Speakers talk of potential for legal action against the county
This time, faced with a proposal for an 83-foot-tall, 120-room hotel on Old Stickney Point Road on Siesta Key — and a five-story, 54-foot parking garage between that street and Stickney Point Road — Sarasota County Commissioner Christian Ziegler joined three of his board colleagues in a vote of approval.
Once again, Commissioner Nancy Detert cast a “No” vote, though she did point out that she has heard a number of people in Venice and other parts of South County, where her district lies, express support for hotels on Siesta Key.
Ziegler explained that, unlike the proposal for the 170-room, 80-foot-tall hotel planned on Calle Miramar, on the edge of Siesta Village — which he and Detert opposed last week — he finds that the hotel and garage that chiropractor and businessman Dr. Gary Kompothecras will construct to be appropriate for what Kompothecras calls “the South Bridge Area” of Siesta Key.
“I think there’s a big difference between the [Siesta] Village area and this specific area,” Ziegler added. “I’m very familiar with both areas.”
As with the Oct. 27 votes on the Calle Miramar proposal — and a related change in the county’s Unified Development Code of land-use and zoning regulations — Commissioner Michael Moran made the motions on Nov. 2, calling for approval of Kompothecras’ projects. And, just as he did with the Oct. 27 motions, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger did the seconding on Nov. 2. Thus, the board vote on Nov. 2 was 4-1, instead of the 3-2 decision recorded on Oct. 27.
Early on during the hearing this week, Chair Alan Maio urged the audience members to be quiet and respectful of each other as the hearing proceeded, so the audio and video recordings of all the testimony would be clear. He indicated that that was especially necessary because of the prospect of a lawsuit in the aftermath of the Oct. 27 hearing.
A number of speakers also talked of potential legal action, including an attorney who lives in the Marina Del Sol condominium complex that will be the eastern neighbor of Kompothecras’ hotel.
Julie Wright Halbert stressed that the proposals before the commissioners necessitated their attention “and careful consideration” that day, “not after protracted, costly litigation for all involved.”
Moreover, Mark Spiegel, president of the Siesta Key Coalition, told the commissioners, “The reason this room isn’t full today is not because they don’t care. They feel disenfranchised; they feel unheard.”
Instead of attending the Nov. 2 hearing, he added, people are putting more of their focus on the initiative to incorporate Siesta Key as its own municipality, or they are working on plans for litigation.
The nonprofit was organized in the early summer of 2020 to oppose proposed island hotels that would exceed the existing zoning standards on Siesta Key. The maximum height for any property in the Commercial General and Commercial Intensive zones on the island is 35 feet. Kompothecras’ hotel will be built on property zoned Commercial General, while the garage will be constructed on a Commercial Intensive parcel.
Additionally, the zoning regulations say the maximum number of hotel rooms on land zoned for commercial use is 26 per acre, if no kitchens are included in them. Thus, Kompothecras’ project team was seeking Special Exceptions to exceed those restrictions.
By count of The Sarasota News Leader, 33 people addressed the commission during the Nov. 2 hearing, compared to the total of 45 during the Calle Miramar hotel hearing on Oct. 27. Again this week, the majority of those who spoke voiced opposition to the projects.
Pointing to the provisions of the County Code
During the Nov. 2 proceeding, numerous members of the public stressed the compatibility criteria that the county’s Unified Development Code requires the commissioners to consider in granting a Special Exception.
Daniel DeLisi, a decades-long land-use planner working as a consultant for the Siesta Key Coalition, emphasized of the hearing, “This is not about whether you want hotels … or whether you like the applicant.” County Planning Division staff members did a good job in their report to the board in advance of the hearing, DeLisi continued, but they did not articulate those points during their presentation that morning, DeLisi added.
Nonetheless, he said, “It is incumbent upon the applicant to prove their case. They have never addressed those criteria.”
Susan Schoettle, who pointed out that she has been a land-use attorney for more than 30 years, concurred with DeLisi.
