Up & Down the Trail

| February 1, 2014

By Stan Zimmerman

Boss mayor redeux
Supporters of an elected, executive mayor are considering another referendum to change the Sarasota City charter. City Commissioner Paul Caragiulo and County Commissioner   Joe Barbetta are backing the measure, among others.

Voters have squashed the proposal at the polls three times in the past 20 years. This time the proposal is not a mere revision of the charter, but instead is a complete rewrite of the city’s “constitution.”

In the early 1950s Sarasota adopted the professional city manager form of municipal government, where the mayor is in reality the chairman of a city commission that sets policy but has no day-to-day operational authority.

Supporters of the “strong mayor” concept say it will provide needed leadership and accountability. Opponents say the city manager provides professional leadership that is immune from partisan politics. Bradenton has a strong mayor form of government, electing only two men to the job in the past two decades.

Legacy Trail looks to grow
The bicycle and pedestrian trail connecting south Sarasota to Venice is poised to expand both north and south. The North Port City Commission asked the county to help the city pay for a leg of the paved trail to wend its way south.

Meanwhile The Gulf Coast Community Foundation is raising funds to pay half of a feasibility study to bring the trail north from Clark Road into downtown Sarasota at Payne Park.

Right now the Legacy Trail is 10 miles long, and has proved extraordinarily popular with bicyclists, joggers and walkers. It is built on the old Seaboard Coastline Railroad right-of-way.

’Or else’ becomes ‘Pretty please’
The feud began in 2003. Then-County Administrator Jim Ley needed land for a new criminal justice center, and had his eye on the site of the city police station on Ringling Boulevard across the street from the county jail.

Give the land up, said Ley, or I’m moving the county seat out of Sarasota. City commissioners folded and signed a lengthy memo about the police station property, air rights on Main St., additional parking spaces and other items demanded by Ley. Then they sheepishly asked city voters to approve a $25 million bond issue to build a new police station.

But nobody went to the courthouse to deed over the old police site to the county. And nobody proposed building anything there. Ten years later, the county is asking, “Where’s our property?”

The city’s attorney says, “The city commission is under no obligation to convey that site….” And when Mayor Shannon Snyder asked for a show of hands to convey the land, all he got was a giggle.

“They actually laughed at us,” said County Commissioner Joe Barbetta. But other commissioners were more concerned to head off the dispute. “Let’s keep the lawyer talk out of it,” said Chairman Charles Hines. In the interim the interim county administrator is talking with the city manager to avoid more laughter and anger.

Another one bites the dust
The Sarasota City Historic Preservation Board didn’t. Instead they voted to demolish a circa-1924 apartment four-plex on Second Street only a stone’s throw from U.S. 41. To their credit, it’s the first time in seven years they’ve approved demolition of a building on the city’s historic register.

Ironically the building belongs to a family that has saved a substantial number of old Sarasota buildings from demolition, often moving them to a new location for restoration. But in this case the two-story building was too tall to migrate down U.S. 41 and then Fruitville Road to a lot across Fruitville from the new Staples office supply store. State rules allow closing a state road for only six hours at a time, not enough time for electricians to rewire traffic lights and power lines that overhang the road.

The old  building was under contract to an adjoining owner who has plans (but not approval) to build a new hotel across the Tamiami Trail from the Ritz-Carlton. Alex and Marlene Lancaster bought the building in 1984 and rehabilitated it. “It’s a little like losing a child,” said Marlene after the unanimous vote to allow demolition.

County locks in slashed impact fee
Newcomers might laugh but in the early 2000s, traffic was a top political issue. Developments were springing up like mushrooms in a cow pastures. In fact the developments were in cow pastures, and fed ever-increasing traffic into a choking road network. After agonizing study, in 2006 the Sarasota County Commission imposed impact fees on new development to pay for its impact on roads.

One year later the commission decided the fees were too high, and cut them by one-third. As the economic downturn continued, developers begged for lower impact fees. In 2011 the county cut them further, as a temporary measure to help boost construction. The county is now on the verge of freezing the impact fees at that level.

