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Candidates spar over traffic, spending and more at Longboat Key News Debate

MELISSA REID
Associate Publisher
mreid@lbknews.com

This week, Longboat Key News held its Candidate Debate 2018. Residents and Longboat Key News Editor and Publisher Steve Reid asked the candidates their opinions on several subjects.

All the candidates running for the March 20, 2018 election were in attendance with the exception of District 3 Candidate John Weber who is running against Ken Schneier. Residents vote for one candidate for each district open in the election, regardless of the district the resident lives in.

The candidates running in opposed elections are: John Weber and Planning and Zoning Board member Ken Schneier for the District 3 seat, Randy Langley and Vice Mayor Ed Zunz for the District 5 seat and Jack Wilson and Commissioner Irwin Pastor for the At-Large seat. The following are the questions posed and the answers given by candidates at the debate; the content is edited for length.

Tell everyone a few things about yourself.

Ken Schneier: My wife and I were New Jersey residents until when we retired and pulled up stakes and came here. I practiced law in private practice. I also moved to New York City and was in the security business where we specialized in securities bonds and loans. I also volunteer at Mote Marine.

Jack Wilson: I am Canadian by birth, then I lived in England, where I met my wife Alison.  My background was I worked for the Toronto Transit Commission, the year they opened their subway. I was also a maker of collectible teddy bears and dolls, and I took Royal Dalton into the doll making business.

Irwin Pastor: This is my third term running for commissioner and the reason I’m running is because it’s unfinished business. One piece of unfinished business is the land development that has to be put to bed. I am confident that me and my fellow commissioners will be able to take care of that. The other thing is the one-county plan, to make us all part of Sarasota County. That’s why I decided to run, I have the support of my wife of 50 years, Sylvia. So that’s the reason I’m running.

Ed Zunz: I spent 40 years with the same law firm. I started with 17 lawyers and I was the senior partner and the firm grew to 175 lawyers. I was very involved in the running of the firm. I have enjoyed the work here on the commission and I’d like to continue.

Randy Langley: I’ve been here for 11 years, I’ve been self-employed as a general contractor and developer. I’m currently serving on the code enforcement board. The reason I am running is that I have some of the issues with the councilmen, and I am seriously concerned with our fiscal responsibility. I disapprove of the way we spend money on this key. I’d like to tighten up the spending.

 

Mr. Schneier, you supported the text amendment that supported the 24 extra units to the St. Regis plan while serving on the Planning and Zoning Board. What was your rationale?

Schneier: I may have over thought that issue a little bit. The Colony was 237 units, the proposal that came in front of us was 266. Without going into the technical reason, I thought it made legal sense. I thought the size of the project should approximate what the Colony was. My feeling was, for density purposes, that we would be better off having a few more condos, which would have been 103, and an approximate amount fewer hotel rooms.

 

Mr. Pastor, Longboat Key voters many years ago approved a referendum not to allow issuing revenue bonds without voter approval. Now there is a request to not have to require voter approval for anything up to $5 million, what do you think of this?

Pastor: There was a lot of thought given to it. Most people don’t know that this town has always been run extremely well in terms of finance. We keep 90 days of liquidity in case of emergency and right now we’re at 120 days. A lot of times it may be an investment situation, in terms of trying to finance something. I know $6 million is a lot of money but our present financial condition is such that this gives us the ability to do things and to balance cost. We have always kept a 90-day balance so it was a decision that was made to be able to do things faster without jeopardizing the General Fund.

 

Do you want to pursue another pool of  Tourism density, or determine each site on a case-by-case basis?

Langley: For the past several years, we’ve heard how bad density is, and the units at Floridays plan were voted down. Density has been looked down on, even with the St. Regis. Then the discussion turned to keep the 165 pool, and 237 grandfathered units. They change the land use map to get rid of what they don’t want. The non-conforming disappeared, that’s what the town wants. I’m against it, having been a developer, I would go to the voters, see if they want it. I want the voters to have to vote on it.

Pastor: I would definitely want that to be in the hands of the voters, in a referendum. I’m not saying that in the future that attitudes won’t change, because everything does change. Back in 2008, residents voted for the tourism pool because we lost the Holiday Inn. We need to get a feel from the electors and see what they want. So the answer is no.

Wilson: My feeling is there is a fictitiousness if there is something called a pool. I would rather have a developer come and persuade me and my fellow residents about something that needs to be done.

Schneier: My objective at that point would have been to keep an extra 20 condos at that project and keep the 20 tourism units in that pool. The pool is gone and I don’t think we should have a new one. There was an objective set 10 years ago, a pool was set to replenish the units that had gone away. They’ve been used. We’re losing the 237 that were at the Colony. We’re at a deficit. Now, the Key Club is going to build a 250-300 unit hotel at the south end. So we are within the goal, we don’t need another pool now, we’re there.

 

We’ve talked about the mechanical issues of traffic lights, roundabouts, bridges, etc. But what are your thoughts in taking on the City of Sarasota and Manatee County in taking on so many development projects? Do we try to change the mechanical things, or are we going to take on changing density?

