Commission votes to pursue special zoning to allow 'nutritional counseling and food distribution services' in the downtown area.

SARASOTA — A special zoning exception is expected to revive the food pantry at the nonprofit Bethesda House later this spring.

City commissioners unanimously endorsed the exception Monday to reverse a city board's decision in December that effectively shut down the charity's food assistance program in December after nearly 30 years of service.

In response to supporters and volunteers at the charity, city commissioners agreed it should be reversed and even voted to fast-track the change Monday.

"I definitely want to see it go forward," said Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie, who initiated the exception last month. "I think everybody knows how I feel about this. We’ll work out the last few details at the public hearings."

The drop-in community center in Gillespie Park is operated by St. Martha Catholic Church downtown to provide numerous support programs to people living with HIV/AIDS, including nutritional counseling and weekly groceries to some clients in need.

But the charity ran into trouble late last year when the city's Board of Adjustments and Appeals found, to its members' frustration, that the food-pantry style assistance is technically not allowed downtown.

The decision effectively shuttered the center's pantry that serves 258 clients, dismaying almost two dozen local charity organizers and supporters who came to plead with the City Commission in February to work around the ruling.

City leaders agreed and the result is a niche carve-out of those zoning limitations to allow “nutritional counseling and food distribution services" as an accessory use in the downtown area.

The definition of those services is modeled off what the Bethesda House requires of its clients, who must present documentation of their diagnosis of HIV or AIDS, make appointments for services and only receive groceries on site — not hot, prepared meals.

The original prohibition of "food pantry" services downtown was intended to avoid creating large groups of homeless individuals gathering in one location, but the Bethesda operation is different, city and charity leaders have suggested. Despite serving hundreds, only about 14 visit the center on any given day and only three of the entire client list are considered homeless, charity leaders have said.

Along with a new formal definition for food pantry, which was at the heart of the debate late last year, city officials believe the exception should cover all the bases for allowing the pantry, Deputy City Attorney Michael Connolly said.

The consensus is so clear on the commission that members largely did not discuss the plan Monday and about two dozen supporters of the Bethesda House left the chambers smiling at seeing the process move forward.

The commission also agreed to waive the usual and cumbersome zoning amendment process, which would otherwise require a formal application and staff review, Connolly said. Instead, the amendment will go directly to the Planning Board for consideration and then to the City Commission for approval as early as May.