By Rachel Brown Hackney, SarasotaNewsLeader.com
During the June 9, county-mandated neighborhood workshop on plans for the fourth Siesta hotel, one comment distinguished the proceeding from the sessions conducted on the other three projects.
Mark Spiegel, president of the nonprofit coalition organized last year to oppose hotel plans that exceed current island zoning regulations, complimented Dave Balot, owner of the former Wells Fargo bank site at 5810 Midnight Pass Rd., for leading the discussion.
During the earlier workshops, Spiegel noted, land-use attorneys representing the developers were “front and center.”
Nonetheless, like the teams proposing those other hotels, Balot faced numerous questions.
At the outset, Balot explained that he moved to Florida in 1997. He and his family lived on the Key about 20 years ago, he added, before relocating to the mainland so it would be easier for him and his wife to get their four children to school and sporting activities on time, without having to contend with traffic — and drawbridge openings. They are building a new home on the island that they plan to move into full-time in the future, he said.
“I have a great respect for Siesta Key,” Balot emphasized to the workshop attendees, who participated via Zoom. “I understand what I propose may have a lasting effect on the Key.”
He and his team had no renderings, but they presented conceptual plans for the hotel, which would stand about 54 feet above grade, at the roofline. Their formal request to the county would be for a special exception to allow the structure to be 50 feet tall, instead of 35, as allowed in the zoning regulations. The team also is proposing an amendment to the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC), which contains all of the land-use and zoning regulations. That would double the density for “transient accommodations” units — what county staff calls hotel and motel rooms — allowed per acre in the Commercial General districts of the Siesta Key Overlay District zoning regulations. Instead of 13 units per acre if more than 25% of the rooms have a kitchen, the number would rise to 26. For a hotel with up to 25% of the rooms containing kitchens, the figure would climb from 26 to 52 units per acre.
Originally, Balot’s team sought an amendment that would allow a 35-foot hotel above two levels of parking to be constructed in a Commercial General/Siesta Key Overlay District zone. However, after talking with leaders of island organizations, Balot said he modified the plans so as not to set such a precedent for the island.
His hotel has been designed with 100 rooms on 2.15 acres, Balot said.
Mark Sultana of DSDG Architects in Sarasota explained that the first floor would be mostly parking, except for the lobby and a valet drop-off area. The second level also would be dedicated primarily to parking, though plans call for an enclosed restaurant and bar to be located over the lobby. A meeting/conference room would be placed on that level, as well.
The third floor would have a courtyard design, with a pool and amenities in the center and the rooms on the north and south sides of that area. That floor, too, would have a restaurant and bar, but on an open deck.
Levels four and five would have only hotel rooms.
Spiegel noted that Siesta Key Coalition members have found “plenty of examples of great boutique hotels” in other areas that would be compliant with the existing Siesta zoning regulations.
Balot said he settled on approximately 100 rooms because “This is what I felt, at the very least, that I could put my money into and make it work.”
“The other boutique hotels are more high-end, in line with Westin or a Ritz-Carlton,” he pointed out.
He wants his hotel “to be a family-friendly place [where] I could show up in flip-flops, cargo shorts and a T-shirt,” Balot added.
Asked about his “Plan B” if the County Commission turns down his proposal, Balot replied, “I don’t have a Plan B as of right now.” Potentially, he said, he could construct retail businesses on the property.
“I personally believe the Key would benefit from a hotel,” Balot pointed out more than once during the workshop.
Resident Dan Curtin brought up what he called a rumor that chiropractor and business owner Gary Kompothecras, and/or Kompothecras’ family members and associates, are investors in Balot’s project.
That is not true, Balot replied. However, Balot said he did work for Kompothecras for 19 years, leaving that employment in 2015.
The traffic, the restaurant and bar
Traffic was the focus of many questions and comments.
Lourdes Ramirez stressed of the land at 5810 Midnight Pass Road, “You’re in a very congested area of Siesta Key,” near the public beach and Fire Station 13.
Although county staff did not require that his team conduct a traffic study, Balot said, his team “felt it was prudent to get one anyway …”
The hotel would create less traffic, Balot pointed out, than the Wells Fargo bank did. Balot said he had spoken with the person who managed the branch before it closed. That person told him, he said, that between 150 and 300 cars per day came to the bank site.
As a silent partner in ownership of the Siesta Key Beach Resort and Suites, Balot added, he has seen that most guests do not use their cars. Although traffic congestion is a concern for them, he added, “Parking is a bigger issue. … I’d say 80% of the cars never leave the parking lot.”
He believes the primary contributor to island congestion is “the traffic coming off and on the Key,” Balot said.
In response to concerns about his restaurant and bar plans, Balot emphasized that his goal is to provide a restaurant that serves alcoholic beverages. “I have no intention of having a Beach Club. I have no intention of having a Crescent Club. … The No. 1 business there is going to be a hotel,” he added, and hotel guests want quiet at night.