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VENICE – Rumors that the potential development of the former Venice Circus Arena property could include a Chick-fil-A chain restaurant prompted City Council Member Ron Smith to ask the rest of the board to direct staff Tuesday on how to best institute a ban of such restaurants on the island of Venice.
No paperwork submitted to the city indicates a Chick-fil-A is planned for the location. And there have been no such chain drive-thru restaurants on the island in recent memory, though banks have drive through services, Venetian Cleaners has a drive-through window and the Gold Rush restaurant had an outdoor service window.
But the idea of any fast-food chains triggered concerns that the city should act to preclude them among people who thought they would diminish the character of the island-centered community.
The possibility of such restaurants being located in the central business district is one byproduct of the city’s land-development regulations, which were adopted in 2022 and allow for the possibility on the island in the South Trail District, as well as Downtown and in the Downtown Edge District, Planning Director Roger Clark noted.
Rachel Frank – the lone dissenting vote in the 6-1 vote to direct staff to explore the possibility – said: “It’s pretty dangerous territory when the government comes in and just picks winners and losers when it comes to small businesses, locally owned restaurants.”
Meanwhile, the council moved forward with a directive to city staff to craft a resolution to create a 90-day moratorium prior to elections, to ease the burden on the Supervisor of Elections office with respect to precinct changes.
In the 2023 election, when Venice had two council seats on the ballot, a precinct created through annexation had only two registered voters.
When Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner spoke to the council on Jan. 9, he said that in a perfect world, the city would adopt a 120-day moratorium, but he could work with a 90-day moratorium.
Mayor Nick Pachota’s original motion called for 120 days but Frank – who was concerned that the moratorium would then stretch to almost one-third of a calendar year – reminded the rest of the board that Turner had offered the 90-day option.
City Attorney Kelly Fernandez said the 90-day window would coincide well with the board’s summer break in late July and early August.
That moratorium – which was approved unanimously – could be created by resolution and put in place this year, after the July 9 meeting.
The council also voted to direct staff to craft language for ordinances that would change the city charter to lengthen council member terms from a maximum of three consecutive three-year terms to two consecutive four-year terms.
Smith would have preferred that the proposed changes be examined by either a charter review board or the yet-to-be formed citizen advisory board, instead of the council members crafting recommendations that would impact their terms in office.
On a similar note, he wanted that to take effect after all the current board members are off council.
Smith also liked the off-year election timetable, when city issues are not overshadowed by county, state and national races. If the city followed the current model of the Sarasota County Commission, board members would be on a ballot headlined by either the presidential or gubernatorial races.
Pachota, citing the desire to get an amendment on the Nov. 5 2024 ballot, preferred having city staff craft a ballot initiative.
That passed 5-2, with Smith and fellow Council Member Joan Farrell in dissent.
Consideration of low-income Homestead Exemption advances
The prospect of adapting a limited Income Senior Homestead Exemption for homeowners in the city who make less than $35,167 a year moved forward on a 6-1 vote, with Frank dissenting.
State law allows for an exemption of up to $50,000 for low-income seniors with an adjusted gross income of less than $36,614 a year.
Finance Director Linda Senne noted that based on the current property tax rate, a $50,000 exemption would cost the city $200 per person.
Currently about 160 people in the city limits receive Sarasota County’s $5,000 a year low income homestead exemption.
Venice is the only municipality in Sarasota County that does not grant some sort of low-income homestead exemption.
North Port and Sarasota each have $25,000 exemptions, while the Town of Longboat Key has a $50,000 low-income exemption.
Senne noted that any ordinance would be based on the 2025 tax rolls, which means that the impact of an additional exemption would be reflected in the 2025-26 fiscal year budget.
Frank favored a $25,000 exemption, which is similar to what the cities of North Port and Sarasota adopted but expressed concern about going from no exemption straight to the maximum.
Board members also contemplated the potential impact of a bill in the state legislature that would increase the maximum homestead exemption on certain properties from $25,000 to $50,000.
Senne noted that based on the current tax rate, that would cost the city of Venice $804,000 in property tax revenue.
Sidewalk for for Bayshore Drive still on the drawing board
In the spring of 2017, Venice council members considered the prospect of building a sidewalk along Bayshore Drive – which extends north from Harbor Drive at Tarpon Street and then loops west to connect with La Guna Drive.
Back then, the proposed sidewalk was estimated to cost $1.5 million but eventually the council had focused on designing at least a portion of the six-food sidewalk for the stretch of road north of Harbor Drive until the intersection with Bayside Drive to the west and Bayshore Circle.
They had even placed stop signs on the road to control speed on the road – which is posted at 25 mph but also a popular cut-through to the South Jetty and Venice Beach.
Tuesday during public comment, residents weighed in on the status of the project, after Pachota placed an item asking for the project to be paused until after the city could host a public workshop to determine buy-in among residents.
Currently the $500,000, one-block sidewalk is considered at best an opening step for pedestrian safety and at worst a sidewalk to nowhere, unless it’s ultimately extended west to the Esplanade.
City Engineer Kathleen Weeden told the council that the city has not decided whether the sidewalk would go on the east or west side of the road – noting that given the presence of Banyan trees and landscape features, a sidewalk that extended to the beach might switch from one side of the road to the other at crosswalks, depending on the obstacles.
Pachota ultimately pulled a motion to pause the project after Weeden said design had not begun and there was still time to again consult residents.
“We may need to roll it into the other fiscal year,” Weeden said. “But I want to build this right.”