Wilson: I am going to be the one to keep saying there is no traffic problem on Longboat Key, it is on the chokepoint at the Sarasota bayfront area by U.S. 41 and Anna Maria Island. I think you have to also underline this, there’s something like over 60,000 units soon to be approved on the mainland, north and south of our island. My view is that we have to put our heads together to see if could do something to limit this.

Pastor: I think the town has done that, Terry Gans has done an outstanding job going to county and municipalities and showing up in the meetings themselves. Commissioner Daly has been at the MPO and working more on the regional that are making committees that are looking at these so called choke points. So we’re actually moving forward and the town itself invested to look at these studies. We’ve come a long way and we have to do it.

Zunz: I agree with what Mr. Pastor said.

Langley: I think it’s great that we make the effort to lobby against the new development on Cortez and Bradenton Beach, but having been a developer I don’t think they’re going to listen to us. These guys have fought; I am a realist, I don’t think St. Armands businesses will want traffic redirected around them.

Schneier: Sarasota embraced the view of being a pedestrian-friendly city and they have decided to eliminate the public from inputting in future development projects. Should we spend time inputting, yes, but can we sit on every board and say no? I don’t know.

 

If larger units are desired to meet new market standards, a larger unit will cost you density. If larger units are allowed by the town, it would make larger heights of buildings, etc. Should town hall get involved with directing developer’s ceiling heights, etc.?

Schneier: Yes, the town should get involved in making the decisions. There has been a lot of handwringing over the 237 grandfathered units. To keep those units, they would have had to build the same box. But we have to give developers some flexibility in order to redevelop.

Wilson: My basic thought there is I’d like to see some effort toward fixing, rather than preventing progress. Very much of the discussion we’ve had in the last couple of meetings is to stop allowing people what they want to do.

Pastor: The most important thing I focused on was property values. So yes, we have to do our development codes. I think everyone gets why we’re trying to do this. Look at it as if you’re a homeowner, and you want to be sure you can rebuild, and keep in mind you have state and federal laws. Nonconforming are not in compliance. You also have to have a competitive property in order to sell. You have 10 and 12-foot ceilings going on in newer properties. I think we’re going to get the job done. We’ve got a great staff and group of people.

Zunz: It’s a very big problem and a complex problem we’ve put off too long dealing with it. You have all these non-conformities and there’s not just one solution that fits everybody. As much as you want to say there’s one rule that applies to everybody, we couldn’t stop talking about the Colony. We had to put the conversation off until after the Colony.

Langley: In my view if the density stays the same, I’m not real concerned with the footprint and ceiling height, we have coverage area ratios that determines how much can be built. We have a coastal construction control line that limits the elevations of the rooftops. I don’t think we should get so involved in individual property rights. Why didn’t we work on it eight years ago, so why did we have to wait for the Colony? Every property is different, there is no one-size-fits-all.

 

If pickle ball continues to be popular, would you be amenable to the idea of spending money to develop pickle ball courts with town funds?

Zunz: I think it’s going to be more and more popular. I think you can do things more cheaply than is imagined. I think you should count the number of people playing pickle ball and tennis players and playing basketball and then we can get some real numbers and do something about it.

Langley: I wouldn’t be in favor of taking anything, so yes, the $4.5 million that was from impact fees could be used. So if we have the money in parks and recreation, maybe we will have the money for the pickle ball courts and next to the tennis center. Yes, I would support using capital funds.

Pastor: We do have impact fees, I would not use capital funds. The impact fees are supposed to be used for recreational purposes. The Bayfront Park was a good example. I wouldn’t want to infringe on other courts. After everything has settled down, and you can see how many people are still interested in pickle ball, we can see what the popularity is and the need.

Wilson: I don’t want to spend public money on something that is for amenities. A friend of mine said if he sees something that needs doing, he can’t help himself and he has to do it. The money is out there for good projects so, no I would not support taxpayer money being used for it.

Schneier: Everyone has said most all of the possibilities, the only one left would be to take the black box theatre and label that for pickle ball. I listened to what Jack is saying. What is the government’s responsibility to have public amenities? I think it’s there. I think it’s important to have a balance so that the government can manage it.

 

Do you agree with the $5 million bonding request and do you agree with the way its been presented, or would you rather see the questions broken up on the ballot?

Schneier: I sat through a number of commission meetings where a lot of these issues were discussed from having one question to 29 questions. I think it’s unfortunate, I don’t know what the right answer is. On the bond itself, the charter amendment is a clean up issue, Pat Zunz worked on this, the bond issue is for revenue bonds not for general obligation bonds and is not a grammatical issue, it is a bond issue. Bond issues are expensive and time consuming so if we can save money I think we should do it.

Wilson: I’m uncomfortable about this charter change, and if I had to change the decision tonight, I’d vote no. Because it’s about not giving the taxpayers the choice.

Pastor: Most of those things, we’re taking the language we have right now and we have to fix it. And for a referendum question we only have seventy words to explain what it’s about. The revenue bonds decision is made on cost of money. If we were trying to do a cost of a bond, it’s extremely expensive and the process is very lengthy. The Finance Department and the staff recognize that as a town that is A-rated. There aren’t too many towns that are A-rated bonds. This is a financial thing and we’re looking at the cost of money ad this is a good positive way to save money and the ability to do things real fast.

