Seeing the deterioration of political dialogue, integrity, decorum and process in this country over the past couple of years has been dismaying for most of us regular Joes, no matter where we happen to fall on the spectrum of belief. With special interests overshadowing constituents’ concerns, campaigns unduly influenced by anonymous money, and legislators balancing hard decisions against the effect they are likely to have on future of their own careers, it’s easy to feel, as a private citizen, that your opinion doesn’t matter, your voice won’t be heard and your vote doesn’t count.
But just when you’re on the verge of surmising the last vestiges of a healthy democracy are dead, along comes a public hearing about a controversial local project and, lo and behold, your faith in the system that made America great — before we learned it needed to be made great again — is restored.
I’m talking about last week’s special Planning Board review of the proposed redevelopment of the Lido Beach Pavilion, which ended at 11:40 p.m. Wednesday night with a 4-to-1 vote recommending denial of the project to the City Commission.
As you likely already know, the debate over a renovation of this city-owned beachfront property has been escalating ever since the city — looking for a way to absorb the maintenance costs of the six parks it re-inherited from the county — signed a lease with Lido Beach Redevelopment Partners LLC for improvements at the site. The design plan submitted by Gavin Meshad and Troy Syprett, the team behind the Daiquiri Deck franchise, and architect Javier Suarez, includes a 200-seat restaurant, a 33-seat Tiki bar, a children’s splash pad and rental cabanas, as well as restroom, pool, landscape and parking upgrades.
During the past several months — even as city staff approved the site plan and major conditional use application — residential opposition has grown, over everything from potential environmental damage to projected traffic intensity. But the primary argument has always been that a destination restaurant with live music that serves alcohol until 10 p.m is incompatible with the adjacent residential area and Lido’s reputation as a low-key, low-cost, family-friendly venue.
Prior to the review, more than 3,300 individuals had signed a “Save Lido Pavilion” petition and 88 percent of respondents to an informal poll by the Lido Key Residents Association had expressed opposition. A good many of those adversaries showed up at City Commission chambers for the special hearing, many wearing red shirts or holding red carnations to signify their unity. Dozens signed "request to speak" cards as affected parties, in addition to testimony that would be taken from the developers and city staff. So even before the code of conduct was read at 6 p.m. — "We may disagree, but we will be respectful to one another, we will direct all comments to issues and we will avoid all personal attacks" — it was clear everyone in attendance was in for a long night.
That’s why what followed was so heartening. Over the next five and half hours, Planning Board Chair Patrick Gannon had to resort to his gavel just once. And never did the testimony on either side turn openly acrimonious or hostilely accusatory.
The developers, "local boys" themselves, politely and succinctly presented their case, noting the concessions and adjustments to the site plan they’d made over the past few months in reaction to residents’ objections.
Citizens who had clearly done their homework presented a plethora of well-researched arguments, in many cases citing specific conflicts within the city’s comprehensive plan and zoning codes or FEMA regulations in addition to their emotional and anecdotal evidence.
And the Planning Board members themselves — volunteer appointees who serve without pay or much acknowledgement of the considerable time and effort they expend — were attentive, well-prepared (all had previously made site visits) and respectfully open-minded.
After two and half hours of near-unanimous citizen testimony — no resident spoke in favor of the project — you had to feel a little sorry for the development team when they returned for a rebuttal. A deflated Suarez sighed and said, "I guess we are the bad guys, no?" But even in impending defeat, they were resignedly gracious.
"We may be on different sides ... but our goal has always been to be up front," Suarez said. "We are members of this community too and we don’t want anything that is not in the best interest of this community."
No one gloated. No one cried foul. No one vowed revenge or spoke in spite. Maybe everyone was simply too exhausted to react at that point. But my own reaction was a swelling (if sleepy) pride in our community for stepping up to the plate and doing the hard work necessary to make the system function as it should. Being a responsible citizen in a democratic society means doing exactly what all these participants — from applicants, to board members, to residents — did: become informed, engaged and invested in creating the community you want to see and be a part of.
In this case, the process isn’t over. The Planning Board’s recommendation now goes to the City Commission for a final thumbs up or down. For anyone with a dog in the fight, it’s no time to rest on laurels. No matter the outcome, there will still be questions to ask and challenges to surmount: If the project is halted, what becomes of the lease arrangement and improvements to the site? If it proceeds, how will the developers and the city meet all local, state and federal regulations and assuage residents’ enmity?
The freedoms of a democratic society come with weighty obligations. That’s especially true in today’s volatile atmosphere of division. Watching this example of the process playing out as it was meant to made me proud of our officials, our investors and my fellow citizens. May the same commitment to civility, education and informed activism prevail as we approach the midterm elections and the considerable challenges that lay beyond them.
Contact columnist Carrie Seidman at 941-361-4834 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @CarrieSeidman and on Facebook at facebook.com/cseidman.