Up and Down the Trail

| June 1, 2016

Downtown shuttle in the works

Within a year, residents, vacationers and workers may have a new way to zip around downtown Sarasota. 

After roughly five years of discussions, the city and Downtown Improvement District are teaming up to work on a plan for a free on-demand transportation service. The free service would include six to nine, six-seat electric shuttles that could be hailed on a mobile app to ferry residents and vistiors around downtown without moving their cars. Officials hope the downtown circulator could reduce traffic congestion.

The city is drafting a request for proposals in search of a vendor to oversee that program, with about $435,000 in Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) funds available for it.

One potential vehicle would be a six-person low-speed electric car that resembles an elongated golf cart. Modeled after services in places such as Delray Beach, the city hopes a pilot program could prove a long-term solution to reducing roadway congestion in downtown. The goal is to reduce the number of cars circulating downtown at any given time.

City considers paid parking

Is paid parking coming back to downtown Sarasota?

On May 2, the city’s parking manager presented a Citywide Strategy for Parking Management to the City Commission. That presentation showed that the answer to the above question may be — Yes.

The Parking Management document was the result of more than two years of study by the Parking Advisory Committee, a group comprising representatives from various districts facing parking challenges. The strategy re-visits the concept of paid parking, and suggests implementing paid parking in the most heavily used spaces downtown. The plan also calls for off-street parking at either no cost or for a much lower fee.

Paid on-street and garage parking is the only way for Sarasota’s parking department to sustain itself in the long term and combat downtown traffic congestion, the city report concludes. The Citywide Strategy for Parking Management report suggests the city implement on-street metered parking within the next 10 to 15 months and implement off-street paid parking systems within the next two years.

City Parking Manager Mark Lyons presented the report and its conclusions to the City Commission at the May 2 meeting, and commissioners voted unanimously to pursue those recommendations.

County food truck ordinance delayed again

 A new food truck ordinance could result in less-strict restrictions on food trucks in unincorporated Sarasota County, including Siesta Key.

At county staff’s request, the Sarasota County Planning Commission agreed Feb. 18 to continue the matter of a new food truck ordinance until May 5. Then on May 5, the Sarasota County Planning Commission largely agreed with county staff recommendations to expand the flexibility with which food trucks are permitted to operate. But the County Commission opted to continue the discussion again to its Aug. 16 meeting, so staff could continue to refine the ordinance while working with food truck activists.

Back on Oct. 27, 2015, county Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson won unanimous approval from the County Commission to schedule a public hearing on a revised ordinance that would provide more flexibility for food truck operations.

The county has been working with stakeholders including the SRQ Food Truck Alliance — made up of 20 mobile vendors operating throughout the region— restaurant owners and representatives of the hospitality industry and chambers of commerce.

Proponents say relaxed food truck regulations offer culinary options for residents and vacationers, yet don’t compete with established restaurants, because they offer limited seating and a strictly outdoors setting.

But one Planning Commission member and some restaurant owners have voiced concern that established restaurants that pay taxes and other fees could be at a competitive disadvantage with food trucks given the cost of each operation. Opponents of food trucks cite concerns about cleanliness, unfair competition with nearby restaurants, aesthetics and pedestrian safety in their arguments.

Currently, the county confines vendors’ carts to 10 feet by 20 feet and four wheels, according to the county’s municipal code, and mandates they operate at least 800 feet from an established restaurant and 750 feet from another mobile vendor. When it comes to food truck regulation, unincorporated Sarasota County is more restrictive than the city.

In 2012, the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce and two other island organizations fought a food-truck permit application in the Village, citing those concerns.

 Workshops to be held on backyard chickens

Backyard chickens are back on Sarasota County’s agenda. The Sarasota County Commission plans to hold an upcoming public hearing in September or October on allowing residents in the unincorporated parts of the county to keep backyard chickens.

Commissioner Carolyn Mason formally made a motion on May 10 calling for public outreach and community workshops on the proposal before the board considers advertising a draft ordinance for the hearing. It passed 4-0, with Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo absent from the session for the vote.

An online petition to allow backyard chickens in the county had garnered 1,730 signatures as of press time. Supporters say they want to have backyard chickens so they can know exactly what goes in their food in an age of concern about antibiotics, because they are concerned about animal welfare in commercial poultry operations, and for the eggs.

