New trees will have to be planted to mitigate loss of those that stood on property, county staff explains
In July 2019, Sarasota County staff approved an application submitted by a Benderson Development Co. affiliate for a minor earthmoving permit on the approximately 24-acre Siesta Promenade site.
However, before signing off on that permit, Darren Semones, a member of the county’s Environmental Division staff, wrote that before Siesta 41 Associates LLP — the official owner of the property — could allow a contractor to begin the work, the company had to apply for a tree permit. Further, he noted, that application had to be accompanied by a site plan for staff review, including a complete count of the trees that would be removed.
Siesta 41 would have to ensure that two Grand Trees, which were pines, would be protected, along with “various others shown on [the] plan that were identified by County Staff,” as noted on the application for the earthmoving permit.
The tree permit application did include a list of the six criteria for county staff to consider in granting the permit. Those are as follows:
- “The trees pose a safety hazard to pedestrian or vehicular traffic or unmanageably threaten to cause disruption to utility services.
- “The trees pose a safety hazard to people, buildings, structures, vehicles or other improvements.
- “The trees completely prevent access to a lot.
- “The trees unreasonably prevent development of a lot or the physical use thereof.
- “State or local regulations require fill to the extent that trees cannot be saved and the required elevations are certified by the project engineer.
- “The trees are diseased or are weakened by age, storm, fire, or other injury as a result of suppression by other trees or site conditions, to the extent that they have lost most of their function and value, or pose a danger to persons, property, utilities, sidewalks, sewers, other facilities, improvements or other trees, if so determined by the [county staff member charged with that responsibility], or by [the County Commission] on appeal, respectively. If is the intent of this provision that no permit may be granted for the removal of any tree if the hazard can be abated by any other reasonable means.”
Submitted by WRA Engineering of Sarasota, the application pointed out that the area that would be affected encompassed 984,456 square feet, or 22.6 acres. Todd Mathes, director of development for Benderson and the manager of the Siesta Promenade project, signed the tree permit application on July 15, 2019, county records showed.
As the 2022 holiday season was winding down, The Sarasota News Leaderlearned that a contractor was clear-cutting the Siesta Promenade site; none of the Grand Trees or other trees that Semones had noted in 2019 was being saved.
On Sept. 16, 2022, Stephen C. Scalione, manager of BG Crossroads LLC, filed a new application with the county’s Environmental Permitting staff, the News Leaderlearned through a public records request. That sought county approval for the removal of nine maple trees, 26 oaks, 55 palms, 16 pines and 17 trees of other species from the Siesta Promenade property, which is located in the northwest quadrant of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road.
On the application line regarding Protected trees, the document said, “None. Onsite grand pines are being mitigated with this tree permit.”
In response to the question about why the trees were being removed, the application added, “Removal of trees and replaced with approved [Site & Development] landscape plan for the project.”
On Sept. 12, 2022, four days before that application was submitted to county staff, Mathes, the Benderson employee who has been managing the Siesta Promenade project, sent a letter to county Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson. The subject line was “Siesta Promenade Minor Modification.”
He sought Thompson’s “confirmation that a planned modification to buildings 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13 of Siesta Promenade is minor and may be authorized administratively,” as he explained. He referred to the site plan that the County Commission approved on a 3-2 vote on Dec. 12, 2018 to allow the development to be constructed with 414 condominiums/apartments, a 130-room hotel, 133,000 square feet of retail space and 7,000 square feet of office space.
Mathes assured Thompson in the letter, with emphasis, that “No additional building area or height, and no new building reconfiguration within 100 feet of the project boundary” on any of the four sides was being proposed. Further, he continued, no net increase in the total square footage of the structures was planned; likewise, the amount of open space and buffer areas would remain the same.
The new site plan materials show that all of the buildings Mathes referenced in the letter will be of a commercial nature. Further, that document notes that only Building 9 would comprise two stories; all of the others would be one story. Their total square footage would be 132,500, the document said. None of the structures would be taller than 40 feet, the document added.
