Carrie Seidman, Herald Tribune
Before last week’s County Commission hearing on the proposed Siesta Promenade project by Benderson Development, Sura Kochman was feeling hopeful.
For almost two years, using the tools she’d developed over a decade of chairing a New Jersey planning board, she’d spent “almost every waking moment” gathering research, talking with officials, building alliances and working to disseminate information about the mixed-use plan for the 24-acre site near U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road, neighboring her Pine Shores home. Now it was time for Kochman — and dozens of other residents who also saw the mix of hotel, retail and residential development as incompatible with the surrounding area — to share their concerns before commissioners took a vote last Wednesday.
“I truly felt in my gut that, with the mountain of evidence we had gathered and the testimony of eight organizations representing thousands of people’s voices, that the commissioners would listen and understand the issues regarding this very unique area,” said Kochman, who formed the Pine Shores Neighborhood Alliance to advocate for reducing the project’s height and density.
|Siesta Promenade site at US 41 and Stickney Point|
Kochman responded with all the fervor and optimism of a high school cheerleader.
“I said, ’Don’t give up, you have to make your voices heard, give it your all!” she recalled earlier this week, sounding a little defeatist herself after commissioners approved the project. “But they were proven right. So maybe people shouldn’t bother anymore. Because they hear our voices, but they don’t hear us.”
Commissioners listened to almost 90 residents, just eight of whom spoke in favor of the project. Speakers said it was incompatible with a comprehensive plan that calls for “walkability” and reducing negative impacts on surrounding residential areas. They pointed to conflicts with elements of the newly-passed uniform development code. They noted flaws in the traffic studies that were conducted and expressed fears of a gridlock that would be not only a hassle but a danger and, in the event of an emergency, potentially life-threatening.
But after nearly five hours of testimony, the vote (4-1) was swift and unequivocal. Benderson’s request for a rezone and a hotel exception was granted, without modification.
“The fact that they totally ignored us and didn’t make one change, it’s very discouraging, very disheartening,” said Kochman, who was born and raised in Sarasota. “The whole process is just so disingenuous. Did they already know when they walked into the meeting that the whole thing was for naught? Was the fix in?”
When I asked her exactly what she meant by that, Kochman didn’t pull any punches.
|Sarasota County Commission: In bed with the developers?|
“Any rational person would have seen that this application should not have been approved in its proposed form,” she said dismissively. “So the only answer, I assume, would be to go to sarasotavotes.com and see where the (commissioners’) campaign contributions have come from. You hate to think our commissioners can be bought off, but there’s no other way to look at this. That’s the only reason I can think of.”
Kochman has a lot of company. In my year-long tenure as a columnist, this is the refrain I hear more than any other: Local government is in bed with the developers and it’s ruining Sarasota.
I’ve heard it from the grassroots advocacy group STOP, fighting to change the “administrative approval” process that grants the city the right to green light downtown development projects without citizen input.
I’ve heard it from people living on S. Palm Avenue , who formed SHOUT over concerns about safety hazards from construction debris and practices on new developments and who have encountered resistance in trying to get the city to take proactive measures to protect residents, their pets and their vehicles.
I’ve heard it from homeowners in Venice, objecting to the placement of a new hospital in an area the comprehensive plan intended to be residential, and one that lacks the infrastructural capacity to handle increased traffic and emergency vehicles.
I’ve heard it from those fighting the city’s plan to lease the pavilion on Lido Key to private investors for development of a restaurant and additional amenities that would decidedly change the ambiance of Sarasota’s most laid-back, family friendly public beach.
And I’ve heard it from “Reopen Beach Road” advocates who objected to the county’s ceding a once-public thoroughfare to private property owners, allowing for increased density on their buildable land. (Even though an amendment calling on the county to regain ownership and reopen the road passed in the recent midterms, it is already facing pushback — leading to the conclusion that even if you win, you’re not done fighting.)
Almost daily I get mail from readers complaining about everything from traffic congestion to red tide, flooding to impassable sidewalks — all of which they blame on uncontrolled development and injudicious planning. They write to inform me of meetings and public forums and petitions and ask if I can help rally the troops. Many say they are reluctant crusaders.
“I moved here to retire, I didn’t plan on becoming an activist,” one told me recently. “But I can’t stand to see what they are doing to this paradise.”
But when the fattest wallet can buy the loudest voice, even a substantial citizen chorus is like background noise. And how long will residents continue to protest if they know it’s pointless?
“I guess that’s why so many people in Sarasota just live in their little bubbles,” Kochman said. “Go out to dinner, see a show, come back home and don’t get involved. It’s discouraging people from wanting to get involved because they think ... to what end? There is a total disregard here for the voices of the citizenry.”
For more on the projects Seidman alludes to, see This Could Be You.
Contact columnist Carrie Seidman at 941-361-4834 or firstname.lastname@example.org