By Phil Colpas
When it comes to development, the question rarely is “To build or not to build?” but rather “How much is too much?”
At a Nov. 2 public hearing, the Sarasota County Commission approved two special exceptions to the building code to allow for increased density and height, clearing the way for a proposed seven-story, 120-room luxury hotel to be constructed on Old Stickney Point Road, and an adjacent five-story parking garage on Stickney Point Road.
This follows the Board’s Oct. 27, 3-2 vote 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 in the first Siesta hotel project to go before the County Commission are now free to proceed with a proposed eight-story, 170-room hotel to be built at Beach Road and Calle Miramar in Siesta Key Village.
These decisions were good news for developers, but they were met with a great deal of scathing criticism from residents. Of the 36 citizens who signed up to speak at the Nov. 2 public hearing (which went on for more than five hours), the majority were opposed to the project. Most stated that they supported development and would encourage a smaller, boutique-style hotel, but feared this project was too big and failed to ameliorate safety issues in a small, already over-trafficked area. Some made veiled – and not-so-veiled – threats of legal action should the project be allowed to move forward under its current plan.
Because each of the two special exceptions were dealt with as separate issues requiring separate votes, Patricia Petroff of the Siesta Key Coalition argued that the speakers should have been allowed five minutes for each exception. “The public is getting 2.5 minutes each,” she said, “instead of the five minutes required by law.”
Petroff said she felt that the current hotel plan was incompatible with the county’s Comprehensive Plan, incompatible with the neighborhood and in violation of numerous policies, including putting a seawall on Sabal Lake, which abuts the property and is classified as a protected wetland. She also disagreed with the county’s staff report about comparative property use and the extra traffic likely to be created. “This will bring new traffic to Siesta Key,” she said. “A convenience store is drive-by traffic.”
Opponents of the project outlined some of their other concerns for the Commission.
Robert Luckner is a member of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) and the Siesta Key Coalition (SKC), which was formed last year to combat projects it deemed rampant development. Luckner told the Board that the current hotel plan is inconsistent with 1989’s Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD), which stated transient accommodations would be regulated as if they were residential, and capped rooms per acre on Siesta Key at 26.
“That has been the understanding on Siesta Key for a long time, and I think you made a mistake,” he said. “The county comp plan can be changed, but it has to be by a super majority.”
Catherine Luckner, president of SKA and board member of SKC, urged the board to look at the possible impact of all of the proposed Siesta Key hotels together.
“This started as looking at one hotel,” she said. “Now there are three more.”
Amy Spiegel, SKC, told the commissioners the tiny beach access across Midnight Pass Road from the hotel would not be able to support the influx of hundreds more beach-goers. She argued that many will end up driving to the public beach and taking up parking space there, despite the free transportation offered by the Siesta Key Trolley and the Frog Hop, the latter of which was started by the developer of this project, Gary Kompothecras.
Peacock Road resident Lisa Russo said that the applicant is proposing to fill in a portion of Sabal Lake, which is classified as protected wetlands.
Lourdes Ramirez, former president of SKA, represented her company, Siesta Key Community Inc., as she detailed for the commission the specific sections of the Comp Plan that she said these special exceptions violate, including the definition of transient accommodations, and the residential density cap.
“Adding density to Siesta will risk public safety,” she said. “Emergency vehicles will be delayed with all those cars on the road. Storm evacuation times will increase.”
Nearby Marina Del Sol resident and lawyer Julie Wright Halbert, who described herself as a “friend of development,” said that for a special exception to be granted, it must not be adverse to the existing neighborhood, or detrimental to its health and safety.
“These are your constituents… It is not safe,” she said. “The infrastructure is not there to support this density and scale. I urge you to table this or vote against it, because let me tell you something: Failure to do so could result in drawn-out litigation that could go on for years.
“This is not about development, it’s about safety. We deserve the right to not be trapped in our homes.”
Daniel DeLisi, land-use planner representing the SKC, told the Board that it is incumbent on the applicant to address criteria outlined in the comp plan, and the compatibility of the neighborhood, especially the single-family plat it will tower above.
“A hotel and a resort is not a bad idea,” he said. “But at this location, it deserves more scrutiny.”
Mark Spiegel is president of the SKC, which represents 71 neighborhood associations and 6,500 households on Siesta Key.
“It’s no secret that the vast majority of residents and businesses oppose this application on Siesta Key,” he said. “Consequences, however, impact all residents of Sarasota County. They will be surprised to wake up and learn that the commercial land next to them countywide suddenly has no density restriction without any notice.”
Karen Williams is the property manager for Marina Del Sol, and worked on the special exception process with the county for that property prior to its construction. The big difference, she said, was that Marina Del Sol made more of an effort to work with the neighborhood and get those residents behind the project.
“The infrastructure at the intersection of Midnight Pass and Old Stickney Point roads needs to be taken care of before anyone else gets killed,” she said. “Adding more traffic to Old Stickney Point Road, a very narrow, dead-end road, with no way out and no turnaround, is just irresponsible.”
Added Mark Spiegel, “All major stakeholder organizations – the SKA, the Condo Council, the Chamber of Commerce, who supports business, and our Coalition have been asking – begging – all of you for months to pause. To be proactive, not reactive. To consider cumulative impacts, not piecemeal projects. To engage with the community, and to lead. If modifications to our comp plan and SKOD policies are needed to attract one or more boutique hotels, then do it the right way. Commissioner Detert was attempting to propose a motion at least week’s hearing (Oct. 27) to pause and take time to study potential consequences and consider community input like the Siesta Key Chamber plan. 7,000 households wish that the commission would take up that motion. I’m begging you to do it again today, and this time do it first.
“This is a development-sensitive, infrastructure-restricted barrier island, and the decisions you make have major precedent-setting consequences.
“Shouldn’t our county representatives define and lead the process rather than a private owner with one acre of land? If you don’t deny or pause now, how are you going to stop the next four hotels? Now you’ve paved the way for seven- and eight-story hotels across the key.”
According to Spiegel, the density increase is more than double the current density of downtown Sarasota’s commercial district.
“Everyone wonders why Siesta Key wants to incorporate,” he told the County Commission. “It’s because they’re watching their county not proactively plan and not engage with the community. The reason this room isn’t full today is not because they don’t care; they feel disenfranchised, they feel unheard. They’re more interested in incorporation now, and how to fund a legal situation because you have not engaged with the community.”