By Phil Colpas
It was close.
But in the end, by a vote of 3-2, the Sarasota County Board of Commissioners on Oct. 27 decided to remove the limit on the number of hotel rooms allowed per acre (commissioners Nancy Detert and Christian Ziegler voted against).
With the density issue resolved, developers are now free to proceed with a proposed eight-story, 170-room hotel to be built between Calle Miramar and Beach Road near the Siesta Key Village.
The ruling also bodes well for the developers of other planned projects, such as Gary Kompothecras’ proposal for a seven-story, 120-room hotel on Old Stickney Point Road and a five-story parking garage on Stickney Point Road. Beyond that, two additional Siesta Key hotel proposals wait in the wings.
But not everyone is happy.
The Siesta Key Coalition, which was formed last year to limit high-density construction projects on Siesta Key, has steadfastly fought any changes to the law affecting density on barrier islands beyond those established in the county’s 1989 Comprehensive Plan, which it says this project would violate.
“We were becoming increasingly concerned about hotel developments that were seeking height and density code special exceptions that were far in excess of what was allowed in their commercial zoning,” said Mark Spiegel, Siesta Key Coalition president and commercial real estate developer. The coalition represents 70 neighborhood and condominium associations comprising more than 6,500 Siesta Key households.
“Plus, they were proposing to make text amendments to our Comprehensive Plan and the Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD) that have protected us from this type of density and intensity on the barrier island,” he added.
Of the more than 50 people who signed up to address the commissioners for five minutes each at the public hearing, the lion’s share was opposed to eliminating the hotel room density limit, citing the existing regulations which set the limit at 26 hotel rooms per acre on commercially zoned property on barrier islands.
It is important to note that this ruling affects all of Sarasota County, not only Siesta Key. But it was this Siesta Key hotel project that provided the final impetus for the county commission to remove hotel room limits from the zoning code.
“The No. 1 role of government is public safety,” said Lourdes Ramirez, former president of the Siesta Key Association. “Density on barrier islands has been limited for decades because of this reason.”
She insisted the proposal is in violation of the Comprehensive Plan.
In addition to determining transient accommodations are not residential units in commercial-zone districts for density calculation, the commission’s 3-2 vote also found the ordinance consistent with the Comprehensive Plan, and allowed transient accommodations and an increase in height up to 80 feet in the Commercial General/SKOD zone district.
Proponents of the Calle Miramar project point to the nearby 16-story Terrace condominium as evidence the proposed eight-story hotel fits the landscape. According to Spiegel, the Terrace is not compatible with the neighborhood because it was built 50 years ago, before limits were in place. In fact, the building was one of the reasons for imposing height and density limits in the first place, he said.
“While the chamber is in favor of boutique hotels, the proposed development is too big for the size of the land,” said Steve Cavanaugh, chairman of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce. “It’s going to reduce property values.”
Meanwhile, the coalition has vowed to fight on, as evidenced by an 11-page letter delivered to the county commission before the public hearing from Bradenton law firm Dye Harrison on behalf of the Siesta Key Coalition. The letter discusses how the hotel project may be in violation of the county’s Comprehensive Plan, despite county staff’s insistence it is not.
“Why is an owner of less than 1 acre on Siesta Key allowed to amend the Unified Development Code in a manner that will have countywide impact?” asked Patricia Petruff, land-use attorney with Dye Harrison, at the Aug. 19 Sarasota County Planning Commission public hearing on the project. “Most people don’t even know about it. There need to be more public hearings to educate people about what is going on.”