112-room hotel planned for former Wells Fargo bank site on Siesta Key wins full County Commission approval

Board members point to compliments property owner has received from the public for his outreach during process

Just as members of the Sarasota Planning Commission did in September, Sarasota County commissioners this week commended the applicant who has planned a 112-room hotel on the former site of a Wells Fargo bank on Siesta Key.

They then voted unanimously in favor of the two Special Exception petitions he had filed with county staff. One will allow “transient accommodations” — the county term for hotel and motel rooms — on the 5810 Midnight Pass Road property; the other will allow the building height to go up to a maximum of 59 feet.

No structure in a Commercial General zoning district — such as the parcel where the project is planned — can exceed 35 feet without commission approval

Following the Oct. 26 public hearing, Commissioner Nancy Detert said, “I’m surprising myself and others by making the motion [to approve the Special Exceptions].”

“The difference between this and the other [two proposed Siesta Key hotels] is day and night,” she added.

She told Dave Balot, owner of the 2.15-acre parcel standing at 5810 Midnight Pass Road, “It looks like you bent over backwards to be cooperative with your neighbors and to be a good neighbor.”

Referring to the design, including greater setbacks from the street for the part of the building above 35 feet, she added, “You did it right [and], frankly, we need hotel rooms.”

In seconding the motion, Commissioner Michael Moran focused on the project team members’ testimony about the fact that the hotel will have at least 43 spaces reserved for people who want to visit the public beach.

(The project team has noted that Siesta Public Beach is a walk of only about 5 to 7 minutes from the proposed hotel site.)

Balot explained that the hotel design incorporated space for a 7,000-square-foot restaurant only to ensure that extra parking spots would be available, in accord with a parking ratio that county staff utilizes for restaurants.

In fact, he said, as co-owner of the Siesta Key Beach Resort and Suites in Siesta Village, he has observed that only about 50% of the guests drive to that destination. That hotel charges for parking, he explained, which is how he was able to arrive at the figure.

With the new hotel, Balot continued, as many as 100 spaces ultimately might be open to beachgoers other than his guests.

Frank Domingo, a traffic engineer with the Stantec consulting firm in Sarasota — and another member of the project team — was the first to note of the Key, “The traffic issue is almost as much a parking issue as anything else …” Domingo estimated that 20% to 30% of the road capacity on the island is dedicated to “parking trolls.”

Moran specifically noted project team members’ use of the term “parking trolls,” which, Balot explained, refers to people who keep driving slowly, “circling around and around,” until they find spots where they can leave their vehicles.

Balot himself pointed out that since the Wells Fargo bank has been vacant on his Midnight Pass Road property, people have used its spaces for parking so they can head to the beach. He added that he sees less traffic congestion in that area, which is just south of the public beach, until those spaces are full.

Further, Balot stressed to the commissioners that he has no plans for a nightclub or bar within the hotel that would draw crowds and prove to be noisy. Food and beverage service will be available to guests at the pool on the third floor, he said. “Guests require quiet enjoyment,” Balot noted.

His goal, he added, is to “put heads in beds,” which is phrase that county tourism office staff members use in discussing the point of their marketing efforts.

“Anything that can give some relief to [the island’s traffic congestion], I’ll support,” Commissioner Moran said.

He concurred with Balot’s expectation that few people would drive to the hotel. It is up to the commissioners, Moran continued, to facilitate transportation options on and off the Key.

Moreover, Moran said, “If the [hotel is] as nice as the rendering, I think it’s going to be an amazing asset to the community.”

Mark Sultana of DSDG Architects in Sarasota explained, “I was tasked with designing a hotel that would look as low-scale as possible” and reflect the 1960s era Sarasota School of Architecture look.

More project details

As attorney Scott E. Rudacille of the Bradenton firm Blalock Walters pointed out, the hotel would have six stories, two of which would be used for parking. The hotel would be surrounded by properties zoned Residential Multi-Family 3, which allows for short-term vacation rentals that could be just one day, he noted.

“All the rooms face into an internal courtyard,” Sultana pointed out of the design, with the restaurant — what he called “the noisy part of the hotel” — on the side adjacent to Midnight Pass Road.

Additionally, he said, at the recommendation of residents with whom Balot had met, a driveway parallel to the road has been incorporated into the design, so Uber and Lyft drivers, as well as free ride services on the island, can get off the road to drop off or pick up passengers.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler asked how close a Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) stop is to the site, as the Siesta Key Breeze trolley loads and unloads passengers at those stops.

Speaking on behalf of SCAT personnel, Paula Wiggins, the county’s transportation planning manager, replied that a SCAT stop is next to the hotel site. However, in response to another question from Ziegler, Wiggins said SCAT staff generally does not permit any of its vehicles to pull of the road. “People just don’t want to allow transit and trolleys to utilize the roadways,” she added — or, as Ziegler put it, drivers typically would be unwilling to let the trolley back into the travel lane after it exited the road.

