By John Morton
This time, the vote was unanimous.
The Sarasota County Planning Commission on Sept. 1 voted 8-0 in favor of recommending the six-story, 112-room hotel being proposed by Dave Balot at the site of the old Wells Fargo bank at 5810 Midnight Pass Rd.
It would be called Hotel Siesta, featuring a 1960s-inspired design on a 2.15-acre parcel. It would also feature a 150-seat restaurant.
The proposed project will next go before the Board of County Commissioners on Oct. 26 for what could be final approval, but Balot has indicated he’ll likely wait to take any further steps until two lawsuits regarding two previously approved hotels are settled. They both are slated for trial next spring.
There were two dissenting votes from planners regarding those two hotels, but not with this one.
“This is the one that made the most sense to me, from a location standpoint,” said Kevin Cooper, one of the planners who voted against the eight-story, 170-room project on Calle Miramar near the Village, and the seven-story, 120-room project on Old Stickney Point Road near the south bridge.
He also applauded Balot, as did even the public speakers who protested the plan, for his willingness to work with the community through two neighborhood workshops and several face-to-face meetings.
“The applicant did a really good job engaging with the community, getting that buy-in,” Cooper said.
“I knocked on every door that I could,” said Balot, whose outreach beyond neighbors included sessions with the Siesta Key Association, the Siesta Key Coalition, and the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce.
Added commission member Justin Taylor, who had also cast previous no votes, “I’ve never seen an applicant or team show such documented conversation in trying to be thorough and, according to what the public has said, honest and transparent in what they’re trying to do.”
Bob Luckner, a member of both the Siesta Key Association and Siesta Key Coalition (created exclusively to fight the recent hotel proposals), said “The applicant was good to work with, in person, instead of with his lawyers.”
But he was also one of several opponents who wondered why the hearing was taking place when two lawsuits were in play that could overturn what’s now being allowed.
“There’s no rush,” Luckner said.
However, the county’s legal representation advised the commission that it should consider the case — brought by the applicant, and thus required to be considered unless something deficient in the application prohibits it — without concern for the lawsuits and that only the applicant is at risk for any outcomes beyond the commission’s control.
Meanwhile, Neil Rainford of the planning commission was impressed with the plans.
“There are not many 2-acre lots on Siesta Key suitable for this kind of property. It’s a thoughtful design on how the applicant structured this. He could have asked for an eight-, nine-, or 10-story tower.”
Commission member Andrew Stultz noted the hotel, which he called well-planned and thought through, will help facilitate the ever-increasing demand for Siesta Key.
“When you look at the tourism numbers, and the stature with all the rankings, Siesta Key is always part of the conversation,” he said. “This is very appropriate — a useful location for what the community needs. We are Sarasota County, known for Siesta Key, and millions are coming here.”
In the favorable recommendation, Balot was given two special exceptions — one for transient use in a commercial general zone with the Siesta Key Overlay District, and another for height that goes beyond the 35-foot limit. The hotel is planned to 59 feet tall.
Ten Siesta Key residents objected to the hotel during a public hearing prior to the vote. Luckner spoke of concerns about a traffic study being insufficient, and his wife, Catherine Luckner who is president of the Siesta Key Association, voiced concerns that stormwater issues weren’t slated to be addressed until permitting began. She said the area is prone to flooding, and the plans should be revisited with this in mind before a vote is cast on what is a binding concept plan.
“You should understand exactly what you’ve agreed to,” she said.
Eileen Jones, who lives across the street from the project, asked that an eight-foot wall be built around three sides of the hotel. So did Darrel Peters, a board member with neighboring Gulf & Bay Club, noting that the county created one on the north side of the resort when it built the new fire station, minimizing trespassing and other issues like trash overflow and rodents.
As part of the vote, Balot agreed to the 8-foot wall. His plan already had one at 6 feet.
Jones also said she was surprised to learn of a ballroom as part of the plan.
“That means you’ll have weddings, with 50 cars all showing up at the same time,” she said.
The ballroom is part of 7,000 square feet of patron space. It also includes the restaurant and bar, meeting room, and a coffee and bagel shop.
Balot said these amenities were primarily offerings intended for the guests, although they will be open to the general public.
“It’s all about putting heads in beds,” he said of the variety of amenities.
A lack of beach access at the hotel also concerned opponents, but Balot has pledged to offer shuttle service to the public beach and also hopes to create a “follow the path” method along the sidewalk to direct guests to it by foot.
“The walkability to the public beach is fine,” said Taylor. “It’s on the same side of the street so no one has to cross anywhere.”
Balot also said he’d have signs at both check-in and in gusts rooms that notify guests that the neighboring beaches are private.
His plan also calls for 43 parking spots earmarked for beach parking. His representatives reported that studies showed that “trolling” for parking spots represents 20% to 30% of the cars on the Key.
The hotel guest rooms, which will all have balconies, will all face either inward toward a courtyard with pool, or toward Midnight Pass Road, with none looking at the neighboring buildings. The Jamaica Royale is on one side and the Gulf & Bay Club wraps around the other sides of the parcel.
“It costs more to do it this way, but I wanted what’s best for the neighbors,” Balot said.
Regarding setbacks, an issue that is in flux after county staff acknowledged in January that previous code language was not updated for consideration in the applications from the first two hotels, Mark Spiegel of the Siesta Key Coalition argued that Balot, like the others, is not following the guidelines and thus could be determined as non-compliant.
Balot’s plan has 20-foot setbacks for the first 35 feet, as required, but instead of adding 1 foot of setback for every 4 feet of height above 35 feet, as previously interpreted, and what creates a “wedding cake” type of design by stepping it back gradually in intervals, he chose to go with 26 feet of straight-up setback all at once after the 35-foot mark.
As for minimizing traffic congestion, Balot’s design includes a front road running parallel to Midnight Pass Road that will allow service vehicles, trolleys, golf carts, and pick-up/drop-off services like Uber to have a dedicated area that will not cause backup on the main road.
Still Janet Wooldridge, who lives at Jamaica Royale, was concerned about driving in an area that’s near the Beach Road/Midnight Pass Road intersection — and home to a future roundabout — that’s already hard to navigate, she said.
“Trying to get out of these places is going to be horrendous,” Wooldridge said.
Finally, Balot, who co-owns the Siesta Key Beach Resort and Suites in the Siesta Key Village, spoke of his experience with storm-related evacuations on a barrier island. Not only would his hotel offer refunds, but it would provide a safe haven, at a discounted rate, for locals who lose power and need a place to stay. Being new, the building will be two stories above flood level as required by FEMA and feature hurricane windows.
“I’m planning on having a couple generators for back-up,” Balot added.
In response to Taylor noting how important it is that Balot has hotel management experience, Balot said “I plan to run the hotel and I plan to have my kids working there.”
He also noted he’s currently building a house in the vicinity of the hotel.
At the end, Taylor again applauded the process.
“The public had some specific questions. Instead of just saying no, they said work with us on these things,” he said.