Sarasota’s debate rages on over Selby expansion plan

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The debate over the expansion plan sought by Marie Selby Botanical Gardens has an archetypal quality.

The management and Board of Directors of Selby contend the expansion is wise from a land-use standpoint and necessary to provide fiscal stability for the coveted Sarasota amenity into the future.

Conversely, residential neighbors worry that the project’s height, planned rooftop restaurant and commensurate traffic will undermine their neighborhood’s integrity.

And, as is customary in such battles, land-use experts and attorneys are present on both sides to shore up the arguments and help paint a picture of the consequences.

The latest chapter in the Marie Selby expansion imbruglio took place last Wednesday when a public hearing continued for a total of 12 hours with the goal of Selby gaining a recommendation for approval from the City of Sarasota’s Planning Board.

The battle lines were drawn in the meeting with each side sporting makeshift uniforms. The Selby supporters donned green t-shirts and the opposition, the residents, wore yellow t-shirts.

The Planning Board heard lengthy presentations from attorneys including Bill Moore, counsel for the Baypoint Park Neighborhood Association. Moore spoke out against the master plan, which includes a five-story parking garage with a rooftop restaurant, a green house and a welcome center.

Selby needs the approval by the City of a site plan a re-zone, as well as amendments to the city zoning code, future land use map and a vacation of an easement. The estimated cost of the master plan improvements totals $92 million on the 15-acre Bayfront parcel.

Moore said the plan was not compatible and was out of scale with the residential properties to the south and east of Selby Gardens.

Planning consultant David Depew was also on hand representing Baypoint Park. He said that the construction of a rooftop restaurant and event facility was driving the need for such a large parking structure and said it was a simple case of changing the fundamental use of the property. Instead of a restaurant being an accessory use to Selby Gardens, Selby Gardens would become an accessory to the restaurant. Thereby rendering the restaurant and event center the principle use.

“If the tail wags the dog, it’s not an accessory use,” said Depew.

Sarasota attorney Robert Lincoln was more nuanced and subtle in his criticism. Lincoln was on hand representing Hudson Crossing Condominium, which is proximate to the site.

Lincoln faulted the City for not having a planned development mechanism to accomplish what Selby seeks. He pointed out that the unintended consequences if Selby’s plan was rejected could be far worse for neighbors than the plan. Lincoln suggested that under the current zoning and allowable uses the property could simply be developed into five-story office uses that are consistent on the corridor and already in place on the north side of Mound Street as well as on the south side to the west of Orange Avenue.

“Those things would probably make it worse for Hudson Crossings,” said Lincoln.

After the attorneys spoke, residents took turns echoing the arguments for and against the proposal. In total, more than 150 community members were hoping that the Planning Board would reach consensus. But instead of reaching a decision, the matter will continue yet again at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 2 for what is likely to be a final contentious meeting in front of the City’s Planning Board.

After the Planning Board finishes its hearing, the matter heads to the Sarasota City Commission on Oct. 28 at 1:30 p.m.

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