By Phil Colpas
At its regular meeting Jan. 25, the Sarasota County Board of Commissioners considered some interesting amendments to its Unified Development Code (UDC). One of these involved an apparent language mix-up related to the setback variance of commercial property that abuts residential property. This has evoked the ire of those against big hotels being built on Siesta Key.
County staff told the board that some setback language was inadvertently left off the code that was applied to the two Siesta Key hotels that were approved. And in relation to height, what was approved now actually makes the two hotels non-conforming.
Staff was asked to explore this.
“During the hotel discussions out on Siesta Key recently, there were quite a few people in opposition of some of the (proposed hotel) heights,” said Donna Thompson, county planning and development services zoning administrator. “It was discovered that with the adoption of the 2000 zoning code language that requires not only the special exception for additional height over 35 feet, but there is also, prior to 2003, a requirement that additional setbacks be made for that additional height.”
That language is not currently in the UDC. Thompson said that it appears to have been eliminated in 2003.
“Staff is wondering if you would consider bringing the language back, which would require 1 foot for each 4 feet of additional height above the 35 feet allowable in CG (commercial general zoning) to be added to the required 20 feet where CG abuts a residential property,” Thompson said. “This will make the two hotels that were recently approved non-conforming with regard to the height and the setback adjacent to the residential district.”
Evidenced by attendance at county government meetings and participation at public hearings, there are a substantial number of residents opposed to the construction of large hotels that they say cannot be supported by the limited infrastructure of Siesta Key.
“The Unified Development Code, under the Siesta Key Overlay District in the same section, states that any CG-zoned land that adjoins residential must have a minimum 20-foot setback,” said Mark Spiegel, president of the Siesta Key Coalition, which was founded to combat what it considers reckless development on the island.
“It also states that any developer requesting a special exception for excess height beyond the 35-foot limitation would need to increase setback 1 foot for every 4 feet of excess height requested,” Spiegel added. “Both of these approved hotels should have been required by county development staff to increase setbacks next to residential by 11.25 to 12 feet, respectively, in addition to the 20-foot minimum required for a conforming development.”
The Siesta Key Coalition raised this issue multiple times throughout the process.
“We raised it to staff during the neighborhood workshops, we reached out to lead development services staff, we requested a meeting with the zoning administrator, wrote emails to both the planning board and the county commissioners, and were quoted in the press,” Spiegel said. “We even presented detailed figures during the hearings, documenting that there was no other logical interpretation of the code, as currently written, than the necessity to increase the setbacks when requesting excessive height.”
Other experienced architects and land planning consultants agreed with the Coalition’s position that the intent of the code was clear, and that there was only one logical interpretation, Spiegel said.
“The perspective for all of us that repeatedly tried to get them to address this in the early stages of these hotel development applications’ review is that the county planning and zoning staff obviously knew all along that there was only one logical and intended interpretation of this setback code requirement,” Spiegel said. “It is our perspective that person(s) at the county made the decision to not address it then, when it would have had a material feasibility or size impact on the hotel plans, and instead offered an illogical excuse that it did not specifically say ‘in combination’ with. We begged our representatives to pause before setting such significant precedents and allowing developers with 1 acre of land to exceed our existing codes and policies so egregiously.
“With or without the word ‘additional,’ the existing intent of the code has always been clear, and only has one logical interpretation, and should have been honored when it protected the interests of the citizens of Siesta Key.”
Longtime Siesta Key resident and activist Lourdes Ramirez was first to file suit against one of the approved hotels in November, contending the county did not have the authority to grant exceptions that violated the county’s comprehensive plan, which capped the number of rooms at 26 per acre of property on the barrier islands; and that this added density will also cause traffic and safety problems. She is fighting construction of the proposed eight-story, 170-room hotel to be built between Beach Road and Calle Miramar in Siesta Village. Her trial is slated to begin March 27, 2023.
Another concerned longtime resident, James Wallace, also filed suit in November. His case targets both the 170-room Siesta Village hotel and Dr. Gary Kompothecras’ 120-room hotel and parking garage project at Old Stickney Point and Peacock roads.
In his complaint, Wallace alleges that the county commissioners acted illegally and in violation of their own procedures by adopting the Land Development Code changes without first amending their Comprehensive Plan policy which limits hotel room density to a 26 units per acre maximum on Siesta Key.
His trial is scheduled to begin in May 2023.