Assistant county zoning administrator raises ‘stepback’ issue in formal comments on new plans for high-rise hotel on Siesta Key’s Calle Miramar

Issue has been controversial since 2021, when County Commission ended up approving two high-rise hotels for island

This is the proposed Binding Development Concept Plan for the new version of a hotel on Calle Miramar. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In early January, upon review of a preliminary application with revised plans for a high-rise hotel on Siesta Key’s Calle Miramar, Sarasota County’s assistant zoning administrator questioned whether the project team had tried to qualify Beach Road as a street yard in an attempt to circumvent the county’s requirement for stepping back the building height as it exceeds the county maximum on the site, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

In a Jan. 4 county document, James Ehrmann of the Zoning Division noted that that appears to be a factor of the plan’s proposal for “a non-ingress/egress easement along … Beach Road … This will affect the design of the structure and the required stepbacks for height.”

In the same document that contains Ehrmann’s comments, Douglas Sines of the Transportation Planning Division wrote that access to the hotel from Calle Miramar “will be consolidated to one ingress and one egress.”

Last year, the county lost two legal cases in regard to the County Commission’s October 2021 approval of an eight-story, 170-room hotel on the same four parcels shown in the new plans. Subsequently, the attorney for the developers filed another, preliminary application with county staff in October 2023, with the hope that proposed amendments to the county’s Comprehensive Plan will enable them to construct their revised project. The hotel would stand about 80 feet above what is called “design flood elevation.” The latter term, used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), references elevation required above ground level in an effort to protect structures built in floodplains from being damaged during storm events.

On Jan. 4, the members of the county’s Development Review Coordination (DRC) group, who analyze land-use applications to ensure they comply with all applicable policies and regulations, considered the revised plans for the Calle Miramar hotel, as shown in a document that the News Leader received through a public records request.

In his comments, Ehrmann of Zoning pointed out that the setbacks for side and rear yards must be increased at a ratio of 1 foot for each 4 feet of additional building height, “in excess of the permitted maximum height.”

The hotel is proposed to stand on four parcels zoned Commercial General (CG) in the Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD) zoning regulations. The property lies between Beach Road and Calle Miramar. The maximum height on CG parcels is 35 feet, unless the County Commission approves a Special Exception to allow a structure to exceed that.

This is the site proposed for the hotel; it has not changed since the 2021 application won approval of the County Commission. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Ehrmann added, “Provide detailed narrative and calculations showing that these requirements are met and clearly illustrate [them] on the binding [Development Concept Plan].”

Further, Ehrmann asked that the applicants provide renderings to county staff that make clear the “setbacks and stepbacks of the structure.” That section of his comments pointed out, “The scale, design, architectural aesthetics, and other features of the structure are all pertinent to ensuring the request is compatible with the surrounding areas, per the requirements of the findings of fact for a [Special Exception petition to be granted].”

The stepback issue has been controversial among Siesta Key residents since the first high-rise hotel proposals were publicized in 2020.

In January 2022, Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson appeared before the County Commission to seek direction on whether the board members wanted staff to proceed with processing a number of county-initiated updates of the Unified Development Code (UDC), which contains all of the land-use and zoning regulations.

Among the items on a chart she showed the commissioners was a proposed amendment including the requirement for greater street setbacks for structures standing taller than 35 feet on parcels zoned CG.

Thompson told the County Commission that staff had determined that language in the 1975 Zoning Code regarding those greater street setbacks for higher buildings inadvertently was left out of a later revision of the regulations.

The 1975 code said that for every 4 feet of height above 35 feet in a CG zone, an extra foot of setback on the sides and the rear of a structure would be necessary.

If the commissioners authorized staff to proceed with the proposed UDC amendment to reinsert that setback requirement, Thompson added, then the two high-rise hotels that the board members approved in late 2021 would be nonconforming. However, Thompson said that the UDC amendment could not be applied retroactively to the hotels.

The commissioners ended up voting unanimously to authorize staff to work on that amendment, as The Sarasota News Leader reported.

The official minutes of the Jan. 25 meeting, shown on the county website, confirmed the accuracy of the News Leader’s report.

Yet, during a September 2022 county Planning Commission hearing, when the stepback issue arose in regard to a third hotel planned to stand taller than 35 feet on CG property on Siesta Key, Thompson told the planning commissioners that the county commissioners “requested additional analysis of that [proposed UDC amendment] and did not suggest it go forward at that time.”

The 2021 Planning Commission debate

During the 2021 Planning Commission hearing on the Calle Miramar hotel, Todd Dary, now manager of the county’s Planning Department, and Zoning Administrator Thompson both asserted that opponents of the original Calle Miramar hotel plans were incorrect in how they were interpreting county regulations regarding setbacks.

Sarasota attorney William Merrill III explained to the Planning Commission that the project team had received “a determination from the county” that made it clear that a 20-foot side yard setback was all that was necessary. “The underlying [Commercial General] zoning district requires us to do 20 feet [for that]. So that trumps the 11 feet, 3 inches,” he said, referring to the extra setback from neighboring residential structures that Siesta residents had demanded, based on their reading of the applicable section of the UDC.

