Commissioner Smith advocates for what he feels are fair voluntary demolition rules
By ChrisAnn Allen
It started in early 2022 for Sea Club V.
The resort, located at 6744 Sarasea Circle on Siesta Key, is rife with structural deficiencies. Representatives from the complex, working with District 2 Commissioner Mark Smith, also a Siesta Key architect, are attempting to ignite a process which would allow voluntary demolition to rebuild the 41-unit timeshare property before things go from bad to worse.
Sarasota County is facing the question of whether it is better to rebuild to code in the wake of a disaster or clear the rubble before the damage occurs.
During a Jan. 11, 2022 commissioners meeting, Smith said a structural engineering report on Sea Club V showed structural deterioration. “They’ve been putting Band-Aids on their buildings for years,” Smith said.
Since the 2022 discussion, county staff has met with stakeholders and considered amendments to both the comprehensive plan, the county’s guiding document for growth and development, and the unified development code, which includes zoning and land development regulations.In an April 11 letter to county planner Everett Farrell regarding the potential amendment, Sea Club V property manager Tony Rateni wrote: “It would be better to encourage structurally non-conforming buildings to voluntarily be demolished and rebuilt to today’s codes than to have them destroyed in a major storm event where loss of property is definite and loss of life a possibility.”
Commissioners on Sept. 12 considered the fine print attached to this question in the form of a publicly submitted comprehensive plan amendment allowing the voluntary demolition of multi-family, nonconforming structures — namely aging condominiums — to be rebuilt according to modern codes before a storm hits.
Smith was the first to speak, using Sea Club V as an example, but stated any structures built previous to the 2000 Florida Building Code run the same risk. “We just need to look south from the storms that have hit our coast,” he said. “You’ll see that buildings that were built to the Florida Building Code are still standing and those that weren’t are not any longer.”
During the meeting, the board unanimously approved a motion authorizing staff to move forward with the publicly initiated comp plan amendment, with an accompanying UDC amendment.
Currently, nonconforming structures can only be rebuilt to the same density following a disaster.
“Obviously, I have been following this closely since I was the architect that brought it before the board a year or so ago,” Smith said. On behalf of the Sea Club V Condominium Association, he brought forward the possibility of voluntary demolition and rebuilding at the previous height and density. At that time, Smith shared the example of a similar structure, the Champlain Towers South, which collapsed in Surfside in June 2021.
Chairman Ron Cutsinger, the District 5 commissioner, expressed concern over “unintended consequences due to the broadness of scope,” and asked Farrell if staff had seen any “red flags.” Farrell responded that “allowing the nonconformities to exist in perpetuity,” could be an issue.
Some stakeholders had similar concerns. A July 11, 2022 letter to the commission from representatives of the Siesta Key Condominium Council stated the amendment “could have far-reaching unintended consequences for residents of Siesta Key regarding density, intensity and safety on the barrier island.” Additionally, a letter dated April 12 from the Siesta Key Association from president Catherine Luckner supported the SKCC letter and included her saying “To waive that invites unintended consequences and will likely encourage condos that skirt transient use regulations and density/intensity regulations.”
Additionally, regarding the fear of “unintended consequences,” Bob Luckner, the treasurer for the SKA, during the group’s Sept. 7 meeting said, “What we don’t want is someone to buy a condo, tear it down, and then build something else that’s ridiculous.”
However, commissioners agreed the best way to further consider the matter would be to move forward.
“If staff does go forward and put time and attention on this, if there are any ‘unintended consequences,’ it would get shook out in that public process for public input and ultimately for another chance for us to amend it and then finally approve it, if we choose?” District 1 Commissioner Mike Moran asked Josh Moye, the county attorney, who confirmed that commissioners will have the authority to amend, accept or dismiss the measure.
At the Sept. 12 meeting, Farrell presented information provided by stakeholders, subsequent staff suggestions, and asked for board feedback, including:
- Allowing nonconformities to exist in perpetuity.
- New construction to contain the same type and number of residential units.
- Aside from non-conforming density, new construction must follow county standards for setback, height and lot coverage.
- Uses must be residential.
- No variances to county requirements outlined in the comprehensive plan and UDC.
- Requiring engineering criteria to allow demolition.
- Allowing demolition/rebuilding of any structure built prior to 2000.
- Requiring a unit count prior to a demolition permit.
- Retaining the square footage of the original units with new construction.
- Concerns over the transient nature of new construction.
Smith said he supported the proposed stipulations and any entity choosing to voluntarily demolish would follow all requirements for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and the Florida Building Code, “and build just like you were building on regular property, because in most cases these are all going to be built up,” over covered parking.
He also said the new construction would have the same density and ideally the same unit types, such as one bedroom, one bath, or whatever previously existed, but there would be no variances allowed for building height.
“No variances on height, no variances on density,” Smith said. “Again, we are building to today’s zoning codes, asking no more or no less.” He added that the county would not restrict people to building the same square footage per unit, as modern residences are not the same as those built 50 to 70 years ago.
Smith said he disagreed with requiring a structural engineer’s input in demolition determination. He said it is an unnecessary burden as any structure built prior to 2000 would not fare well in a major storm event.
Smith added that the process of tearing down and rebuilding requires a considerable amount of money, time and consideration and “is not something that is going to be taken lightly.”
Additionally, he said concerns over the “transient nature of new construction,” is a matter handled in the condominium documents, including length of stay, and is up to the individual entities to determine, not the county.
With an approval of the motion taking place at the meeting, the possible amendment will now continue to be dissected by staff, then brought before the planning commission and then back to county commissioners for further consideration.