Some Siesta Key leaders voice opposition, bring local lawsuits to the table during commission vote
By ChrisAnn Allen
Although it was shot down by the Sarasota County Planning Commission in July, parallel parking was back on the table for the Siesta Promenade project when it went before the Sarasota Board of County Commissioners on Sept. 27 for a final vote.
And, like it did back in 2018 when the mixed-use development first went before commissioners, it once again met with their approval.
District 2 Commissioner Mark Smith, a Siesta Key architect, cast the only vote against the plans for the revised project, his decision hinging on negative public testimony.
Several Siesta Key residents were among those who spoke in opposition of the project, citing safety concerns with increased traffic due to its location at the northwest corner of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road near one of only two bridges – and the busiest of the two — providing access to the mainland.
During the meeting, commissioners approved by a 4-1 vote a set of motions for the development based on a redesign to incorporate two additional parcels totaling 0.78 acres – the final two holdout properties in the development’s footprint. The additional land adds to a project that is expected to boast 414 apartments/condos, a 130-room hotel, 133,000 square feet of retail space, and 7,000 square feet of office space. In total, it will all be contained in about 24 acres.
Planning commissioners on July 20 approved amendments to the plans excluding parallel parking spaces on Glencoe and Crestwood avenues in the neighboring Pine Shores Estates neighborhood, and recommended them as such to the county commission.
However, when project developer Benderson Development brought the matter before the county commission it led with the inclusion of parallel parking spots as part of an alternate set of motions, separate from the planning commission’s recommendation.
Following the county staff presentation of the proposed changes to the plan, Todd Mathes, director of development for Benderson, said the parallel spots were the only difference to the planning commission recommendations, stating “there is no change to required building setbacks, landscape buffers, to building and block types, to maximum heights — all that is unchanged … the only difference is the parallel parking spaces.”
Christopher Hatton, traffic engineer with Kimley-Horn, the engineering consultant company contracted by Benderson, said it was “important to point out a few of the items that we believe were misunderstood at the planning commission hearing, in regards specifically to on-street parking.”
Hatton said the 20-foot landscape buffer between the development and on-street parking would increase pedestrian safety by increasing “side-friction to traffic flow,” as well as providing more parking open to public use, not just for the development, which could prevent visitors to the surrounding neighborhood and delivery vehicles from parking in the street, which is currently not striped, but does allow for on-street parking.
He said the benefits of on-street parking are nationally recognized for traffic calming by leading professional organizations in the industry, including the United States Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, the Institute of Transportation Engineers, and the Florida Department of Transportation.
“When you have on-street parking, drivers must be extra cautious to watch for vehicles that are parallel parking, as well as the drivers accessing their vehicles,” he said. “This slows vehicles down and makes the street less inviting for potential cut-through traffic, and it also helps to align with the goal of a safer and slower street. Slower streets are safer streets.”
Smith asked Hatton about other, less controversial methods for calming traffic, to which Hatton responded that the on-street parking was just one component of a mix of “tools in a toolbox,” which includes feedback signs, speed cushions, a raised crosswalk, and a mini-roundabout at Glencoe Avenue — a combination that “keeps you guessing” and would “be an enhancement in reducing speeds.”
Smith said he understands Hatton sees it as an enhancement, but stated “The neighborhood doesn’t.”
Mathes said, when approached for feedback regarding traffic calming measures, there was not enough community participation to require Benderson to install “any traffic calming improvements at all.”
“We could have gone home with that,” Mathes said, but the people who spoke up clearly wanted the improvements, “so we volunteered to do it right.”
The residents speak up
Sura Kochman, a resident of Pine Shores and president of the neighborhood alliance, said “This is a classic bait-and-switch,” pointing out the plan was approved for recommendation by the planning commission only after the parallel parking was removed, “and now, at the last minute, we hear this has risen again from the ashes.”
She said Mathes’ statement regarding community participation was incorrect; the initial survey that was sent out by the county included more than 50% absentee owners, such as Airbnb rentals. So, following her discussion with county staff, another survey was disseminated to a smaller subset of owners, and in that instance there was a significant response.
“And that is why there is traffic calming elements in this application, and not out of the goodness of the heart of the applicant, but because it is a requirement of the applicant,” Kochman said.
Pat Norton, a Glencoe Avenue homeowner, said the streets are too narrow for on-street parallel parking, as “it barely holds two cars passing each other.”
“We all have to back out of our driveway,” she said. “And what did we find if you back out of those driveways? You hit a car. Your car cannot make a turn out of our driveway in order to go out, up Glencoe.”
Harry Kochman, also a resident of Pine Shores, pointed out the parking is on the other side of the landscape buffer, and said “The landscape buffer which was to protect the existing residential neighborhood is now on the project side of the parallel parking, thus negating the intent of the buffer, and is an affront to the intention of the BCC’s previous approval and to the neighborhood.”