Zunz: The bond issue is that general obligation bonds under state law must be put up for referendum, but for revenue bonds there is no obligation, so we are so conservative it is way off the charts. The idea of making this revenue bonds was not brought up by anybody inn the town, it was made by our bond counsel. I think it’s been totally misunderstood and misused. There were 24 different questions. You have an election coming up with candidates on the ballot, fire stations, etc. Do you put 24 questions on the ballot and drive everybody insane? There’s no good answer. We’ll probably have to do that and break them out over several years.

Langley: I compare the bonding question to all you have to do is pass the fee onto the consumer and do $4.9 million bond. I asked Tom Harmer to do some homework and asked how many times the town has used this bond and he said ‘none.’ If we haven’t used it why do we need it? So I ask why go borrow money without having to ask the taxpayers? I like the ability to have the public vote on it.

 

What is your skill set that will most compliment being on the commission?

Langley: I built lots of buildings, and we’re going to go through a period of building right now so I think it will be helpful. And, not to be disparaging, but if my opponent wins, we’ll have four attorneys on the commission and we need more diversification.

Zunz: People are a lot more than attorneys. I was chairman of the board of the YMCA, I was chair of the board of parking so we made new parking lots. I’ve been a leader on a lot of things I’ve done. I’ve done a lot of work on construction law. Doing the complex litigation I did, you have to learn your client’s business. I’ve had such a diversified experience.

Pastor: I have served on many for-profit and not-for-profit boards my whole life; for government, for foundations, and for corporations. The reason they ask me is I’m a facilitator, I like working with people, I really do. I try bringing people together. I’ve never had to go out and find people, they’ve come to me and said ‘Can you come serve on our board?’

Wilson: My attitude there is that I don’t like the concept of saying that we have too many lawyers on this board. That’s not the way we should make decisions. Don’t inhibit them. I bring a variety of skills, everywhere and everything in between. I think I’d bring a lot to the commission.

Schneier: I was a practicing lawyer for 13 years and then I hired lawyers. Some are obstructionists and difficult, and some are problem solvers. And I think that’s the category I fit in, and so business experience I am a numbers guy, and I am dealing with budgets and the hiring and firing of people on a regular basis. My opponent who is a very nice man, has had a career as an insurance adjuster and the only person you want less than an attorney to deal with is an insurance adjuster.

 

Resident: Where do you stand on lighting on Gulf of Mexico Drive?

Wilson: I think some modern lighting on GMD would be great, it’s going to be needed.

Schneier: Unfortunately, I think the lighting may be somewhat difficult to deal with. The last commission meting I attended had it that we’re going toe-to-toe with FDOT with what type of lighting we have to put up. It would be good to have the height and the intensity that we want. I think we’re going to have a fight on our hands, with FDOT.

Langley: I don’t know that they’re going to let us do what staff has recommended. They had mentioned lighting down the sidewalk. It seems like it will be difficult.

Zunz: It seems like FDOT wants us to either light things up like mad or stay in total darkness. We’d prefer the 24-foot tall light poles instead of the 36-foot ones. If you have the smaller ones, you need more of them. But when we first got the proposals and the statistics we had the impression we would get three times as many as we have now. We thought it was included in the cost, and it now turns out that it’s not the case and it’s costing more than we thought. I’d like to have lights at the sidewalk as well.

Pastor: This is going to have to be a situation where we’re going to have to negotiate with Tallahassee and not with FDOT. Without getting into certain details, we have consultants and we want to improve lighting, we want to keep the character of the island, we don’t want it so bright ad so high. I’m optimistic and it’s down the road and we’ve got plenty of time, and we’re going to have aesthetically and safe lights.

 

Resident: What would you do about traffic at the north end?

Wilson: We have got to correct problems. We’re going to need a bridge.

Zunz: The traffic circle is a joke there. But the problem is, even if you got rid of the circle, you have a lot of pedestrians. So even without the circle, you’re going to have a lot of hindrances. Once you get about ten cars backed up, that right hand turn lane backs up. It’s a very difficult problem and it doesn’t lend itself to an easy solution. I used to think the answer was the bridge, but the state took it out of the budget. So if you wanted it you would have to wait 15 years.

 

Resident: We trucked in very expensive white sand, and in Martha’s Vineyard we don’t have this problem. Why not use cheaper larger grained sand?

Wilson: I want white sand. Longboat Key is about beaches, wonderful beaches.

Langley: I would like to see more rock groins where they’re more natural.

Zunz: We’re getting into that now with more rock groins at the north end. There are certain places where you would have a particular problem. Sand selection usually becomes a series of compromises.

 

Resident: Any thought of how to handle the AirBNB situation?

Pastor: We’re looking into that now.

Zunz: The problem is that it’s always somebody’s cousin, and there’s excuses. The code enforcement officer has limited powers. It’s a very difficult thing for enforcement. So what we’re trying to do now is find different ways to get a different procedure.

Schneier: We’re being very deliberate and very careful.

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