“This is not a beauty contest,” she told the commissioners. Reading from Section 124-43 of the Unified Development Code (UDC), she said, “The application shall include information necessary to demonstrate that the grant of Special Exception will promote the public health, safety and welfare, be in harmony with the general intent and purpose of this UDC, will not be injurious to the neighborhood or to adjoining properties, or otherwise detrimental to the public welfare.”
“It’s the applicant’s duty to prove this, to document it, to demonstrate it,” Schoettle emphasized. “And I believe that in this case, the applicant has failed in that.”
She again referenced the clause that said that the granting of a Special Exception “cannot be injurious to adjoining properties.”
By its very nature, she continued, a Special Exception is supposed to apply to special situations. “They have not demonstrated that they … will not cause injury,” she added of the project team members.
Further, Schoettle noted, “The citizens do get to have a say, and it’s on equal footing with the experts’ [testimony].”
During the project team’s rebuttal, attorney Charles D. Bailey III of the Williams Parker firm in Sarasota told the commissioners that the 20-minute allowance for the applicant’s presentation did not afford the team sufficient time to address the compatibility issues. However, he stressed, “We have a very thorough analysis of both Special Exceptions, which are contained in the record.”
Many of the speakers also voiced alarm about the potential of a 120-room hotel on the narrow, two-lane Old Stickney Point Road.
“This is a local, non-arterial street with a single point of ingress and egress onto Midnight Pass Road,” attorney Halbert pointed out. Additionally, she said, referring to the nearby intersection with Midnight Pass Road, “It is the most congested traffic area on the Key.” Old Stickney Point Road has 87 households and 175 residents, she noted.
All of the persons who live on Old Stickney Point Road and the adjacent streets — including Peacock Road and Sabal Drive — have to use Old Stickney Point Road to get to their homes and to get out of the neighborhood, she continued.
“You owe an obligation to us to protect us,” Halbert told the commissioners. “People are trapped in these side roads.”
Nancy Leonard, another Marina Del Sol resident, added, “Traffic on that road is intolerable.” Noting that she is 84, she said that if the hotel were built, “I may never get out of there.”
Halbert and others also noted that the sidewalk, which is only on one side of the street, is narrow, so people tend to walk down the middle of Old Stickney Point Road.
Christopher Hatton, a principal of the Kimley-Horn consulting firm and a member of the project team, said during the rebuttal that Kompothecras plans to improve the sidewalk on Old Stickney Point Road and install what the Florida Department of Transportation calls a Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacon system at a crosswalk for pedestrians to use to traverse Midnight Pass Road to reach Beach Access 12.
Making their positions clear
After making the first motion, calling for approval of the Special Exceptions for the hotel, Commissioner Moran said, “I do feel that I represent a large portion of the residents and taxpayers of Sarasota County — not just District 1; all of Sarasota County.”
People who live in the unincorporated areas of the county, he continued, have family members, friends and business associates who like to come to the area to visit. “Frankly, some of them are surprised and even shocked,” Moran continued, “that the No. 1 beach in the country just lacks a luxury hotel presence.”
Referencing the comments about the compatibility criteria, Moran added, “I think we’re well within our findings of fact and authority to [approve the Special Exceptions].”
Commissioner Cutsinger pushed back against speakers that day who continued to assert that the hotel would violate Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1 in the county’s Comprehensive Plan, which restricts residential density to a baseline set in 1989.
Last week, the commissioners approved an amendment to the Unified Development Code (UDC) that eliminates consideration of residential density for commercial uses, including hotels. A former county planner who is an attorney in Sarasota — Robert Lincoln — testified during the Oct. 27 hearing, “The commercial districts [on the barrier islands] were not included in the density analysis [for the 1989 version of the Comprehensive Plan]. There was no requirement that you treat hotels as residential density.”
In explaining his viewpoints on Nov. 2, Cutsinger said that the county Planning Division staff found the Calle Miramar hotel project team’s UDC amendment to be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan. In fact, Cutsinger added, the Planning staff recommended that the board members approve the change in the UDC.
