After being sent back to the drawing board more than a year ago, the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport finally had its new building height restrictions approved by the Board of County Commissioners.
The update follows direction given by the Florida Legislature in 2016 for airports to update their zoning regulations in order to “protect the health, safety and welfare of the public in the air and on the ground.” Even with the delay, SRQ is among the first in the state to do so.
Airport officials previously suggested a less specific plan in January 2018 that left it up to commissioners to decide on a case by case basis if developments in the path of the airport runways could be approved for certain heights. Board members at the time, however, requested that the airport modify those rules to be more specific.
At Thursday’s Land Use meeting, the question became whether the airport’s proposal was now too restrictive of building heights and encroaching on the property rights of the 1,000 parcels affected by the proposed change.
“I get wanting to be totally safe, but the concern I have is when we create regulation, we have to look at the effect on property owners,” said Commissioner Betsy Benac. “We can’t regulate away people’s property rights.”
Dan Bailey, an attorney for the airport, said they were just doing what the commission asked of them.
“Several commissioners made comments about there needing to be a more rigorous standard. A year ago, you said there needed to be something under that line and you didn’t like that it would be handled on a case by case standard,” Bailey said.
“You had resolved a year ago to do something more. We labored for a year to do the right thing, but if that’s not what you want, we can do something else,” he added.
In their updated zoning regulations, airport officials proposed a gradual limit to building height in the 1.5-mile areas leading up to both runways. Each cone is broken into tiers that limit building height as parcels get closer to the runway.
The height limitations affect a significant portion of the county’s Urban Corridor along U.S. 41 and a chunk of land east of 15th Street East. Airport CEO Rick Piccolo said his team designed the zones with safety in mind.
“We want to make sure nothing’s going to run into a building when we set these heights,” he explained. “We want to be as giving as possible for the owners but also for the safety of the airport and the people that would be in that building.”
Most of the board’s discussion focused on the northwest runway approach that overlays US 41 — an area that the commission has encouraged for redevelopment purposes. Piccolo stressed that many of the affected parcels could still request generous building heights.
The inner approach of the 14/32 main runway is about 1.5 miles long. In the tier closest to the runway, there’s a 35-foot height restriction. The restriction jumps to 45 feet after half a mile and then 55 feet after a whole mile. Those numbers don’t sound generous on paper, Piccolo said, but that’s because the airport measures height differently than the county.
While the airport measures building height relative to the airport’s sea level elevation, the county does not. In theory, buildings in each tier will be allowed maximum heights of 53, 62 and 71 feet, respectively.
Assistant County Attorney Sarah Schenk warned the board that restricting the air rights for existing property owners comes at the risk of potential legal action.
“Any time you lower the height on a property with air rights, you’re reducing that potential development envelope, and that has value for property owners,” she said. “If someone goes through the request process (for a higher building) and gets denied, they could come at the county with litigation. I don’t have any certainty, but it’s 1,000 properties, so there’s some probability.”
Bailey refuted those claims, noting that most of the zoning in the affected areas limits buildings to 35 feet anyway.
“Property rights don’t stretch into the heavens,” Bailey told commissioners. “It’s pretty reasonable what we’re proposing, especially considering the elevations that 35 feet is more like 45 feet and 45 is more like 55 feet based on how you measure. It’s not the kind of thing that should keep you up at night.”
The numbers are based on flight tracking information from every flight that comes into the airport, officials said. There are federal guidelines for the altitude planes should maintain as they approach a runway, “but they’re not trains. They don’t run on a track,” Piccolo said.
Commissioner Misty Servia suggested that the tendency for pilots to fly lower than they’re supposed to could be because taller buildings don’t exist in the area and there’s room for them to do so without significant harm.
“It’s just like when I’m driving on the road,” she said. “When there’s plenty of space, I can go wherever I want.”
Because the FAA’s approach slope guidelines are thought to be reasonably higher than the allowed building height, commissioners voted unanimously to approve the amendment to the land development code.
“I’m all about safety, especially on a plane,” said Commissioner Carol Whitmore.
Airport officials are still working with Sarasota County for similar height restrictions in the other two runway inner approaches that fall within their county lines.