Splitting 3-2, County Commission agrees to amend Siesta Key zoning regulations to allow potential for shorter setbacks from the street

Gary Kompothecras argues that the boutique hotel he plans for Old Stickney Point Road will not be 85 feet high and that the public will be ‘pleasantly surprised’ by the design

The site of the former Fandango Cafe on Old Stickney Point Road (outlined in red) is zoned Commercial General. To the immediate left is the storage facility Dr. Gary Kompothecras also owns. Image from the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office

After a public hearing that lasted almost four hours, the Sarasota County Commission split 3-2 in approving an amendment to the Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD) zoning regulations that will give the board flexibility to allow buildings taller than 35 feet to be built closer to the street than the previous county ordinance allowed.

However, the amendment applies only to about 11 acres of commercial property on Old Stickney Point Road.

Commissioner Michael Moran made the motion to approve the new zoning language, and Commissioner Paul Caragiulo seconded it. Commissioner Alan Maio, who represents Siesta Key as part of District 4, joined them in the majority on the vote.

Chair Nancy Detert argued that the commissioners themselves had an opportunity to craft a zoning amendment that would be a better solution to fighting the blight several of the 33 speakers who addressed the board had referenced on Old Stickney Point Road.

“My personal vision is not to replicate what I see in the city of Sarasota, which is basically a sunny New York,” Detert said. “I prefer a more island flavor.”

Commissioner Charles Hines also opposed the amendment, pointing out, “I’ve not heard any testimony today that said the Siesta Key Overlay District isn’t working, isn’t successful. So why does it need to be changed?”

Siesta residents pack the Commission Chambers for the April 11 public hearing. Photo contributed by Libby Sloan

In a presentation to the commission, Sarasota attorney Charles D. Bailey III of the Williams Parker firm and Robert “Bo” Medred of Genesis Planning & Development in Bradenton made it clear that Dr. Gary Kompothecras — widely known for the 1-800-ASK-GARY advertising for his chiropractic clinics — wants to construct a boutique hotel on slightly more than 1 acre comprising the site of a storage facility he bought in December 2011 and the adjacent property at 1266 Old Stickney Point Road, which once was home to Fandango Café. Medred indicated the possibility of combining the property at 1256 Old Stickney Point Road in the site plan, as well, as that is the home of Clayton’s Siesta Grille. It is adjacent to the other parcels. Altogether, based on the records of the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office, the three parcels would comprise 1.38 acres, based on The Sarasota News Leader’s calculations.

In October 2017, Bailey filed the application for the privately initiated zoning text amendment on behalf of Clayton and Diane Thompson, owners of Clayton’s Siesta Grille.

Clayton’s Siesta Grille is located at 1256 Old Stickney Point Road (outlined in red). It is to the left of Dr. Gary Kompothecras’ storage facility property. Image from the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office

Kompothecras himself was the last of the 33 people to address the commissioners during the April 11 public hearing, which was a continuation of a hearing held on Jan. 30.

“What do you think’s going to go next door [to the storage facility] if I can’t build the hotel?” he told the board members. “A loud bar! And I don’t want to do that. … I don’t like it, but that’s what’s going to go there.” He was referring to the property where Fandango stood, if they denied the petition for the amendment.

People had encouraged him to construct a hotel on Old Stickney Point Road after Siesta Public Beach first was named the No. 1 beach in the United States by Dr. Stephen Leatherman — known as Dr. Beach — in 2011, Kompothecras indicated. Last year, Leatherman again accorded the beach that honor.

“All I’m doing is asking for an opportunity to show what this will be, and I think everybody’s going to be pleasantly surprised,” Kompothecras added of the hotel plans.

Medred explained that the goal is to construct a hotel with surface parking, which would allow for a lower height than if the ground level of the structure were to comprise the parking area. However, Medred continued, because of the turning radii needed for a parking lot, it would be very difficult to construct the hotel and surface parking, given the SKOD requirement that a minimum front setback of 25 feet would be needed for any structure over 35 feet on those commercially zoned properties on Old Stickney Point Road.