The site plan the commissioners approved in 2018 said that commercial buildings 8 through 13 would be 35 feet tall.
Thompson wrote him back on Sept. 20, 2022, assuring him that, based on her review of the materials, the proposed changes would indeed be classified as a minor modification.
Finally, on Dec. 9, 2022, county staff issued the tree permit that Scalione of BG Crossroads had sought. That document, which the News Leader also obtained through a public records request, said that staff was requiring that no trees would have to be protected. However, according to county regulations, to mitigate the removal of all of the remaining trees, 509 new trees would have to be planted, and they would have to be at least 8 feet tall and have a minimum diameter of 2 inches. The document noted that no more than 25% of all of the new trees could be cabbage palms or wax myrtles, “unless otherwise approved.”
Among the species that staff would allow on the site are laurel, live and water oaks; red maple; slash pine; Southern magnolia; Southern red cedar; Carolina ash; sweet gum; and black, buttonwood and white mangroves.
Benderson has planted royal palms on other properties that it has developed or redeveloped, including The Landings on South Tamiami Trail, which it purchased in 2017. However, the royal palm is not on the county’s approved list.
County staff issued a tree permit to Benderson on April 16, 2018 for the removal of 40 oaks and 40 palms from The Landings parking lot. The company had contended that the trees had to be taken out because some of them were dead while others had a weak structure or they were “trip hazards,” they had been planted in poor conditions, they had damaged the commercial center’s parking lot, or they would impede the necessary stormwater improvements to the site.
Benderson documentation at that time indicated that the company would replace the trees with royal palms and magnolia and holly trees.
Concerns about the clear-cutting
Through its public records request, the News Leader also learned that Sura Kochman, who led the years-long community effort to try to convince Mathes and his Benderson colleagues to reduce the intensity of the Siesta Promenade project, sent an email about the clear-cutting of the site on Dec. 29, 2022 to Patrick Liu, who is coordinator of the county’s Bicycle, Pedestrian and Trails Program.
Kochman notified him that Benderson had received the permit to clear-cut the property. “Please let me know if there is anything we can do to save the trees in the buffer area,” she wrote. “They are on site clear cutting everything,” she pointed out.
In an earlier email to Lui — which she sent in November 2022 — Kochman had reminded him about a February 2022 discussion when she had asked him if it would be possible to require Benderson to design the sidewalks on the perimeter of Siesta Promenade to go around the trees instead of running parallel to the road. Lui had responded on Dec. 2, 2022 that he had learned from Paula Wiggins, the county’s Transportation Planning Division manager, that, to her knowledge, no sidewalk plans had been submitted as of that time. After staff received those plans, Lui continued, he could offer comments about designing the sidewalk to go around the trees.
Following receipt of Kochman’s Dec. 29, 2022 email, Lui sent an email to Doug Sines, a technical specialist in the county’s Transportation Planning Division, asking, “Does the developer typically get a tree permit to remove and clear before we are able to review and comment on threes that could be protected for our needs like sidewalk shading? I am in the dark here on what’s been going on,” Lui added.
Wiggins ended up responding on Jan. 3, as Lui had copied her on his note to Sines: “This is outside of our review purview,” Wiggins wrote. He then told Lui to direct Kochman to contact the county’s Land Development Services staff.
In response to a News Leader inquiry about why county staff allowed the clear-cutting, Mark Loveridge, the county’s land development manager, and Howard Berna, manager of the Environmental Permitting Division, provided the following comments via email on Jan. 19:
“This site has both Construction Authorization and an approved tree permit. Any grand trees on-site would have been protected under Article 54 of the Code.
“The removal of the grand tree(s) was mitigated as a requirement of the permit,” the email continued.
“Grand Trees,” they added, “can be permitted for removal if it is determined that they represent either a safety issue, or if the applicant can demonstrate that setting aside the space necessary to protect a Grand Tree would unreasonably prevent the development of a lot.” They referenced Section 54-586(2)(c)(2) of the County Code.