By Phil Colpas
A pattern seems to be emerging.
When it comes to petitions for exceptions needed to build on Siesta Key, the current Sarasota County Commission tends to find in favor of the developers. The board did just that once again on Dec. 7, when it granted another highly contested request, this one for a setback variance at the Saba Sands property at 636 Beach Rd.
With Sarasota County seeing a nearly 15% population growth from 2010-2020, decisions made now over future development regulations are likely to have far-reaching consequences. There are currently two proposed high-rise hotel projects on Siesta Key that have been tentatively approved by the county commission. But before construction can commence, both face lawsuits recently filed by two concerned residents.
In this most recent hotly disputed property saga, the county commission considered petitioner Saba Sands LLC’s revised application and conducted a public hearing on the topic. The county commission had denied Saba Sands’ previous application in August 2020. A special magistrate later ruled that the county was “not unreasonable” in voting down the petition, which sought permission to replace a single-family residence on the parcel with a six-unit condominium.
During the public hearing on Saba Sands’ original petition for a Coastal Setback Variance, Commissioner Nancy Detert said that approving the petition would “set a horrible precedent.”
“I’m not anti-property owner,” she continued. “But you got what you bought. It does take a lot of nerve to ask for multiple units on this property.”
As the public hearing portion was near the end of a day-long commission meeting, it became clear that the myriad development issues and the controversy they create are taking their toll.
“Great. After a long day, we have another coastal setback variance to round out the day,” said County Commission chairman Alan Maio.
Marty Black represented Saba Sands in its presentation to the commission.
“We had proposed six units on the four platted lots, and simply were closer to the beach,” Black said. “The board denied that request, based solely on the location of the proposed structure beyond the established gulf beach setback line, which extended further into the beach area than the adjoining properties. With this revised petition, we’ve moved the entire development 22 feet further from the beach.”
“The previous request was reviewed by a magistrate, and we are here today with the revised plan that reduces the size and scope of the request to meet your reason for denial,” Black continued. “Property owners spent additional time and resources engaging legal counsel, environmental professionals, design architects and coastal planners to reduce the size and scope of the project from six units to four units, one for each of the four platted lots.”
According to Black, his team is consistent with the county’s comprehensive plan and the gulf beach setback line, in compliance with zoning and environmental protection standards, and has met the standards to grant this variance. He also asked that the commissioners “recognize equitable treatment of this property owner in the context of what other private property owners have been granted in the same RMF-1 Zoning District.”
Black stated that “coastal property owners should retain their existing private property rights to the underlying zoning, not to the underlying use. Mr. (William) Saba has at least the right to build one unit for each of the four platted lots. Our design demonstrates that he can do that and meet all the dimensional, environmental regulations of the county on the two most landward lots, preserving the two lots closest to the beach in conservation.”
Seven concerned citizens filled out speaker cards to address the board during the public hearing portion of the presentation.
Longtime Siesta Key resident and conservationist Robert Luckner argued that the development and reduced setback variance would disturb the snowy plover, a protected species of bird that likes to nest on that stretch of beach.
“There are only about 98 nesting pairs in the entire state, and about 17% of them nest in our region,” Luckner said. “They are very vulnerable, solitary nesters,” and Siesta Key’s beaches are very important to their survival.
Dick Miles, Audubon site supervisor for nesting and endangered birds, agreed.
“Many people come from miles around to see the snowy plover, which is protected by federal law,” he said. “Harming or disturbing these birds, their eggs or their young is punishable by five years in prison or a $5,000 fine.”
Siesta Key resident Patricia Petroff told the commission that historically, a single-family dwelling was considered to be a reasonable use for the property at 636 Beach Rd. And that is what exists there now.
“You denied this variance in 2020,” she said. “I’m asking you to do it again.”
Dan Lobeck is a land-use attorney representing Tivoli by the Sea Condominium Association Inc., a condominium located directly across Beach Road from the property in question, with a private beach access path that runs just north of it.
Lobeck said the new construction would impair the beach views of his clients.
“To grant a beach setback variance, it must be determined that it is the minimum variance necessary to permit reasonable use of the property,” he said. “It was determined in 1998 that this house was that minimum variance. And the facts haven’t changed.”
According to Lobeck, the property is valued at $7.2 million.
The proposed resolution was for construction of a new three-story multi-family residential structure, rooftop pool, and pervious paver driveway a maximum of 168.75 feet seaward of the gulf beach setback line at 636 Beach Rd. The county commission passed the resolution 4-1, with Detert proffering the only no vote.
A number of people were visibly and audibly not pleased with the decision, prompting Maio to say: “If you’re unhappy, please go outside and express your unhappiness. We’re just not impressed if you want to start a fight. We’re not going to fight, OK? That goes for the petitioner too. Please leave quietly.”