Dr. Gary Kompothecras addresses the commission on April 11. News Leader photo

In arguing for the amendment, Commissioner Moran pointed out that the special exception process incorporated in the language will necessitate a neighborhood workshop, as well as vetting by the county’s Planning Commission and then the County Commission, after Kompothecras submits his application for the hotel project.

Commissioner Maio reiterated that, emphasizing that the site chosen for that workshop “had better be in a place to accommodate a crowd. … If your game in all of this is to do right for the community, participate,” he told the Siesta residents who had filled the Commission Chambers in the Administration Center on Ringling Boulevard in Sarasota.

Nonetheless, Maio also stressed a point he has made since the Jan. 30 hearing: “A petitioner had better not bring me a [request for a] special exception that’s 60, 70, 85, whatever your imagination lets you say — 300-foot [tall hotel] — and 2 feet from the front sidewalk. You will start out with a ‘No’ vote right here.”

During his remarks, Kompothecras told the commissioners, “I assure you it will not be an 85-foot building 2 feet from the front that these people have been lying to you about.”

Although Commissioner Caragiulo supported the motion, he conceded skepticism about the project that would come before the board. “I’m going to tell you that, because I do believe that I would like to see a really fantastic project [on Old Stickney Point Road].” He added that if he is no longer on the board when Kompothecras’ hotel petition reaches that point of the process, “I will be here at Open to the Public and speaking up against something that is going to be clearly a bad idea.”

Moran also stressed that the special exception petition process enables members of the public to become very involved in the type of project they want to see in a particular area, including “literally where the front door goes.”

The underlined language constitutes the amendment the commissioners approved on April 11. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In the beginning …

Charles Bailey III. File photo

The effort to craft the privately initiated SKOD amendment began last year after the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals voted 3-2 to uphold county Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson’s determination that any structure taller than 35 feet in the three commercial zoning districts on Siesta Key would have to be at least 25 feet from the street. The maximum front setback would be half the height of an 85-foot-tall building — 42.5 feet. The maximum allowable height on the county’s barrier islands is 85 feet for residential and commercial structures.

Then, on July 12, Siesta business owners — including then-Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce Chair Mark Smith — urged the commissioners during the Open to the Public part of a regular board meeting to allow for more flexibility with the street setbacks. Board members agreed and asked county Planning and Development Services Department staff to propose new language. However, after researching the issue, Matt Osterhoudt, director of that department, and Thompson reported that staff had determined no basis to support a county-initiated zoning text amendment. They pointed out that Kompothecras’ situation was the only one they could find in which such a change had been sought.

The commissioners concurred with staff, which led to Bailey’s new effort — this time on behalf of the Thompsons.

Contrasting views on the Key

In the meantime, opposition to the proposal began building on Siesta Key, primarily among residents. Both the Siesta Key Association (SKA) and the Siesta Key Condominium Council announced opposition to any changes in the SKOD regulations. The April 11 hearing was a major focus of discussion during the SKA’s regular meeting on April 5.

Gene Kusekoski, the SKA president, and Frank Jurenka, the Condo Council president, were among the speakers during the public hearing this week who voiced concerns about the potential for dramatic changes to the atmosphere of Siesta Key if the commissioners approved the SKOD amendment.

“I believe Siesta Key is already a fully developed and charming community,” Dan Leonard told the board. “The existing zoning laws are serving us well.”

The Condo Council and the SKA both urged members to attend the April 11 public hearing, and the Condo Council worked on arrangements for buses to transport people from the island to downtown Sarasota that afternoon.

The newest Daiquiri Deck is on property between Stickney Point Road and Old Stickney Point Road. Rachel Hackney photo

On the other side of the issue, Siesta architect Smith again made the case this week for flexibility. Other business owners — including Dave Stewart, proprietor of Captain Curt’s Crab & Oyster Bar on Old Stickney Point Road; Troy Syprett, a Key resident since 1974 who is co-owner of the Daiquiri Deck restaurants; and Mason Tush, whose family owns CB’s Saltwater Outfitters on Stickney Point Road — agreed with Smith.

