Back-to-back workshops see high participation
By ChrisAnn Allen
They have much to “take into consideration.”
This was the primary response shared by representatives of two potential Siesta Key hotel projects currently proposed when questioned by the nearly 250 people in attendance at Jan. 8 and 9 back-to-back virtual neighborhood workshops.
The session for a possible 85-foot Benderson Development hotel in the 5200 block of Ocean Boulevard in the Village was held Jan. 8 and the workshop for another hotel project, proposed at seven stories in height and nearby between Calle Miramar and Beach Road, was held Jan. 9. The current height restriction is 35 feet. Both projects would require amendments to the Sarasota County Comprehensive Plan and Unified Development Code leading to special exceptions.
Realtor Robert Anderson is developer of the Calle Miramar proposal.
The work sessions are required by the county as part of the application process and allow people the chance to ask questions and share comments in response to the application. This information is then provided to the county as part of the application and provide the developer with an opportunity to incorporate the suggestions or make changes to the application based on community response.
The request discussed Jan. 8 includes modifying the comprehensive plan to provide for transient accommodations on Siesta Key, amending the UDC to classify transient accommodations as a non-residential use and a special exception to permit the development of a hotel with a proposed height greater than 35 feet within the CG/SKOD (Commercial General/Siesta Key Overlay District).
The project discussed Jan. 9 also would be subject to the same comp plan and UDC amendments as those laid out Jan. 8.
The comprehensive plan is a state-required roadmap for growth within a community and contains plans for transportation, capital improvement, economic and coastal development, as well as environmental protections. The unified development code contains the zoning map, outlining density and intensity requirements and is subject to the comp plan. A special exception is required for any changes and only is granted by the county commission is cases where a property owner is deemed “burdened” by the codes.
Both workshops were hosted by Kimley-Horn, an engineering, planning and design consultant with an office in Sarasota. Philip DiMaria, a planner with the firm, along with Bill Merrill, an attorney with the Icard Merrill firm in Sarasota, led the Jan. 8 workshop. Kelley Klepper, also a planner with Kimley-Horn, spoke during the Jan. 9 meeting with Merrill again in attendance to answer questions and respond to statements.
The workshops are one step in the county approval/denial process for the amendments and special exception. Following the sessions, the application, including information from the neighborhood session, is reviewed by members of 15 county departments, known collectively as the Development Review Coordination (DRC), which provides comments to the applicants before it moves to the planning commission for a formal public hearing. Planning commissioners will vote and make a recommendation to approve/deny to the county commission, which will then hold two hearings on the matters and make the final approval or denial for each project.
If approved in the first public hearing, the proposed comp plans amendments are reviewed for consistency by the state. If found consistent, the amendments will be heard a second time by the county commission. The comp plan amendments require a supermajority of four out of five votes to be approved.
Following a presentation of the elements present in the application for the Village hotel — which is proposed to replace side-by-side strip centers where Flavio’s restaurant is located and is for now being identified as SKV Hotel — the bulk of the session was spent answering questions and responding to comments by those in attendance.
One of the first to speak was Siesta Key resident Lourdes Ramirez, president of Siesta Key Community and a vocal opponent of the hotel projects who led the charge in two winning lawsuits — one in 12th Judicial Circuit Court (county) and the other with the Division of Administrative Hearings (state) which ruled the county commission violated its own policies in previously allowing unlimited density when approving three large hotels between the fall of 2021. 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 March of 1989. The judges determined amendments must be made to the comp plan to move forward with the hotel applications, hence the current proposals.
Included in the comp plan amendments for which Benderson is seeking approval is one eliminating room counts for residential density.
Ramirez asked about the effect of the hotel on evacuations for residents and said Benderson was proposing not evacuating hotel patrons and paying for extended evacuation times during a storm event. Merrill responded they are “not proposing to not evacuate visitors” and said they are proposing mitigation and following state statutes, without further clarification of the proposal.
Attendee Katherine Jones asked if the applicant was planning a traffic study.
“Because traffic is already ridiculous at times on Siesta Key, and I can’t see how putting in an 85-foot-tall hotel is going to help the traffic situation,” she said. “So, we need to understand what you are going to do about that.”
DiMaria responded they are “sensitive to that,” and “understand that’s been a big part of the discussion,” so as part of the pre-application they will discuss the methodology with the county, to be performed prior to filing the formal application.
“We’ll work to understand existing traffic conditions and opportunities to mitigate any impacts of the projects or the proposals that you’ve heard today,” DiMaria said.
Meanwhile, Benderson is proposing a 15% cap on hotels on about 44-plus acres remaining for available commercial land. Currently, there is no cap. However, the four current proposed hotels in play would cover 5.23 acres of 6.6 available, according to the equation.
Mark Spiegel, a national commercial developer and co-founder/former president of the Siesta Key Coalition, an organization founded to preserve the character of the Key, asked if the county plans to do a benchmarking study of best practices of other barrier islands and coastal counties in the state to look at their density limitations. He said the intensity proposed would drive-up sewage, traffic, utility and pedestrian use.
He also said even the most intense development in the state, on International Boulevard in Orlando, has a 60-room-per-acre restriction.
Merrill responded, “I can’t tell you what the county is going to do,” and added there are other aspects that restrict room count on hotels and density that will be used to determine room count, including parking, which often restricts development.