Dary pointed out that the setback requirements are divided into two parts. One applies to the zoning district, while the other applies to Special Exceptions. In other words, he added, the UDC language “says, ‘This’ or ‘this.’ … We’ve reviewed that.”

Zoning Administrator Thompson ended up coming to the podium, as well, explaining that the language regarding Special Exception petitions “does not say these restrictions in addition to the others.”

These are the sections of the Unified Development Code that Siesta residents cited in calling for greater stepbacks for the Calle Miramar hotel in 2021. The News Leader found no changes in these, in the current UDC, compared to the table and paragraph in the 2021 version of the UDC. Images courtesy Sarasota County

Mark Spiegel, a founder of the Siesta Key Coalition, which was organized to fight the construction of high-rise hotels on the barrier island, raised the stepback issue with Merrill, still a member of the Calle Miramar hotel project team, during the county-required Neighborhood Workshop on the new plans, which was conducted on Jan. 9. Merrill responded with a statement similar to the one that Thompson made to the Planning Commission members in 2021.

At one point on Jan. 9, as Spiegel questioned Merrill about Thompson’s assertion that the County Commission had decided not to allow staff to proceed with the UDC revision, Kelley Klepper, a vice president and senior planner with the Kimley-Horn consulting firm in Sarasota, who also is on that project team, reminded Spiegel that, at the outset of the meeting, Klepper had made it clear that no personal attacks would be allowed. “We don’t necessarily want to get into — I’ll call it, ‘He said, she said [discourse],’ ” Klepper added.

Spiegel responded that representatives of the Coalition had been denied the opportunity to meet with Thompson to discuss the stepback issue.

Klepper then told Spiegel that none of the project team members hosting the workshop that evening “has any control” over such requests for meetings with staff.

Given the January DRC comments on the same issue in regard to the new plans for the Calle Miramar hotel, the News Leader once again sought clarity from Thompson on the status of the stepbacks issue. She replied in a Feb. 13 email that “the applicant indicated that they would be adding some additional setbacks for height increases on the development concept plan that was submitted, and their narrative indicated that ‘the architecture of the hotel will complement and be consistent with the style of Sarasota and Siesta Key.’ Staff is requesting elevation drawings to demonstrate this additional setback for height and was merely restating the code requirements in the comments.”

(As Jorge Fontan of Fontan Architecture in New York explains, “Elevation drawings are a specific type of drawing architects use to illustrate a building or portion of a building. An Elevation is drawn from a vertical plane looking straight on to a building facade or interior surface. This is as if you directly in front of a building and looked straight at it.”)

When the News Leader then checked the current UDC regulations, it found them unchanged from those that the Siesta Key Coalition members had referenced in 2021.

A possible stipulation employing ‘South Bridge Area’ street yard setback

In his January DRC comments, Assistant Zoning Administrator Ehrmann  also pointed out, in regard to details in the preliminary hotel application, “Street yards shall be 25 feet or one-half of the building height, whichever is greater.”

He did add, “While it is not a requirement, a stipulation will be suggested that would require that the building comply with the restrictions approved for the South Bridge Area [of Siesta Key].”

This is material about the South Bridge Area in the 1999 Siesta Key Community Plan. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In April 2018, Siesta businessman Gary Kompothecras won County Commission approval — on a 3-2 vote — for a revision of the street yard setback requirement for what Kompothecras referred to as the “South Bridge Area” of the Key — the business district south of the intersection of Stickney Point Road and Midnight Pass Road. He acknowledged that he was seeking the modification to facilitate the design of a high-rise hotel he was planning on Old Stickney Point Road.

Those restrictions say, “For buildings over 35 feet in height approved by [Special Exception], the minimum street yard setback shall be [25] feet, except that the [County Commission] may, in approving the Special Exception, authorize the minimum street yard setback to be reduced to no less than [2] feet if the building is demonstrated to be compatible with surrounding properties and designed for the pedestrian scale through its height and mass and the incorporation of created design elements …”

Among the latter are façade features, “such as a prominent building entrance,” and roof elements, “such as an articulated roof line or attractive roofing materials that are visible from the street right-of-way; or [c]reative site design elements, such as public art, accent landscaping in excess of that required by County regulations, [and] offsite sidewalks along abutting street frontages in excess of that required by County regulations …”

Regarding another facet of the preliminary application materials, Ehrmann wrote in his Jan. 4 DRC comments, “[I]t is unclear where parking will be for the proposed [hotel]. Due to extremely limited parking on Siesta Key,” he added, the application must explain “compatibility of the proposed use with the surrounding area.”

During the Jan. 9, county-required Neighborhood Workshop on the revised hotel plans, Sarasota attorney Merrill noted that the new version of the Calle Miramar hotel had been designed with 163 rooms spread among 4.5 habitable floors over 2.5 levels of parking.

A chart included in the preliminary application said that the project team has proposed a total of 191 parking spaces within the hotel, with 180 of those necessary to comply with county regulations.

Further, among other DRC comments in that January document, Planner Ana Messina, who reviewed the application on behalf of the Long-Range Planning staff, noted that, unless Comprehensive Plan amendments that Benderson Development Co. has proposed win approval, the hotel, as planned, would not be allowed on the 0.96-acre site, as the maximum density for hotels and motels on property zoned CG/SKOD is 26 per acre.