By John Morton
They say the wheels of government turn slowly.
Well, for those who oppose the recent efforts from Benderson Development to build a hotel on Siesta Key, a speeding locomotive may instead come to mind.
Less than two months after it informed Sarasota County of its desire to construct an 85-foot, 147-room hotel upon 0.97 acres of land it owns at 5221 and 5239 Ocean Blvd. in the Village, the company on Nov. 28 received a 3-1 vote by county commissioners (with Siesta Key’s Mark Smith opposing) to pursue its process request for an amendment to the county’s comprehensive plan to allow unlimited density.
All this, just a couple months after an August ruling by a county judge that said the commissioners violated their own policies in previously allowing unlimited density when approving three large hotels between the fall of 2021 and the fall of 2022. That ruling said no hotel can be taller than 35 feet or have more than 26 rooms per acre (recalculated by the judge to 36) as set forth in 1989.
That amendment request by Benderson was selected exclusively in favor of two others submitted to the commission – one by Dave Balot, who in 2022 was approved for a six-story, 112-room hotel on 2.15 acres at 5810 Midnight Pass Rd. (he’s calling for 52 rooms per acre on a minimum of 1 acre) and the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce (which is calling for 52 rooms per acre and a maximum of 75 rooms, no taller than 35 feet if in a residential area and 45 feet in a commercial area).
Just days after the county’s selection, Benderson scheduled a Dec. 21 virtual neighborhood workshop – the first county-mandated step in the process for potential approval. A presentation to the county’s planning commission for a possible recommendation, and then a final commission vote, would be the other two steps where public input is heard.
That workshop was postponed until Jan. 8 because Benderson did not meet the required public notice guidelines.
“This is just the early stages of the process but public records show that the development process is going through pretty quickly,” said Siesta Key resident Lourdes Ramirez, whose lawsuits against the commissioners were victorious at both the state level – with a ruling in April by a Division of Administrative Hearings judge – and then with the county ruling in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court from Hunter Carroll in August that but an end, for now, to any hotel development orders.
Regarding Benderson’s attempt for a quick workshop, she added: “It is not surprising yet unfortunate that Benderson Development decided to hold a public workshop on proposed changes to the comprehensive plan and their planned mega-size hotel for Siesta Key on the Thursday before Christmas week. Most people will not be able to attend this Zoom workshop due to travel for the holidays.”
Meanwhile, some Siesta Key community leaders began to regroup on strategy during a Dec. 7 meeting of the Siesta Key Association civic group.
“I am appalled at what Benderson is doing,” said Balot, a resident of the Key, who added that he was told that some would-be developers were “upset with me because I have the largest undeveloped land on Siesta Key, and set the bar too low at 52 rooms per acre” with his comp plan amendment proposal.
Added island resident Jim Wallace at the meeting, “It’s going to be an all-out war. But we have legal ways to get us to November.”
That’s when the commission seats will be up for grabs for three members who have a track record of approving Siesta Key-related development. Mike Moran (District 1, who faces term limits) and Ron Cutsinger (District 5, up for re-election) both voted in favor of the three approved hotels, and Neil Rainford (District 3, appointed in 2023 after Nancy Detert’s death and up for re-election) supported the hotels while on the planning commission.
The districts that include Siesta Key (District 2 the northern half and District 4 the southern half) ate held by Smith and Joe Neunder, respectively. Neunder was not present for the Nov. 28 vote.
As for Wallace, he has also been fighting Benderson’s plans to build a 24-acre mixed use Siesta Promenade project at the corner of Stickney Point Road and U.S. 41 near the Key’s south bridge, and at the Siesta Key Association meeting said he plans to file a lawsuit against the county – he previously lost a fight against the Florida Department of Transportation regarding the installation of a project-related traffic light at the entrance to Siesta Promenade on Stickney Point Road at Avenue B & C that the county mandated as part of its initial approval in December 2018.
The Nov. 28 decision
Smith suggested to his fellow commissioners that only the amendment proposals by Balot and the chamber receive consideration, while saying of the Benderson request “We’ve already been on the losing end of (two) lawsuits. I’m not comfortable changing the comprehensive plan for unlimited density on Siesta Key. If you’re talking about other parts of the county, that’s another matter.”
But Moran then countered by not only saying he only supported the Benderson request, but made a motion that Rainford seconded.
“I want the most latitude possible,” Moran said. “I’ve said over and over on this dais that there’s no substitute for a good project. Ultimately, this board will have the power and authority, through the legislative process, to not move forward or move forward.
“The real discussion, the real debate, from the public will come through those public hearings.”
Smith then asked to amend the motion and add that all three proposals receive consideration – “I see serious flaws … in narrowing public input,” he said of the exclusion of Balot and the chamber – but Moran said his motion stood and the vote was cast.
The requests were of an out-of-cycle, publicly initiated manner. Typically, changes to the comprehensive plan come the county itself after careful review – the last one was made in 2016 after an 18-month examination.
Nearly 20 Siesta Key residents who spoke at the start of the Nov. 28 meeting voiced opposition. Village resident David Wolter spoke first.
“You will kill the Village,” he said. “That’s the best half-mile in America. I moved here to live in that Village. I raised my children in that Village.”
He added, “You’ll overtax the infrastructure. You’ll not be able to control the guests. You’ll not have the resources to deal with MTV when they bring spring break here.”
Neal Schleifer, a director with the anti-hotel Siesta Key Coalition and vice-president of the Siesta Key Condominium Council, was also among the opponents.
“Why would the commission risk rushing into the high winds of litigation, in which it could further jeopardize county and taxpayer funds?” he asked. “What’s the rush? Is it for developers?
“Developers should not be driving public policy or devising comprehensive plans. That’s like the fox guarding the henhouse. County staff should not be working for private enterprise but for the public and its interests. We urge you to have stakeholder input.”
If Benderson’s proposal is approved, not only would Balot’s hotel fall under the unlimited density parameters but so would previously approved hotels proposed for Calle Miramar (now at seven stories and 163 rooms on 0.96 acres; neighborhood workshop is Jan. 9) and Old Stickney Point Road (at seven stories and 120 rooms on 1.15 acres), both given the green light in late 2021.
It could mean the construction of four new hotels, none less than six stories in height, could begin simultaneously.
- Tags: Benderson Development, Dave Balot, David Wolter, Hunter Carroll, Jim Wallace, Joe Neunder, Lourdes Ramirez, Mark Smith, Mike Moran, Nancy Detert, Neal Schleifer, Neil Rainford, Ron Cutsinger, Sarasota Board of County Commissioners, Siesta Key Association, Siesta Key Coalition, Siesta Key Condominium Council, Siesta Key hotel proposals, Siesta Promenade