Then Cutsinger addressed testimony that the commission last week set a precedent that will enable more hotels to be built on Siesta Key. (Spiegel of the Siesta Key Coalition told the board members on Nov. 2 that he understands that at least two other hotel proposals already are in the works.)
“I think it’s important to note that Special Exceptions are taken individually,” Cutsinger said, “and they do not set a precedent.”
He added, “I think we would expect something commercial to go on very valuable property on Siesta Key.”
Further, Cutsinger talked of the fact that a number of other uses could be made of Kompothecras’ property on Old Stickney Point Road and Stickney Point Road, including destination bars, which would draw guests from a wide area, as speakers had pointed out that day.
“I can imagine what kinds of problems that would bring to the area,” Cutsinger said of such businesses, “and none of those would have to come before us for permission.”
When he considered other potential construction on the parcels, he added, the hotel “is a much better use in terms of the impact.”
As for the parking garage: “If there’s anything all of us can agree on,” Cutsinger pointed out, “parking is a problem on Siesta Key.” The 101 spaces that will be designated for the public in that new facility will be a benefit, he said.
During her comments, Commissioner Detert acknowledged, “I think we’re probably overdue for a hotel on Siesta Key. To me, the question is what kind of hotel. … I worry that we are going to be in danger of killing the golden goose. It’s our job to protect the beauty, the ambience of a very beautiful place. … I mean, I’m still getting over being mad from last week, and, boom, here’s Hotel No. 2 this week, and there’ll be more.”
(On Dec. 2, the county’s Planning Commission is scheduled to conduct a public hearing on the third proposal for a new Siesta hotel. That one would contain about 100 rooms; it would be built on property located at 5810 Midnight Pass Road, where a Wells Fargo bank operated for years.)
Detert continued, “What bothers me is the policy,” referencing the UDC text amendment that the majority of her colleagues approved on Oct. 27. “I cannot support this policy. I really think that we should have worked with the community partners on Siesta Key. … I feel that when we sit here and let attorneys for petitioners write our rules, that we have abdicated our responsibility and our duties.”
“I would hope,” she added, “that, as a board, to show some leadership, that we would instruct our county administrator to bring staff together with the participants in these issues … and come up with a policy that we wrote that was not written by somebody that had a financial interest [in it].”
In discussing other reasons he was willing to support Kompothecras’ plans, Commissioner Ziegler talked of the fact that the project team showed the board a map indicating the number of residential properties in close proximity to the hotel site that are rented regularly through online platforms such as Vrbo.com and Airbnb. “I think [the hotel will] help alleviate that a little bit,” Ziegler said.
Further, he referenced remarks of Robert “Bo” Medred of Genesis Planning & Development in Bradenton, a member of Kompothecras’ team, in regard to the plans for capturing stormwater in the area and funneling it into an underground vault where it will be treated before being released into the watershed.
“We should always applaud that [type of environmental action],” Ziegler said.
Then, noting comments about other potential uses, by right, on the site of the hotel, Ziegler said he recalled going to one of the nightclubs that previously stood there — possibly Club Phoenix — when he first came to the county in 2006, when he was in his 20s. “That place was crazy,” he added, saying he believed island residents were not happy about its operations. “I’d rather see a luxury hotel in that spot,” Ziegler told the audience.
Speaking last, as is the commission’s practice for the board chair, Commissioner Maio said he felt that Moran and Cutsinger “summarizing things pretty well, and Ziegler “is really just verbalizing a lot of the things we’re all thinking.”
Maio did add that he felt Commissioner Detert “spoke, I think, pretty darn eloquently,” even though he was going to vote differently.
Maio then stressed the fact that the project team will have to work with county staff on what is called the “site and development process,” during which the wide array of facets of the actual construction of the hotel and parking garage will be reviewed before winning final county staff approval.
He, too, concurred that the Old Stickney Point Road property was a good location for a hotel.