On Wednesday, May 25 at 6 pm at City Hall, the City of Sarasota Planning Board will hold a public hearing on a scheme to exempt most developers from traffic studies and payments now required for needed road improvements, by excusing them from what is called concurrency

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Ban the Immobility Plan

On Wednesday, May 25 at 6 pm at City Hall, the City of Sarasota Planning Board will hold a public hearing on a scheme to exempt most developers from traffic studies and payments now required for needed road improvements, by excusing them from what is called concurrency.

This comes after the City Commission sharply slashed transportation impact fees (now called mobility fees) on developers in 2014, also depriving the City of needed funds to handle developers’ traffic impacts.

The Planning Board heard this proposal on September 17, 2015 but after facing fierce opposition voted to postpone it.

City staff says these moves are to encourage development by making it easier and cheaper for developers.  Besides, they say, don’t worry, we need to promote traffic congestion to “get people out of their cars” and walking wherever they need to go or riding buses that get caught in traffic too.

What this ignores is not only common sense but also the rising public outrage over development out of control and the intolerable traffic gridlock it creates.

What is serves is the undue influence of developers over local public policy.

The Planning Commission will make a recommendation to the City Commission, for consideration at another public hearing.

Should Developers Be Excused from Traffic Studies and Payments?

Consultants and staff for the City of Sarasota are seeking to exempt many new developments from doing a traffic study or paying their share for needed traffic improvements.

While this is called a “Mobility Plan”, it would reduce mobility, not improve it.   It is, as such, really an Immobility Plan

There is no arguable public purpose for this in any way.  It would be a benefit for developers at the public expense.

Although some in the City say that increased traffic congestion should actually be encouraged, most believe that it should be controlled, to maintain mobility for residents, visitors and businesses; protect neighborhoods; limit air pollution; reduce life-threatening delays by emergency vehicles and preserve our quality of life.

The Mobility Plan argues that increased traffic congestion is good because the City should “move people, not vehicles.”  That ignores the fact that almost all  trips of significant distance take place in vehicles.  Walking and biking certainly have their place, but not for most transportation purposes.   And both cars and buses cannot move if the traffic congestion is too severe.

It’s really all just an illogical excuse to give away the store to the developers who have all too much sway over City policy.

City staff seems sensitive to the fact that their plan would be unpopular if its effects were known, as demonstrated by a County public opinion poll that shows growth, development and traffic as the number one concern by far, three times more than any other subject (schools and jobs being next).  That is why they have been less than forthright in promoting the Mobility Plan, including by a logo that says “Let’s Get Moving, Sarasota”, with speed lines coming off the letters.  They try to suggest that they are speeding up traffic when in fact they would bring it to a gridlocked halt.

What Would the “Mobility Plan” Do?

Under current state law, developers must perform a traffic study which shows the need for any transportation improvements to accommodate the development’s traffic, and the developer must pay its proportionate share of the added capacity provided by those improvements, such as for example a new turn lane.  This state law is called “concurrency” because the payment must be made concurrent with, that is at the same time as, the development’s impacts.

However, the state law allows a local government to opt out of concurrency.  The “Mobility Plan” would do that by repealing all references to concurrency in the City’s Comprehensive Plan and replacing it with the extremely weak Mobility Plan.

The proposed change would eliminate concurrency’s traffic studies and payments for developments below a certain very generous thresholds.  The thresholds are 250 trips per peak hour “Downtown”, 100 trips per peak hour in areas called Centers and Corridors and 50 trips per peak hour in zones called Single Use/Neighborhood.

The examples given would exempt the following developments.  Downtown: a “home improvement superstore” or a supermarket up to 40,000 square feet, offices up to 170,000 square feet (such as Northern Trust with 110,000 square feet) and a condo or hotel with up to 400 units (such as 1350 Main with 140 units).  Centers and Corridors: a “drug store with drive through”, a hotel with up to 160 rooms and offices up to 67,000 square feet.  Single Use/Residential: a Carrabba’s restaurant, an apartment building up to 80 units or offices up to 34,000 square feet.

Indeed, staff deliberately chose the limit of 250 trips for the Downtown District to generally reflect the maximum trip generation for parcels in that huge area, extending from east from the bayfront between 10th Street and Mound.

These thresholds would apply to all Site Plans, Building Permits or Subdivision Plats.  Somewhat less generous thresholds would be applied to Rezonings or Future Land Use Amendments, but those are rarely needed for a development, and would be needed even less often under the new “Form Based Code” which City staff is also pushing.

The City staff and consultants have said that they came up with the thresholds by looking at ten years of data in which the proportionate share payments usually would not exceed impact fees.  Under the state law, a developer gets a payment reduction for its impact fees.

One problem with that is effective October 1, 2014, the City, at the urging of the same staff, slashed transportation impact fees on developers, way below the already very reduced impact fees charged by Sarasota County.  Even if impact fees are ever fully restored, there would be instances in which a developer’s proportionate share exceeds its impact fees.

However, if the traffic study is not required it will never be known when concurrency requires more than impact fees and the extra money needed for traffic improvements will be lost.  The City will also not even know what improvements are needed to accommodate the developers’ traffic, in order to plan properly.

For example, the City is planning improvements at Gulfstream and US 41 and at Fruitville and US 41.  Under the current rules, a developer must pay its proportionate share of the cost of those improvements for its traffic impacts on one or both of those intersections.  Under the Mobility Plan, unless it is over the very high threshold, it would not.  Indeed, a traffic study showing the development’s impacts on those intersections would not even be required.

Additionally, without a traffic study, the City will not have what could be important information to weigh whether to approve a development for other reasons, such as neighborhood impacts.

Any further consideration of this Mobility Plan should continue to be deferred until mobility/impact fees are brought up to their full levels.

If the Plan does move forward, now or later, it should be defeated as it robs the City’s transportation program of needed funds, lets many developers off the hook for their traffic impacts and deprives the City of traffic studies needed to plan improvements.

Mobility – real mobility – is too important to sacrifice for the benefit of developers at the public expense.

Dan Lobeck
President, Control Growth Now

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