Meanwhile, references to state rulings in lawsuits filed against the county regarding the project were the focus of some Siesta Key residents.
Robert Luckner of the Siesta Key Association said the development is inconsistent with the county’s comprehensive plan, citing traffic on Stickney Point Road when the development was approved in 2018. Luckner said the approval was contingent upon a traffic light (at Avenue B & C along Stickney Point Road), which was erected but not yet activated, and now “circumstances have changed” due to rulings by Florida’s Division of Administrative Hearings and Sarasota County’s 12th Judicial Circuit Court, which stated that Siesta Key and its primary roads are protected by the county comprehensive plan from “any increase in intensity; traffic.”
Those rulings were related to lawsuits against the county for approval of a high-density hotel. Another hotel-related lawsuit has yet to receive a ruling.
Added Luckner, “And therefore, I feel like the planning commission and the commission have not been properly briefed on the implications of both the DOAH decision and the implications of the 12th Circuit, which found you cannot increase the intensity on Stickney Point Road, at least out to (U.S.) 41.”
Luckner asked that the project be “remanded back” to both commissions for further consideration before approval.
Neil Schleifer, vice president of the Siesta Key Condominium Council representing more than 90 associations with more than 7,000 residents, shared similar concerns about traffic in an Aug. 22 letter from his group.
“As Siesta Key stakeholders, we are very concerned about the additional traffic Siesta Promenade will bring to the Key, resulting in gridlock on Stickney Point Road and impeding emergency ingress and egress,” the letter stated.
Schleifer went on to say there should be a traffic study before changes to the project are approved and said, in light of the state and circuit court rulings, the critical-area plan must be reconfigured to consider this main evacuation route from Siesta Key. He said it is the only four-lane road leaving the Key and, as seen recently with Hurricane Idalia, it was the only viable way to evacuate as the north bridge was impassable due to flooding.
County staff, commissioners, Benderson rep respond
Mathes said claims regarding the DOAH and circuit court rulings were not relevant to Siesta Promenade, and noted that other disputes filed by Siesta Key resident Jim Wallace against FDOT in opposition to the traffic lights were resolved in favor of the project.
Wallace, who was once also a plaintiff in that second, unsettled hotel-related lawsuit before dropping out, issued a Siesta Promenade opposition letter to the county commissioners on Aug. 1 and also had his attorney speak at the Sept. 27 commission meeting.
Said Mathes of any reference to the other court rulings, “I think those issues are totally erroneous.”
Mathes also pointed out that parking already is permitted along Glencoe Avenue. Additionally, he said that the planning commission does not have final say — it is a recommending board, so the applicant chose to not follow the recommendation and bring it back before the county commission with parallel parking included.
“The point is, instead of a car parked on a street which someone might rear-end, a car will be safely parked on a street in a parallel parking space, which another car doesn’t want to hit,” Mathes said. “They want to slow down. So, hopefully, what this results in is slower traffic, calm traffic … So, we’re putting it forward, we’re willing to do it if you want us to do it. It’s as simple as that, commissioners.”
Smith asked Joshua Moye, the county attorney, if Mathes was correct in stating the recent legal rulings had no bearing on the current hearing for Siesta Promenade. Moye said he does not see how they relate to this hearing, specifically, but if approved the project could be on the receiving end of legal challenges.
“Could we get challenges on this? Of course we could,” Moye said. “But I don’t think these are right on point to say, ‘Hey, there’s something to be super concerned about of these having any kind of precedent over what’s happening today.’”
During discussion Smith said, as a Siesta Key resident, he drives Stickney Point Road regularly and understands the traffic concerns voiced by the residents. He said the two court cases regarding – in part — the road have been “pivotal” and cited a difference of opinion between the county and the residents that deal with access to the Key.
“Do we listen to the attorneys that won those cases? The county is 0-and-2, looking at going 0-and-3, and as we like to say, it is the taxpayers’ money,” Smith said. “I believe this will be challenged. I hate to see us waste more money.”
Before the final vote, District 5 Commissioner Ron Cutsinger commented that he thinks there has been confusion regarding the project, as it is already entitled, so traffic should be off the table.
“There’s no additional density proposed here,” he said. “We’re just simply adding these two properties in … And I think we’re going to be moving cars that would be parking — and believe me, they would be parking along that road. We’re going to move them off to a safe space … So, it seems like ultimately that’s a much better overall solution here.”
- Tags: Benderson Development, Christopher Hatton, Harry Kochman, Jim Wallace, Josh Moye, Kimley-Horn, Mark Smith, Neil Schleifer, Pat Norton, Robert Luckner, Ron Cutsinger, Sarasota Board of County Commissioners, Siesta Key Association, Siesta Key Condominium Council, Siesta Promenade, Sura Kochman, Todd Matches