Syprett explained to the commissioners that he participated in the development of the SKOD language. The goal, he said, was to make “the commercial districts more viable and more pedestrian-friendly.”

One primary reason the zoning called for buildings in Siesta Village to be close to the sidewalk, he noted, was to make certain the parking lots would be in the rear, instead of obscuring the businesses. The shops also could have awnings that would provide shade from the sun, Syprett noted.

Many of the commercial properties on the island do not conform to current building standards, he continued. “They create unique circumstances.” Kompothecras, Syprett added, is “not asking for a rubber stamp.” The adoption of the SKOD amendment would give architects the ability to design projects that would be good fits in their locations, he said. “We’re not talking about Ritz-Carlton, massive properties.”

Siesta Village is dominated by buildings close to the sidewalk. File photo

When Commissioner Hines asked Syprett why the decision was made to require a minimum setback for commercial properties over 35 feet, Syprett replied, “This is going back a really long time. … There was some give and take,” he continued, with many of the residents who participated in the development of the SKOD opposed to structures taller than 35 feet. However, Syprett said, given the size and shape of many of the commercial parcels on the island, he was not certain anyone in the SKOD planning process gave sufficient thought to how much viable development could be undertaken on them.

When he addressed the board, Smith emphasized that the necessity of meeting the SKOD parking requirements limits size and design of commercial structures. “So there’s a self-governing to the development in the commercial area.”

For example, he said, the Daiquiri Deck that opened last spring on Stickney Point Road “couldn’t be any larger because of the on-site parking that we had available to us.”

“Both personally and professionally,” Commissioner Caragiulo told Smith, “you’re probably one of the best people to discuss what this all looks like,” in terms of how the SKOD amendment would function.

Perhaps a better process

Speaking in opposition to the proposal, Brian Lichterman of Vision Planning & Design in Sarasota — who pointed out to the board that he has more than 32 years of experience in planning and zoning issues — said he did not believe the amendment was needed. (Lichterman worked as a senior county planner for more than 22 years, his business biography notes.) Perhaps minor tweaks would work, he suggested. However, he also made the point that if the applicant and staff could provide graphics to illustrate to the public how the changes would impact redevelopment on the island, that would be very beneficial.

A number of Siesta residents came by bus to the County Administration Center on April 11. Photo contributed by Lourdes Ramirez

During his remarks, Kompothecras indicated that his attorneys had advised him not to provide any potential design details for the hotel project because that would be a violation of County Commission rules regarding quasi-judicial public hearings. (In such sessions, the board has to determine whether a rezoning application, for example, meets the criteria of all the applicable county regulations. Commissioners legally cannot discuss issues outside of those hearings related to such petitions.)

When Bailey returned to the podium after the public remarks, to offer rebuttal, Commissioner Hines asked him about Kompothecras’ remark.

Would showing the public potential designs for the hotel violate the quasi-judicial hearing standards? Hines asked.

“This is a legislative process,” Bailey began, referring to the April 11 hearing. The special exception process that Kompothecras would have to petition for would be quasi-judicial, Bailey added.

Referring to how long the meeting had run already by that point, Hines interrupted Bailey. “Yes or No?”

A design charrette held before any application has been filed is not a quasi-judicial proceeding, Bailey acknowledged.

Much of the public distress regarding the SKOD amendment, Hines replied, has been focused on “the idea of what could fit” in that property on Old Stickney Point Road, “and I think a lot of these fears would go away” if the public could see that what was being proposed would be appropriate in the space.

“I wanted to clear that up,” Hines said.

Commissioner Maio also made the point a couple of times that he was the one on Jan. 30 who suggested “the petitioner needs to talk with staff” to revise the proposed amendment so it would have what Zoning Administrator Thompson had characterized as a more definitive starting point for the board in deciding whether to modify the street setback for a proposed new commercial project. Maio added that he wished he had recommended Bailey also talk with representatives of the Condo Council, the Siesta Chamber and the Siesta Key Association. “I think something different would have happened today.”

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