Members of the Sanibel Planning Commission addressed a commentary written by the Committee of the Islands on whether the commission is granting too many variances.
COTI President Barbara Joy Cooley wrote the commentary, called "The Year of Creeping Change," where she said that "pretty much everyone that applies for a variance is granted that variance usually in a 5-to-2 vote of the Planning Commission."
She explained that a set of seven standards needed to be met in order for a variance to be granted typically involving hardships or extreme situations when nothing can be done to remedy a situation and she claimed that members of the commission were failing to ensure that they were met.
Larry Schopp, a COTI board member, said the commission has only turned down one variance in the last three years.
"The fact is, time and time again, including the situation of Bennett's Fresh Roast, the impression is that this Planning Commission hands out variances like jelly beans," said Schopp.
In response to the commentary, Sanibel Vice Mayor Doug Congress had asked city staff to pull all of the variances over the last 36 months. He pointed out that only 12 variances have been passed by the commission over that time period and only two weren't unanimous decisions.
"I want to make sure the record reflects that you guys have great discussion up here," said Congress.
City Manager Judith Zimomra explained that the city issued a total of 2,725 building permits in the last fiscal year. The six variances issued over that time period amounted to only 0.002 percent.
Chuck Ketteman, a member of the Planning Commission, said the commentary was also attempting to demonstrate divisiveness among the board by saying the votes were usually 5-2.
"Most of the things we have done have been unanimous," he said. "To imply we have the same issues that are happening nationally is not only a disservice to us but to the island."
The variance granted to Bennett's Fresh Roast, regarding its setback for outdoor seating and the vegetation buffer zones on the site plan, were the main discussion point at the last meeting. Schopp felt Bennett's variances were another example of the Planning Commission offering too many variances to benefit businesses.
Tom Krekel, a member of the Planning Commission, defended the city by reminding the public that staff underwent many negotiations with Bennett's before permitting the variance.
"I think we were totally justified to do what we did," he said.
He explained that many conditions were added during negotiations that applicants had never previously considered.
John Talmage, a member of the Planning Commission, said the variances for Bennett's Fresh Roast and Fresh Taqueria were an investment that benefits the island community.
"The former Bennett's property was almost a blighted property," he said. "Sanibel is better off having Taqueria and Bennett's Fresh Roast."