedures.

Why would Mr. Waechter propose a change to this system? His proposal offers a few reasons -- better use of resources, and a lack of significant citizen initiatives coming before the board in recent years, among others.

One point he touched upon is more interesting: Mr. Waechter notes that an early effort to turn the Board from an elected to appointed body failed due to a concern voiced by the Republican Party that the "primarily Democrat elected officials" would "appoint only from their own party."

Board of County Commissioners, Sarasota County
Now in 2016 the developer economy is revving up. Construction, roadwork, and land use changes are pursued with ever-increasing frequency, and as it happens, the County's elected Commissioners are 100% from the Republican Party. In this environment Mr. Waechter has come forward with his proposal.


This proposal would disconnect the Board from the people in two ways: we would no longer vote to elect it, and it would not be accessible to us on any regular basis.


As one citizen put it, Waechter's proposal "further discourages citizen involvement in local government." Also, let's not rule out the possibility that this is a chess move in a larger political game. The next meeting of the Charter Review Board is 6 pm, Wednesday, May 11 at the County Administration Building, 1660 Ringling Blvd. in Sarasota. Those who wish can have five minutes to speak. Wear white.

Who is Bob Waechter? 

A real estate investor who'd been Chairman of the county Republican Party and a public officer of the Sarasota-Manatee Airport Authority, Bob Waechter in 2012 was "the most powerful political player in Sarasota County politics," according to the Herald-Tribune.
His stature makes it all the more remarkable that he was arrested and charged with the criminal use of a stolen identity for allegedly buying a prepaid debit card to make a campaign donation in the name of a fellow Republican (Arrest Report), in order to make it appear that the Republican, who was running for public office, had contributed to the campaign fund of a Democrat. In brief, Waechter tried to use the identity of a fellow Republican office seeker to discredit her. He later pleaded to a misdemeanor charge. The whole tawdry tale is here.

The larger context

It might seem that Mr. Waechter's proposal concerns an obscure board that citizens rarely attend to. But look at the larger picture. The County is run by a Republican-dominated County Commission that has blessed Whole Foods' desire to pave a healthy wetland, given the go-ahead to Carlos Beruff's wish to build 200 homes at a landfill, and approved many more mini-gated communities, even as it lowered impact fees that cover costs of roads and other infrastructure, and presided over the gutting of the 2050 Plan that sought to moderate the Browardization of open land east of I-75.

Browardize: to turn a section of paradise into an undesirable place to live because of poor planning and excessive development, leading to overcrowded roads and other municipal ills.

The Sarasota construction/real estate/developer sector is led by politically ambitious fellows like Beruff, who recently declared for Marco Rubio's Senate seat, and Pat Neal, who says he might like Rick Scott to appoint him as the Chief Financial officer of the state of Florida. Mike Moran, the attorney who helped get Beruff's plan for his landfill development approved, is running for County Commission. 

Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who's doing everything in his power to privatize the state, continues to eviscerate regulatory authority while making sure minimum wage employers everywhere know they're welcome in Florida.
  • Sarasota accountant (and Donald Trump's local campaign co-manager) Joe Gruters is running for State House Rep. District 73. 
Carlos Beruff

Figure in the carpet

So, when Bob Waechter asks the Sarasota Charter Review Board to transform itself into an inert, appointed body, he's but a small figure in a big carpet. The less government and citizen input, the more anarchic room developers, builders, realtors, lenders, and their political marionettes have to roam.

Wednesday, May 11th

The next meeting of the Charter Review Board is 6 pm, Wednesday, May 11 at the County Administration Building, 1660 Ringling Blvd. in Sarasota. The public is welcome and those who wish can have five minutes to speak. Nothing would be more splendid than a room full of Sarasotans opposing Bob Waechter's proposal to de-democratize the Charter Review Board. Come. Wear white.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Coming Events: A short list

Saturday, May 7, 9 am
The Conservation Committee will gather on the sidewalk by Whole Foods in downtown Sarasota. The plan is to carry signs and get petitions signed both at Whole Foods and at the nearby Farmers Market to protest the corporation's wish to locate a second store on top of a 4.5-acre wetland at Honore and University Parkway. Quite a bit more about the Whole Foods wetland fight here.

Monday, May 9, 7 pm - State Senate CONA Forum 
CONA Sarasota holds the second of its candidate forums, this one for State Senate. The format for questions -- short-answer hardballs, with follow-ups when worthwhile -- makes for a lively and revealing exchange. Dan Lobeck again will do the questioning, as he did for the State House Forum in April. Here's hoping all the candidates can appear. It's at the Sarasota Garden Club on Blvd. of the Arts.

Wednesday, May 11, 6 pm - Bob Waechter Proposal at CRB
The Sarasota County Charter Review Board meets at the County Administration Building, 1660 Ringling Blvd., at 6 pm to hear Mr. Waechter's proposal that the Board commit a form of institutional hara-kiri. Mr. Waechter has stated that he believes it is in the citizenry's best interest to put the Review Board in Limbo until such time as someone (unclear who) sees fit to wheel it out. Citizens for Sarasota County and others question whether this is in the best interest of Sarasotans. We're asking that those who come out Wednesday to oppose this initiative wear white shirts. More background here.

Saturday, June 25, 2 pm - BGA Forum
Better Government Association Forum at the new Gulf Gate Library Auditorium/Conference Room from 2 to 3:30 pm. The topic is REFORMING OUR LOCAL ELECTIONS (County of Sarasota) with Jon Thaxton and Cathy Antunes, and moderated by Frank Alcott.

The final date to declare candidacy for Federal and Judicial offices is May 6.  The final date for state and local offices is June 24. A website about the candidates is underway - more soon.