Commissioner Brody, residents question Orchestra plan to build in Payne Park

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A homeowner’s organization, a petition signed by more than 1,300, and a City Commissioner have all shown opposition to a request by the Sarasota Orchestra to build a new facility on City-owned Payne Park. And the issue could be decided as soon as the evening of May 20.

The plan for Sarasota Orchestra at the new home at the current site of Payne Park Tennis Center could be decided as soon as May 20 at the next Sarasota City Commission meeting.

City staff is recommending approval of the Orchestra’s vision to build a 1,800-seat concert hall, 700-seat recital hall and educational wing on seven acres of the 39-acre Payne Park. To accomplish this goal, the Orchestra needs approval from the City Commission as well as a determination by the City that allowing the Orchestra development will not conflict with existing deed restrictions on the property.

Sarasota City Commissioner Hagen Brody wrote City Manager Tom Barwin last week and expressed his “grave concern” regarding Barwin’s support for the site.

Brody pointed out that Manager Barwin was charged with working with the Orchestra to help facilitate a new venue in the City, but noted that months without any information passed and then Staff suddenly is in full support prior to any information. Brody wrote the following on May 15 to Barwin:

“To: Tom Barwin

Several months ago you were tasked to collaborate with the Sarasota Orchestra to find a location in Sarasota for their new home. Months passed with no information until just before the plan for Payne Park was unveiled to the public. After much consideration I have grave concerns regarding your support of this site. Payne Park was essentially gifted to the City of Sarasota in 1923 for the enjoyment of everyone as a public park. It’s taken a while, but the intent has largely been realized with improvements to the park over time by prior City Commissions. Payne Park’s importance and accessibility will only increase with the future connection to the coming Legacy Trail.

The Sarasota Orchestra has been vital to the fabric of our arts community since 1946. Since then, they have provided world-class arts entertainment and youth musical education benefiting our entire community. The Sarasota Orchestra significantly contributes to the reputation Sarasota has built over decades as an arts and cultural hub.

Mr. Barwin, the choice between losing a significant portion of Payne Park or the Sarasota Orchestra is not a choice at all. We should not be putting supporters of both the arts and public parks, as I am, in conflict.

Please provide a list of the other options for consideration in advance of the May 20th meeting for discussion, as I cannot support your current vision.

— Hagen Brody”

The issue of deed restriction was addressed in an opinion letter by City Attorney Robert Fournier that is part of the agenda packet. In his opinion, Fournier writes that the deed restriction appears to him to be viewed “expansively” so as to include a wider range of uses as opposed to a narrow interpretation.

The Payne Park property was acquired at a discount and in part as a gift with the restriction in the deed as follows: “This deed is given, subject to the restriction that the tract hereinbefore described shall be used for park, playground and kindred uses and for no other use or purpose.”

Residents opposed to the development of the park and the relocation of the tennis facility cited the deed restriction as a fundamental obstacle by arguing that “kindred uses” would not include an entertainment hall and concert facility.

Scores of residents argued that point two months ago when the Orchestra first presented publicly its plan to the City Commission. The Orchestra said it will rebuild a new tennis center on another portion of Payne Park.

Fournier in his memorandum that became public last week said there was no case law specifically on-point relative to kindred uses, but that parks often have scopes of uses that include monuments, performance centers and other entertainment facilities. He made a legal connection between recreation, entertainment and amusement and said there was no law he could find that would preclude a concert hall from being a kindred use.

In conclusion, Fournier wrote that those who do not favor the proposed relocation of Sarasota Orchestra to Payne Park and oppose the loss of green space or open parkland “will likely be unhappy with this memorandum.” He went on to write that he was not advocating nor against the relocation, but simply saying that in his view Florida courts have generally interpreted deed restrictions on parks expansively rather than narrowly.

“This supports a conclusion that it may be possible to make a successful legal argument that an entertainment venue such as the Sarasota Orchestra is a permissible use within Payne Park,” wrote Fournier.

The Orchestra would need to be on the right side of that legal opinion if a group or individual challenges this interpretation.

An organization of homeowners, park advocates and residents opposed to the loss of the seven acres of park known as Preserve Payne Park and will be on hand at the meeting.

The Orchestra has cited sea level rise, the urgent need for a new hall, and the long-stage pace of the Bayfront Development all as reasons why it needs to move quickly to secure a location for its future.

Additionally, the Orchestra has suffered from an acoustical point of view when it comes to its current location.

The proposal is also contingent on the Orchestra gaining approval from Sarasota County to use a parking garage that is currently located north of the existing tennis center. The commission meeting will be held at City Hall at 1565 First Street, Sarasota on May 20.

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