FOLLOW-UP STORY: Commission Grants Alta Vista Residents' Hearing To Appeal Walmart
A neighborhood association is set to formally ask the Sarasota City Commission tonight to hold a new hearing concerning the proposed Walmart Supercenter at the Ringling Shopping Center, but there's no guarantee that a hearing will be granted.
The request is scheduled to be the final item on the City Commission's evening agenda at City Hall. The evening portion begins at 6 p.m.
The Alta Vista Neighborhood Association has circulated its formal letter to the commission asking the city's leaders for a unanimous vote to hold a de novo public hearing because they believe the Walmart doesn't meet any approved definition of the type of retail allowed there because it's zoned Commercial Shopping Center Neighborhood, or CSCN.
The Planning Board approved the Walmart site plan Nov. 14 by a 3-2 vote. Planning Board member Jennifer Ahearn-Koch opposed the plan because she believed Walmart met the definition of a department store, which wouldn't be allowed in the neighborhood commercial zoning. Planning Board member and City Commission candidate Susan Chapman also believed the plan didn't meet the definition for a "small-scale development" in the code.
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If a hearing is granted, the earliest a de novo hearing can be held is Feb. 4.
The appellants are officially:
- Candy Spaulding, President, Alta Vista Neighborhood Association
- Juanita Rawlinson, Secretary and past President, Alta Vista Neighborhood Association
- Pat Kolodgy, Sargent at Arms & past President, Alta Vista Neighborhood Association
- Kelly Kirschner, past President, Alta Vista Neighborhood Association
- Jerry Sparkman, partner, Sweet Sparkman Architects, 2168 Main Street
- Marian A. Maxson Martin, neighbor, 1329 S. Brink Avenue
Developer Ron Burks is listed in a Nov. 25 email from Kirschner to the city as another party involved in the appeal, but his name does not appear on the updated materials before the commission.
At its core, the appellants said in its letter this is why Walmart should not be allowed:
The City report advocating approval of the site plan references Walmart as a "Large Store" which is defined in the Code as a retail store of 25,000 square feet or more. However, this use is not listed among the permitted uses in the Neighborhood Commercial Shopping Center Zone.
Nor can the proposed Walmart Store be classified as a “Department Store” defined in the Code as a retail store greater than 15,000 square feet, as this use is prohibited in the zone. A variety retail store is permitted in the zone but by definition such a store is less than 15,000 square feet.
The proposed Walmart Store also fails to qualify as a shopping center, which by definition includes at least five storefronts connected or freestanding. The existing structure on the subject site is larger than 15,000 square feet. The existing structure on the subject site was built prior to 1974 and is being completely demolished. The parcel was zoned CSC-N in 1974. The proposed structure on the subject site is larger than 15,000 square feet.
at the site and will construct it by razing the center and build 100 percent new, which Alta Vista contends eliminates any sort of grandfathering at the site.
The key in all of this is how the city define what a Walmart is?
Though the association appears to have laid out a strong case on that point, other areas could cause commissioners some pause. The letter requests a unanimous vote to hold a hearing, but the approval would only need to be a "super majority" vote where four of the five commissioners would have to vote in favor of a de novo public hearing. Would the association accept a super majority vote instead? It's not up to them.
A second voted would need to be held to define whether the appellants from Alta Vista are considered "aggrieved persons," which means these residents will "suffer to a greater degree than the general public an adverse effect to a legally recognized interest protected or furthered by the Comprehensive Plan or by the Zoning Code," according to Fournier.
What could count against Alta Vista is that the shopping center is not within the neighborhood association's boundary, but its border with the shopping center does not contain any homes. A proposed School Avenue project, Payne Park Village would add homes in that strip, but that project remains to be stalled and the property is now for sale. The project was also fought by the Alta Vista residents. The Gardens of Ringling Park Neighborhood Association is adjacent to the shopping center with several homes, but there is debate how active the association is or if it legally still exists, but at the same time, that territory is still not under legal or chartered territory of Alta Vista.
Since they're not obligated to speak for their reasons to deny a hearing, commissioners have the option to deny the hearing for political reasons in addition to believing that the Planning Board was right, but letting the decision rest in a judge's hands.
What appears to be a change of tone from two appellants throughout the process could give commissioners some fuel.
Spaudling told the Observer in October that the store would be convenient for residents and that though Walmart didn't move the building as far as they wanted to away from homes, "they did listen to us."
Kirschner, a former mayor, wasn't always publicly against the project as well, and even invited Walmart to participate in a community charrette saying in a June 15 email "we're excited of the possibilities to have the #2 Fortune 500 company to work with us on creating something so special."
In a June 26 email to Jim Porter of cph engineers, a consultant for Walmart, and copied to city staff, Kirschner wrote how "refreshing it is to have your team and Walmart being so willing to engage with the community…" and even suggested how the Walmart's architecture could appear downtown, gushing over the appearance of a Ft. Myers Publix that enhances the ancillary retail shops inside in its storefront.
"Something like this on Ringling would really help activate that street on both sides and be a further stimulus for greater investment in retail and housing in our neighborhoods," Kirschner wrote. No mentions of the zoning issue was raised in those emails.
A few months later, the tone changed from Kirschner, leading the charge against Walmart not on its architectural merits, but on the requirements of the zoning code.
Even when a hearing is held, the commission doesn't have to reverse the decision, according to a memo by City Attorney Robert Fournier.
The commission can either affirm the Planning Board's decision, affirm it with modifications/conditions or reverse the decision, rejecting Walmart's plan, but potentially setting up a court battle if Walmart would want to fight the decision. Alta Vista also has the right to take the case to court as well. The parties have the right to file a Petition for Certiorari with the Circuit Court within 30 days after the commission's decision of the hearing.
Another group, Citizens for a Responsible North Trail Development, attempted such a petition for the North Trail Goodwill in court after the City Commission denied to hold a hearing, and the new store is fully built and ready to open soon. Judge Lee Haworth denied the petition, and the group has appealed the decision to the District Court of Appeals.
If a hearing is granted, no testimony from the general public can be taken into account from tonight's meeting—only written materials from the appellants, Walmart and city staff, according to Fournier.
Related Walmart Coverage:
- Walmart Proposes 'Small Supercenter' At Ringling Shopping Center
- Proposed Ringling Boulevard Walmart Moves Forward
- VIDEO: Walmart Discusses Proposed Sarasota Supercenter
- Proposed Walmart Gets Planning Board Date
- Planning Board Approves Ringling Blvd Walmart Site Plan