By Rachel Brown Hackney
Although Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert argued that the board would be setting a bad precedent, her colleagues on Nov. 14 voted in favor of purchasing the land at 162 Beach Road on Siesta Key for $1.4 million.
Previous commissions turned down the owners on three occasions when they sought a Coastal Setback Variance to build a house on the property, Detert pointed out, so the county’s purchase of the 0.18-acre parcel would make other landowners think the board would buy them out if they were turned down on requests to construct homes on similar sites.
“We’re kind of doing this because we’ve been threatened with lawsuits,” Detert said of the purchase of 162 Beach Road parcel, “but I think we’re just looking at more lawsuits.”
The County Commission in 2015 unanimously turned down the third request for a Coastal Setback Variance sought by the owners of the 162 Beach Road property, Ronald and Sania Allen of Osprey. As part of that public hearing, the Allens’ attorney, William Merrill III of the Icard Merrill firm in Sarasota, suggested that the Allens might bring suit against the county for a “taking.” That was because the board had continued to deny them any attempt to develop the land, Merrill added.
Detert also suggested on Nov. 14 that if the Allens sought a Coastal Setback Variance to construct “a modest home — which they don’t care to build,” she added — the board potentially would grant that request.
Commissioner Charles Hines disagreed. “I don’t think that assumption can be made.” Any house on the property would be beyond the Gulf Beach Setback Line (GBSL), he pointed out. The GBSL is the figurative “line in the sand” designed to protect the dunes and beach vegetation and to mitigate the potential for storm surge damage to nearby private and public property.
Constructing any type of home seaward of the GBSL, Hines continued, “would set a precedent that would be very dangerous that, in essence, would eliminate the [GBSL].”
Hines added of the 162 Beach Road parcel, “There is an economic value to this property beyond [making it the site of] a single-family home.”
Carolyn N. Brown, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), explained that the purchase would enable staff to clear the exotic vegetation from the land and perhaps create a walkway to the shore and erect signage for visitors. However, she said, the primary purpose of the transaction would be to protect the native beach vegetation.
Detert’s continuing opposition to the purchase resulted in a 4-1 board vote to move forward.
The money will come out of the funds set aside for the county’s Neighborhood Parkland Acquisition Program. The money is raised through a 0.25-mill tax that voters last approved in November 2005. The goal of the parkland program is “to create new recreational opportunities to showcase Sarasota County’s natural environment and cultural heritage,” the county website explains.
Staff will have 45 days to undertake the necessary due diligence before concluding the transaction approved on Nov. 14, Brown said.
Additionally, Brown noted, staff will communicate with the neighbors on Beach Road about any planning staff pursues regarding “public access improvements” at the site.
Questions and answers
During her Nov. 14 presentation, Brown reminded the commissioners that on Sept. 13, they directed staff to continue to negotiate with the Allens for the purchase of the property at 162 Beach Road. The Allens previously had turned down the offer of $1.4 million, but the board in September stood fast on that amount.
Detert told Brown that, as she understood it, the Neighborhood Parkland Acquisition Program was created to preserve environmentally sensitive lands from construction. “This is not exactly, in my mind, the case here.”
“So we buy it, we own it,” Detert continued of the parcel. Could the county even do anything with the property “without bumping up against [Florida Department of Environmental Protection] rules or something else? … Can we put in a parking lot?”
Brown showed the board a list of permissible uses — including a parking lot — that the board could approve for the site, as the property is zoned Residential Multi-Family.
“We’re going to ask ourselves for a variance?” Detert asked. “The government’s making more sense every day to me,” she added sarcastically.
Any parking her staff would propose in the area would be on the right of way only, Brown indicated.
Then Detert brought up her concern about the potential for the precedent the board might be setting by buying the land.
County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh said the potential exists for the owners of the property at 168 Beach Road to press the board to buy their land. However, he continued, to his knowledge, the County Commission had turned them down only once when they sought a Coastal Setback Variance to build a house on that site.
(On Sept. 13, the board also directed staff to try once more to purchase the land at 168 Beach Road through the Parkland Program. In response to a question on Nov. 14, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester said that the Cooper Trust has made two counter offers to the county’s proposal to pay $1,450,000 for the property. Neither was acceptable, he added.)
On Nov. 14, Detert also asked Brown about the closing costs for the 162 Beach Road transaction, as noted in the backup agenda material. The total, Detert said, was $61,500.
Brown explained that only $11,000 would be for the closing. The rest of that money, Brown said, would be allocated to any improvements the county made to the property to facilitate public access to the beach.
“We have a public use for this [land] and a public need and a public benefit,” Hines added.