By Phil Colpas
The Siesta Key Coalition came loaded for bear at the Aug. 19 meeting of the Planning Commission, presenting a unified front against the first of four hotels proposed for the barrier island. About 50 concerned citizens were in attendance as 19 speakers, including planning experts and longtime residents, tried to convince the commissioners to vote no on the proposed eight-story, 170-room hotel at Beach Road and Calle Miramar, which exceeds current limits for both height and density on Siesta Key. But it wasn’t enough.
“I felt our speakers gave clear objective evidence of the lack of compatibility with the standards required to grant special exceptions, and identified multiple inconsistencies with the Comprehensive Plan,” said Siesta Key Coalition president and commercial real estate developer Mark Spiegel. “Unfortunately, all but two of the commissioners seemed to use their own general beliefs that the key needs a new hotel, rather than following the legislated regulations of our Comprehensive Plan on what they are supposed to be considering, regardless of their personal perspective.”
The commissioners to which Spiegel refers are Justin Taylor, who voted against both the Unified Development Code (UDC) amendment and the special exception; and Kevin Cooper, who voted against the special exception. The rest of the commissioners present voted to approve both measures: UDC amendment 5-1, special exception 4-2. This means the Planning Commission will recommend that the County Commission approve the hotel.
“We were becoming increasingly concerned about hotel developments that were seeking height and density code special exceptions that were far in excess of what was allowed in their commercial zoning,” Spiegel said of the coalition, which was established a year ago to prevent such developments and now represents 70 neighborhood and condominium associations comprising more than 6,500 Siesta Key households. “Plus, they were proposing to make text amendments to our Comprehensive Plan and the Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD) that have protected us from this type of density and intensity on the barrier island.”
Proponents of the Calle Miramar project, led by attorney William Merrill of Icard Merrill, point to the nearby 12-story Terrace condominium as evidence the proposed eight-story hotel fits the landscape. According to Spiegel, the Terrace is not compatible with the neighborhood because it was built 50 years ago, before limits were in place. In fact, the 12-story building was one of the reasons for imposing height and density limits in the first place, he said. “The hotel will block the views of many private homes. It’s six-and-a-half times the allowed density and more than twice the allowed height with minimum setbacks.”
“We don’t want anything as tall as the Terrace built ever again,” said Catherine Luckner, president of the Siesta Key Association. “They (the County Commission) approved our Siesta Key Overlay District in 1989; we still hold them accountable for that.”
Dr. Neil Shleifer, board member of the Siesta Key Coalition and the Siesta Key Condominium Council, showed drone footage of traffic backed up in Siesta Village. He explained that as a main ingress and egress for residents, Calle Miramar and Beach Road is already a heavily trafficked intersection — and the hotel would make it much worse.
Bill Oliver, a Siesta Key resident and traffic impact expert consultant, expressed concern over poor access off Calle Miramar and the lack of traffic data, noting that a barrier island was not a typical-use case.
“This has never been about trying to stop a boutique hotel or two coming to Siesta Key, but seven- and eight-story high-rise hotels — next to residential — that are proposed to be 4 to 6.5 times the allowed density of rooms per acre bring far too many adverse consequences than economic benefits,” Spiegel said. “We have spent our time educating the public and requesting that the county engage with the stakeholders and residents of Siesta Key before allowing this developer, with only one acre of land, to so excessively change our regulations.”
A longtime Siesta resident and owner representative for the 222 Beach Road condos across the street from the site of the proposed hotel, Dr. Carola Fleener said the hotel would block out the sun, diminish views and interfere with emergency services. “We’re relying on you to protect our homes and our way of life,” she told the planning commission.
“This decision will have far-reaching implications,” said Linda Dickinson, long-time resident, realtor and volunteer for Sarasota non-profit organizations, who compared the “short-sighted destruction of valuable resources” to Aesop’s fable about killing the goose that laid the golden egg, citing Siesta Key’s tourism draw. “Saying no to this extravagant request is not saying no to development on the key. But there is a way to do it.”