| Sarasota Herald-Tribune
SARASOTA — A green wave of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens supporters met a yellow wall of Sarasota neighborhood opposition at City Hall last year.
The colorful T-shirts showed how divided the standing-room only crowd was over city approval of a proposed zoning change and master site plan for Selby that included a five-story parking garage with a rooftop restaurant.
The discussions lasted over 30 hours — with hundreds of people crowding into City Hall to give testimony over a marathon of public meetings.
Now, during a global pandemic that has limited public gatherings because of health concerns, city leaders are pressing ahead with what Selby is calling its “compromise master plan,” a second attempt that is turning into another contentious battle over the future of the bayfront campus.
Ahead of a virtual Planning Commission hearing on Sept. 22, Selby’s opponents have asked that the city delay future meetings until the public can adequately weigh in.
“Given the sheer number of residents who attended and spoke the last time Selby asked for a significant change in land use, it is not reasonable to expect that the same number of concerned and interested citizens will be able to participate in this pivotal decision,” said William Moore, a local attorney who is representing the neighborhoods around Selby. “We ask for a fair chance to be heard, on an equal basis with Selby.”
Lynn Bates, a spokeswoman for Selby, noted that more than 65 counties and hundreds of municipalities across the state have been successfully conducting business throughout the pandemic with large forums virtually.
“In fact, providing virtual opportunities for engagement could actually increase participation as citizens can testify from the comfort and safety of their homes,” Bates said.
City officials have indicated the planning board meeting will proceed but are reconsidering the timetable calling for City Commission hearings in November or December. City leaders later this month will consider how to handle this and other issues of high public interest.
Since late March, Sarasota city commissioners and other local officials have met online, a practice that can make providing valuable public input on government business difficult.
More: Want to give input at Sarasota city meetings during the pandemic? Here’s how
Residents now typically have to give public feedback via email or other online services. Some even still give testimony in person at a computer station set up and monitored by staff at City Hall. This sometimes leads to glitches.
While city leaders have considered other controversial items such as the reopening of Lido Beach and a face mask ordinance, few residents actually gave public testimony.
Residents have largely steered clear of City Hall and there are restrictions to the number of people allowed in designated areas at one time.
Sarasota has the ability to accommodate up to 500 people participating live in City Commission meetings via Zoom.
While there may be physical capacity limits in the two rooms set up at City Hall for meetings (the SRQ Studio and Room 112) due to social distancing at any given time, additional speakers are welcome to wait outside for their turn to comment, and there is no limit on the number of speakers who may attend and participate.
Jose Fernandez, 66, has given public testimony at nearly every commission meeting for the last two years. Always well prepared, he typically riles against wasteful speeding and the city’s beleaguered golf course. He has continued to attend every commission meeting in person.
Giving feedback via webcam, Fernandez said, is often frustrating.
“You miss any sort of visual feedback from commissioners,” Fernandez said. “You don’t know if they’re fidgeting with their phones.”
Fernandez also said that providing power point presentations, maps or other visual aids can also be a challenge. While he has yet to try it, he noted that many speakers at Selby’s hearings last year had numerous visual
Given the intense interest last year, Ty Hall, the vice president of the Bay Point Park Neighborhood Association, said he was concerned that the city agreed to more forward with Selby’s revised proposal during the pandemic.
“It is most disconcerting to me, and should be to all citizens, that the city is moving forward with a zoning text amendment of this magnitude,” Hall said. “Better than 40 hours of community input went into the commissioner’s decision to deny their request … By proceeding during a pandemic the city is giving Selby and many other developers the leg up. Community input will be handicapped by COVID-19.”
Bates said that the pandemic has underscored the community’s need for outdoor sanctuaries like Selby Gardens, not minimized them.
Selby has secured $35 million in private funds restricted solely for the implementation of the proposed master plan, and the construction jobs and economic impact created by the project will give our local economy a much needed boost as the challenges for our community continue, Bates said.
“We have made significant compromises in our plan, and we are eager to move forward,” Bates said.