Said Spiegel, “Now, with the lawsuits happening and the judges pretty much said the arguments that were made were invalid, I would think our county would want to step back from getting themself into another lawsuit and do some benchmarking and professional planning before just throwing out density restrictions, which is very atypical across the country.
“I think we have to agree that you are setting a precedent here,” he added, noting other developers soon will seek approvals for similar projects and it will be difficult for commissioners to turn them down.
Following more than two hours of discussion, the hosts moved to the submitted written questions, showing them on the screen and providing verbal responses.
Among these, with more than 100 questions posted, attendees continued to voice concerns about previously discussed topics including traffic, parking, sewage, beach capacity and ecological impacts. At 8:30 p.m., 2.5 hours into the meeting, Merrell and DiMaria stopped the discourse citing the lengthy discussion, thanked people for attending, and the meeting concluded without clarification on whether all provided questions and comments had been addressed.
As the meeting was virtual, it ended when the hosts chose to shut down the process.
Workshops were changed to a virtual option during COVID-19 and the county commission backed the virtual option last fall despite Commissioner Mark Smith voicing his support of making them a mandatory in-person event, as previously required.
The Siesta Key Association offered the hosts to hold it in-person on Jan. 4 during the civic group’s monthly gathering at St. Boniface Church but were told no, said president Catherine Luckner.
Calle Miramar hotel
About 70 people attended the Jan. 9 session to discuss the other hotel proposal, an L-shaped development on .96 acres on Calle Miramar which would contain 163 rooms, with seven stories, with four-and-a-half lodging floors above two-and-a-half floors of parking. It has previously been identified at Hotel Siesta Key.
No rezoning would be required, but the request would require permitted transient accommodations within the existing zoning district and a special exception would be subject to the approval of the comp and UDC plan amendments requested for the SKV hotel project.
Near the start of the presentation, Klepper reminded attendees that the applicant will be working with the county regarding traffic and transportation, and must provide a traffic methodology to county staff for review and modification.
“We do have to take into consideration existing traffic, changes in traffic, as well as what they call ‘background traffic’ — all of that is identified in the county’s transportation traffic analysis ordinances and our methodology,” Klepper said.
Among the first to address Merrill and Klepper were Luckner and husband Robert Luckner (Siesta Key Coalition president, acting), who had submitted questions for the Jan. 8 workshop and raised virtual hands but had not been provided the opportunity to speak nor had their written questions answered.
Among the questions asked by the Luckners, Robert asked about sewage capacity limitations, to which Klepper replied that county utilities would address those as needed, but it had not come up in the DRC review as of yet. Luckner also asked about a “traffic model,” and noted there is one under county consideration that is “robust” and includes bike and pedestrian traffic specific to the Key. He asked if the applicant would commit to using such a model.
Klepper responded they would abide by whatever is required by the county transportation team.
Additionally, Robert Luckner mentioned that evacuation had been discussed at the workshop the night before for the other property, but was curious what this project would provide for the matter.
Klepper said he hadn’t yet spoken with property owners, so he is not sure, but often the people in transient facilities would be the first removed during a storm event.
Merrill reiterated they had not yet had those discussions, but they “intend to comply with what is required by the state, contrary to what some of those statements have been. We do anticipate meeting any and all standards required of us.”
Luckner closed his questions by asking who the owners are and if they are foreign, to which Klepper said owner disclosure is provided as part of the process to be reviewed by staff and Merrill responded that three of four clients are local to Sarasota County.
Michael Holderness, co-owner of Siesta Key Beach Resorts & Suites on Ocean Boulevard located two doors down from the Calle Miramar proposal, expressed safety concerns for traffic on bridges which are already rated poorly by the state — not just for storm events, but for matters such as medical emergencies.
“The safety concerns are not for hurricanes, but if your wife has a heart attack or your child gets hit by a truck,” Holderness asserted.
Additionally, he pointed out that the applicant has referred to the Key as “a destination, branded, valuable to the county,” but since only 10% of the beach is public and being accounted for by the state, he is concerned about where there will be room for an influx of visitors to enjoy the beach. “Where are these guests going to go to the white sand?” he asked.
“Our future guests will be going to the exact same places your guests are going to and using the public beach,” Klepper responded.
Patricia Nazzaro, who said she also attended the meeting the night before, commented “These don’t seem to conform to the neighborhood and it would be preferable to have this lowered to about half the height so it is consistent with the style and the quaintness of our Village. I have been paying taxes on Siesta Key for 49 years. I see some changes here and there, but nothing so drastic as this … To me it’s an overabundance.”
“Thank you,” Klepper responded. “I appreciate that.”
LD DeMeo also asked about traffic and how the raising and lowering of the bridges for boat traffic would affect the traffic study, and added she had previously submitted questions that had not been addressed. Klepper said that would be identified by the county transportation staff.
DeMeo responded that locals who leave the Key to go inland and come back already are faced with excessive traffic extending drive time and again asked how the study will include bridges and other events affecting transit.
“I’m not going to be able to give you a satisfactory answer to your comment or your guidance,” Klepper said. “There again, we’re going to comply with what the county says we need to study and that may be different than what your expectations are. However, that’s the rules and the regulations that we have to work through.”
DeMeo then asked, “So, you’re saying that our beef is with the county and not with you?”
Responded Klepper, “The county sets up the standards for traffic impact analyst, for stormwater, for utilities, for setbacks for buffering and all of those things.
“Those are the ordinances that are adopted as part of the standards … So, we comply with what is required of us and all projects across the county.”