In response to yet another comment that Ziegler had made, attorney Rudacille said that one of the stipulations accompanying the draft resolution of approval for the Special Exceptions calls for Balot to build a SCAT shelter at the stop Wiggins had mentioned.

Yet another stipulation that residents sought during the Sept. 1 Planning Commission hearing was added, Rudacille said. That calls for an 8-foot concrete wall, instead of a 6-foot structure, to separate the hotel site from the Gulf and Bay Club condominium complex to the north of the property.

In keeping with the character of the Key

In introducing himself to the county commissioners during the Oct. 26 public hearing, Balot repeated what he told Neighborhood Workshop attendees and the Planning Commission: “I’m not a developer.”

He added that he has been a county resident for 20 years. “I co-own and manage three other businesses on Siesta Key,” he said, one of which is the Siesta Key Beach Resort and Suites.

“My goal is to build a hotel that keeps the character of Siesta Key,” he continued.

His project, Balot said, entails 52 rooms per acre, “significantly less density” planned in the two hotels that the commissioners approved last year.

The eight-story hotel on four parcels comprising 0.96 acres between Beach Road and Calle Miramar would have 170 rooms; the seven-story hotel proposed for the intersection of Old Stickney Point Road and Peacock Road would contain about 120 rooms.

He plans to operate his hotel, Balot said, and his children will work there with him.

During traffic consultant Domingo’s remarks, he told the board members that, by right, as a parcel zoned Commercial General, the hotel site could be home to much more intense uses, including a retail center with 21,500 square feet. Such a business facility would generate 400 more trips during the peak afternoon drive time than the hotel would, Domingo stressed.

County staff did not require a traffic study as part of the application process, Domingo noted, but he undertook two, he said. The first analyzed scenarios reflecting continued use of a traffic signal at the nearby intersection of Beach Road. The second looked at conditions with a roundabout in place, as the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has scheduled such a project there starting in 2023.

Residents continue to voice concerns

Seven members of the public addressed the commissioners during the hearing, most of them representing the nonprofit Siesta Key Coalition. That organization was established in response to the 2020 announcement of plans for the first high-rise hotel — the one that would face Calle Miramar on the edge of Siesta Village.

Many of them also commended Balot for his community engagement.

The attorney for the Coalition — Patricia A. Petruff of the Bradenton firm Dye, Harrison, Kirkland, Petruff & Platt — said, “Mr. Balot was more transparent with the citizens than the [agents for] the other two high-rise hotels.”
Nonetheless, she continued, “As always, everybody’s never happy about everything.”

Pointing out that litigation is underway to try to stop the construction of those other hotels, she asked the commissioners to table the hearing or at least require more stipulations of Balot and his team.

(Balot told the News Leader in August that, if he won County Commission approval of his hotel, he planned to await the resolution of those lawsuits before taking any steps toward construction. Both of those complaints are scheduled for trial in 2023.)

Further, Petruff cited ongoing concerns of Coalition leaders in regard to setbacks for structures proposed to be higher than 35 feet on parcels zoned Commercial General, and she questioned the validity of the traffic studies.

“I think the numbers for traffic are skewed because of the nature of a barrier island,” she said.

Other speakers also focused on the setback issue, even though — as Petruff put it — architect Sultana had created a “wedding cake-type design,” to ensure the floors above 35 feet would be farther from the street.

The final speaker was a former county planner, Dana Gourley, who focused on the county Comprehensive Plan policy that has been at the heart of residents’ complaints since the first hotel project was proposed.

Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1, Gourley pointed out, limits the number of residential dwelling units on the county’s barrier islands to the figure in place as of March 13, 1989. “It has been the most effective growth management tool,” she said.

The primary basis for the policy, she reminded the commissioners, was to ensure that residents would be able to evacuate the island in the event a hurricane was approaching.

(The project team for the Calle Miramar hotel won County Commission approval of an amendment to the county’s Unified Development Code, which contains all of the county’s land-use and zoning regulations. That modification eliminated the counting of hotel rooms for residential density purposes countywide.)

The models showing Hurricane Ian’s track put it coming ashore in the Tampa region, Gourley told the commissioners. That remained the case within 24 hours of the storm’s landfall, she stressed. Then, she continued, “There was a 75-mile shift within 24 hours,” with Ian essentially following the track of Hurricane Charley in 2004.

“It is so paramount to keep this growth control on the barrier islands,” Gourley added of Policy 2.9.1. “It was good for 30 years. It is such a lifeline for the next 30 years.”

Other speakers expressed concerns that Balot has made promises that are not noted in the project stipulations.

However, Chair Alan Maio explained that county staff has a number of standard development requirements in place that are not repeated from one Binding Development Concept Plan to another.

Shortly before their vote of approval for the hotel project, Commissioner Ziegler again referenced Balot’s efforts to work with residents and leaders of Siesta Key organizations to modify his plans to make them more acceptable.

“I never thought I would actually say this,” Ziegler began at one point, but if Siesta Key were to become incorporated, Ziegler continued, Balot might have success if he ran for mayor.

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