Downtown developer Jesse Biter said Monday that downtown zoning codes, which keep urban living out of the financial grasp of young professionals, will pose a bigger threat to downtown Sarasota’s economic future than the proposed changes to Sarasota’s 2050 plan.

The Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations held a Monday-night panel discussion titled “Urban Services, Urban Realities,” featuring Biter, Downtown Improvement District board member Eileen Hampshire, Downtown Sarasota Alliance board member Vic Scully and New College professor David Brain.

The panel, which fielded questions from the audience of about 40 people, agreed on one key issue — the need for more affordable downtown housing to accommodate a young professional demographic.

“I’m here because I’m a big advocate for urban density,” said Biter, who created the HuB — a downtown co-working space that provides resources for entrepreneurs and start-ups. “One of the things I learned when I hired my employees is that they didn’t have anywhere to live. It was frustrating for me to see someone spend 1.5 hours a day driving to work.”

Although 2050 was the focus of the panel discussion, Biter declined to wade into the debate about the County Commission’s recent proposed changes to the plan. He chose instead to focus on the need to modify the current downtown zoning rules that make it cost-prohibitive for young, middle-class professionals to afford living downtown.

“If you really want to nip this 2050 thing in the bud, compete with them,” Biter said, referring to East County developers.

CONA President Lourdes Ramirez, who recently announced her 2014 candidacy for the County Commission’s District 4 seat, has said that resisting proposed changes to the Sarasota 2050 plan will be the top priority of the combined neighborhood association’s agenda in the post-recession construction uptick.

Ramirez argued that the county’s recent proposal to loosen the urban planning and fiscal neutrality requirements of the original 2050 plan will encourage development sprawl in east Sarasota County, forcing city taxpayers to foot the bill for the infrastructure — such as roads and sewers — needed to accommodate the new urban areas.

“You’re asking city residents to subsidize communities that will eventually poach opportunities from us,” CONA Vice President Cathy Antunes said.

According to CONA, the proposed changes to Sarasota’s 2050 plan are “shortsighted,” and new development should happen first in urban areas closer to the coast with an existing utilities infrastructure that can absorb population growth with no additional cost to taxpayers.

Biter agreed that increasing population density in existing urban areas was key to smart growth, but he changed the focus of Monday’s panel discussion, claiming the economic appeal of downtown Sarasota depended on more than just limiting the competition to downtown businesses by restricting East County growth.

“As an employer, affordable living is the most important thing,” Biter said.  “You’re not going to bring a business here or start a business here if you have to pay employees $100,000 a year just to get by.”

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