Epoch condo appeal sputters in City Hall

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A group of about two dozen residents who object to and appealed the City-approval of the 18-story condominium project on Gulfstream and Palm Avenues in Downtown Sarasota failed to persuade the Planning Board to further their case.

The residents coalesced into South Palm Area Residents Committee (SPARC), and hired attorney Dan Lobeck to argue that they met the standard of “an aggrieved party” and they should be allowed to make their case that the Epoch Condominium, in their view, is incompatible with their neighborhood and needs to go back to the drawing board.

That notion, and the filing of the appeal, became an unprecedented thorn for Patrick DiPinto, one of the principals of Seaward Development, which is the team developing the site and received a building permit last month after meeting all of the City of Sarasota’s applicable zoning codes and building regulations according to the administrator who approved the permit.

What happened next at the meeting had everything to do with a section of City Code that allows for the appeal of the decision to approve the permit. In order to arrive at that outcome, several things had to happen.

The very first step is the residents or any organization has to qualify under the City Code as earning “aggrieved party” status. Once that is achieved, then the aggrieved party has to convincingly make its case to the Planning Board and City Commission that their rights are violated to an extent warranting that the permit be revoked and changes made to the plan.

For DiPinto, his shock was that he had spent the last two years working with the City and residents and in many instances, scaling the project back beyond what he says is required by code. But in this case, and in any case where there is an approval of a project made by an administrator, the decision can be appealed.

At the public hearing on Thursday, the Epoch team was represented by attorney Robert Lincoln who successfully argued that there was no specific or tangible standing or damage that any of the objectors could demonstrate.

“If you identified a legally protected interest, it would be protected. But they have not identified that. All you have is, ‘I don’t like the look of your building.’ All of the things they are asserting are not legally recognizable interests,” said Lincoln.

Lincoln continued in his closing argument that the appeal right was not intended for anyone who lives near a project to subjectively object to an element that is allowed by the zoning and building code and is a right of that property owner.

“It would never start and stop. A constitutional ordinance has to have some boundaries and discretion in how it’s applied. It cannot allow you all to have a roving set of beliefs imposed on a project. The problem you are having is in the code,” said Lincoln.

Attorney Lobeck in his closing remarks said that the City’s Comprehensive Plan talks about how land uses must be aesthetically and functionally compatible.

“This is a very impactful project. Sure this is subjective. This is a neighborhood with neighborhood beliefs and biases, it’s about time this City enforces a law as written and enforces the code,” said Lobeck.

In short, Lobeck needed three of five Planning Board members at the hearing to agree that his clients were aggrieved. At the end it was a unanimous 5-0 vote to not move the issue forward.


Residents react

The residents who spoke against the project, SPARC, mainly lived in the neighboring buildings. One resident from Royal St. Andrew Condominium next door said, “It’s a simple case of putting too much building in too small of a lot. There are a number of issues for pedestrians, setbacks, light and air, and this is totally incompatible. You have a half-acre lot and more than 90 percent lot coverage.”

Those were the general complaints, but no one presented a specific complaint that represented a legally-held interest. And these distinctions turn into a larger discussion that the City Commission will undertake on Monday, June 17 when it talks about the very process of the appeal, and how best groups and individuals can interact with the development process.

Other residents at the hearing said things like they were afraid of a fire, that they do not want to walk or ride their bicycles south anymore because of the changed look of the street. Others said there would be no trees.

Lincoln went to great extent to point out that there will be more trees and that the fear of fire or the desire to bicycle south are not legally protected rights that deserve an appeal when every element of the code has been met.

“I’m trying to understand how anything at Epoch will affect the use of your property,” Lincoln asked one of the objectors.

One woman in opposition said that the apartment that her homeowner association rents was rumored to have fallen in rental value. That comment became important at the end of the meeting, when Planning and Zoning Board Chair Eileen Normille said she saw some standing to bring a complaint if there has been economic harm.


The vote

As often happens in lengthy City Hall debates where decisions will alter vested interests, the City Attorney reframes the arguments and the threshold necessary to reach a conclusion.

In this case,  City Attorney Mike Connelly said that it is Lobeck’s contention that his clients are aggrieved parties; “he’s got to back that up.”

Lobeck added that the board is not deciding the case on that night, only if they had enough standing to move the issue forward.

Planning Board member Damien Blumetti made the motion to find the group not aggrieved.

“They needed to prove the burden of being aggrieved, I don’t feel they did that,” said Blumetti. “The use is consistent with the code.”

Board member David Morriss said, “I don’t hear any adverse effects.” Board member Kelly Church agreed.

Normille was the only member to argue the other way.  She said that the loss of apartment level income was troubling and an argument could be made, but she didn’t feel that anyone had a reason that rose to the level of aggrieved status.

“I feel it would be thrown out in appeals court. I wish we could consider this, I think the code needs to be looked at immediately,” said Normille.


What’s next?

The sale and construction of Epoch continues unabated and DiPinto is relieved that the Planning Board did not open up what for him would be a proverbial book of worms and potentially a lengthy court battle. Now, Seaward Development can continue its site work as it is in the initial phase of development.

The Epoch building will stand at 18 floors, with 23 residences. It sits on the site of the former Versailles building that was demolished last year and was located at 605 South Gulfstream Avenue. Unless the SPARC members plan to further their appeal to the commission or court, the specific issue at Epoch is at rest.

The issue of the criteria, methodology and manner of appealing an administrative decision when it comes to City development projects will be a major part of Monday’s Commission meeting agenda in City Hall.

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