County takes case-by-case stance on protected trees

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New ordinance, in some ways, comes too late for future Siesta hotelier

By John Morton

If only this went down, so to speak, last year when it mattered greatly for Dave Balot.
But it didn’t, and now the future Siesta Key hotelier finds himself in yet another wait-and-see scenario.
The Sarasota Board of County of Commissioners on Jan. 31 approved a tweak in the county’s confusing ordinance regarding “grand trees” and their protection and possible removal. Now, instead of their fate falling under hard-and-fast rules per something in the books without exception, people can approach the commissioners on a case-by-case basis, even with potential appeals in play, regarding the potential removal of a grand tree – notably if it can be determined as a hazard.
The issue is most prevalent with developers who come across trees that are older and larger than usual, as far as their species is concerned. How is a grand tree defined by the county?
Grand trees are determined by adding points calculated for the diameter, height and spread of a tree together. If the sum equals or is greater than the defined point total for your tree species, it is considered a grand tree.

A far-reaching, sprawling large oak tree that is protected by Sarasota County sits in front of the old Wells Fargo bank, at 5810 Midnight Pass Rd., where a new six-story, 112-room hotel is proposed for future completion. It was approved last year. (file photo)

The issue recently went to the front burner when reports came out in late 2022 that grand trees, which are protected by the county, were knocked down on the property Benderson Development is clearing at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road as part of the massive 24-acre, mixed-use Siesta Promenade project.
Commissioners said at the meeting they were being inundated with comments of concern.
The new ordinance approved by the board does include penalties for leveling such trees. Whether Benderson will face fines is unknown.
And, is the new approach beneficial to developers? That also seems uncertain.
As far as Balot is concerned, his initial design plans for his now-approved hotel at 5810 Midnight Pass Rd., home to the former Wells Fargo bank, required a do-over because county staff notified him that the grand oak in the front of his lot couldn’t be touched.
As a result, new plans were drawn with an overall buildable footprint loss of at least 20 feet his new reality. It led Balot to tighten his design and add an extra floor (now at six floors and 112 rooms on 2.15 acres). The revised height increase did not sit well with some opponents.

An artist’s rendering of the hotel that has been approved for 5810 Midnight Pass Rd. (submitted image)

Meanwhile, as this new approach from the county shakes out in terms of interpretation and implementation in its early stages, Balot said he has no intention of reconfiguring his hotel design for what would be a third time.
“As long as my building plans are approved, as designed and approved by the BOCC, we plan to preserve the tree and build around it,” Balot wrote in an email. “If the county’s building department decides now that my approved design concept plan will not be approved because of the tree, then I would ask to have the tree removed, vs. starting all over.”
Despite possibly being left a bit in the wake of this issue, Balot likes the intent of the revised mindset.
“I do believe two of the proposed changes to be appropriate, specifically allowing the county commissioners to consider an appeal and allowing the commission to consider appeals concurrently with rezoning or special exception petitions, where there is a binding development concept plan associated with the petition,” Balot wrote. “At times, I believe the county can be in-flexible and strict, while the developer’s ask can often be too egregious. I like the idea of having the ability to appeal to the commissioners, and having them decide, similar to an arbiter or judge, and not simply a county administrator who, in my opinion, will often defer to, and/or support, his or her staff the majority of the time.
“I can only speak to my project, as I am not a developer and I have only crossed this bridge once. Had I had that opportunity, I would have requested to remove the grand tree — not because I didn’t want to protect the grand tree, but because I wanted to be a better neighbor. Had I been able to remove the tree, or ask the county commissioners during my special exception (hearing), the hotel could have been shorter in height and had better access on and off of Midnight Pass Road.
“During both my neighborhood workshops, and in my discussions with the neighbors, protection of the grand tree was only asked about once; however, the height of the project was discussed during every conversation.
“To put it simply, the neighbors were significantly more concerned with the proposed height of the building vs. the protection of the grand tree.”Balot, whose hotel was approved in 2022, is awaiting lawsuits of opposition regarding two previously county-approved hotels, one being on Calle Miramar (eight stories, 170 rooms) near the Village and the other on Old Stickney Point Road (seven stories, 120 rooms), near the south bridge. That project includes an across-the-street five-story parking garage.
One hearing regarding only the Calle Miramar hotel is awaiting a judge’s decision while the other, which challenges the late-2021 approval of both hotels, is slated for a jury trial in June.

John Morton
Author: John Morton

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