At the request of Commissioner Christine Robinson, staff also will work with representatives of Citizens Lobbying for Urban Chicken Keeping (CLUCK) on whether it can handle complaints — if an ordinance ultimately is approved — as it does for the City of Sarasota in regard to its backyard chicken-keeping program. Additionally, staff’s preparation of the draft ordinance will encompass research into whether veterinarians should be required to visit homeowners with chickens to ensure the birds remain in good health, in conjunction with potential licensing of chicken keeping.

Former TV anchor to run for state seat

Sarasota media personality John Hill announced last month he is running for a seat in the state House as a Republican.

Hill will challenge Sarasota businesswoman Alex Miller in the GOP primary for the District 72 seat covering North Sarasota County. The winner will face off against Democrat Edward James III.

Recently retired from his position anchoring the newscast for SNN Local News 6, Hill, 74, also worked at the local ABC affiliate and at news stations in Maryland, Alabama, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania during a 30-year career in television. He also is an Army veteran who flew helicopter gunships in combat during the Vietnam War. Hill announced his bid for the state seat on May 16.

Cask & Ale approved for downtown

The Sarasota City Planning Board approved a plan to open a high-end tapas bar and lounge in downtown Sarasota with a 4-0 vote last month.

Not everyone is pleased downtown is getting a new nightlife venue.

Several residents who live in downtown Sarasota asked board members to deny Cask & Ale, which serves a tapas menu and cocktails at its St. Petersburg location, a conditional nightclub license because of concerns it could morph into a nuisance nightclub.

Before the May 11 vote, Sarasota city planning staff had recommended the lounge be allowed to operate on Main Street. In endorsing the application for the 99-seat upscale craft cocktail and tapas concept, staff noted owner Jeff Catherell has promised voluntary concessions to please downtown residents who may be opposed to the project. The move comes after a Feb. 18 community workshop in which some audience members voiced concern about another bar in the downtown core.

A strong quarter for construction

The Sarasota-Bradenton region had the strongest quarter for growth in new-home starts since the third quarter of 2006, about 15 months before the official start of the Great Recession, according to a national data researcher.

Metrostudy, an industry researcher, reports that 1,443 single-family units were started in the first quarter of 2016, up 61.6 percent from the same period last year and a 21.5 percent increase from the fourth quarter of 2015.

The report is yet another sign of a rebounding housing market in the region.

For the 12 months ending March 31, new homes in the price range under $250,000 totaled 1,559 units, up 16.5 percent from the same period in 2015. Those homes over $250,000 were up 46.5 percent.

Sheraton hotel planned

A five-story Four Points by Sheraton may replace the former Best Western on South Tamiami Trail.

Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based developer Daus Investments purchased the two-story hotel at 1425 S. Tamiami Trail, formerly a Best Western, for $6.5 million in March and has now filed plans to redevelop the property into a five-story Four Points by Sheraton.

The property is centrally located just south of Midtown Plaza, which houses a Winn-Dixie, Michael’s On East and a Starbucks. It also sits across U.S. 41 from Sarasota Memorial Hospital.

Daus is working with Starwood Hotels & Resorts to secure the Sheraton brand for the site. According to an application filed with the city May 9, Daus would keep the current number of rooms at 99 but expand the overall footprint to accommodate new guest room layouts and add meeting space.

Thunder by the Bay saga continues

The ongoing saga over the location of Thunder by the Bay continues.

At the May 2 City Commission meeting, Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown shared updated commissioners that Thunder by the Bay was once again seeking a locale within the city.

The organizers of Thunder by the Bay, the motorcycle festival that’s been held in downtown Sarasota for 18 years, have been looking to move the event from lower Main Street to just up the road. The move was meant to address the concerns of some business owners on lower Main Street and Palm Avenue who expressed concerns about the event only hampering business, despite the large crowds it brings to the area.

But facing opposition from some upper Main Street merchants who would be impacted by street closures associated with the event, all parties involved determined the proposed change was unfeasible.

Now, city staff is evaluating whether Payne Park would be a suitable home for the event — and organizers are waiting on a definitive answer on whether the festival can continue in downtown Sarasota.

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