For a 1,500 square-foot home, here are the numbers:
2006: $7,623
2007: $5,171
2011: $2,585

To make their determination final, the commission will hold a public hearing on Feb. 12. Opponents say even the highest figure does not cover the full impact of new development.

Pinecraft crackdown
It’s the last place you look for a hotbed of crime, but the Amish and Mennonite community of Pinecraft is a motoring maze. With the community growing by 60 percent every winter as the snowbirds arrive, the one-mile stretch of Bahia Vista is beset with golf carts, three-wheelers, bicycles, pedestrians and motorists.

The area lies just outside city limits, so it falls to the sheriff’s office to urge jaywalkers to use crosswallks, cite golf carters for lack of equipment, nab speeders and keep cyclists in line. The speed limit through Pinecraft is 30 mph, and during the winter months the Sheriff’s Office conducts repeated sweeps in the area.

Although it’s hard to keep your speed down when you’re thinking about fresh-baked pie, think of all the pies you could buy for the price of one speeding ticket.

New life for Rosemary
For sale, cheap. Lots of acres of high-and-dry property (no swampland) only minutes from downtown Sarasota. Crazy government incentives available. All offers considered.

In development-mad Florida, there still are pockets of property in neglect that seem so ripe for redevelopment. There is no better local example than the Rosemary District, on the north side of Fruitville Road and opposite downtown.

One block from the library, two blocks from city hall but so down and out that developers would rather invest in a cow pasture ten miles outside of town. Until recently, that is. In what may be the true sign of a real estate turnaround, two families are moving fast with plans for the Rosemary. One family is a local developer with a host of properties under their belts; the other is a first-timer in Florida.

The city is dangling serious incentives. One is the possibility of allowing triple density in the area. Instead of 25 units per acre, it could be 75. That’s half-again as many as is allowed in the downtown core.  And in one case, the city may be willing to surrender property it owns in return for the promise of a handful of parking spaces.

One project is an apartment with 450 units. The other a mixed use development of retail, commercial, office and residential with either a boutique cinema or live-stage theater. Neither proposes a high-rise to make ends meet. Both have paperwork in process in city hall.

DID scrapes for cash
Meanwhile the Downtown Improvement District south of Fruitville Road is looking at a bleak future. The group levies a two-mil surtax on commercial property for improvements to downtown. But after borrowing money for a $1.1 million improvement project in a three block area, it’s basically broke.

After servicing principal and interest, paying for maintenance and funding its part-time employee, the DID has about $82,000 left. Subtract 20 percent for reserves, and $58,000 is left. That’s hardly worth having a meeting for. “What are we going to do for the next 14 years”” asked the district’s Chair Ernie Ritz.

"If we don’t expand and grow, then what we have is $58,000 per year to spend,” said Ritz. “There’s no reason for this board to meet except on auto pilot.”

Other members of the group were leery of expanding the district geographically, but realized is nothing was done the board was ineffectual. Ritz proposed calling together a public workshop similar to the 2010 SEMCON that proposed creation of the DID.

The group could focus on new projects, and then consider various funding methods to pay for them. Adding urgency is the looming 2016 date when the community redevelopment agency could dissolve in city-county bickering. It how has a $7.5 million annual budget (vastly larger than the DID’s budget), but that could go away and leave the DID as the only group concerned specifically with downtown’s health.

New chief shakes up discipline
When Bernadette DiPino became Sarasota Police Chief a year ago, one of her first actions was to scrap a disciplinary board, and make those decisions herself. Now she wants to substitute a matrix to make it clear to everybody what happens in the discipline process. “It takes ay potential violation a police officer could make and mandates an appropriate penalty,” she says.

The change is under review by the city’s human resources department, but has the backing of the city manager, himself a veteran of the Detroit police force.

DiPino also is changing recruitment. Instead of waiting for an opening and then advertising, she would like to build a list of qualified candidates to use when a position is available. For the first time the department recently paid for a candidate to attend the police academy. “We did not do that in the past,” she said.

The new recruitment system, she hopes, will produce a more diverse body of law enforcement officers.

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