Neighborhood Workshop participants also argue against project team’s desire to eliminate residential density calculations for hotels on barrier islands in county jurisdiction
Close to the end of a nearly two-and-a-half-hour Neighborhood Workshop this week on a proposed 170-room hotel on the edge of Siesta Village, the president of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA) summed up the proceedings.
Explaining that her organization represents “neighborhoods and neighbors,” Kafi Benz of Sarasota said, “I … would like to note we did not have a single participant who was supportive of the project.”
“I didn’t [hear one], either!” Attorney William Merrill III of the Icard Merrill law firm in Sarasota, one of the representatives of the development team, responded to Benz with a laugh on Jan. 11.
The New York City owner of the four parcels located between Calle Miramar and Beach Road, and the long-time lessee of the property — RE/MAX real estate agent Robert Anderson of Sarasota — plan a five-story hotel constructed over three levels of parking. That would put the hotel’s height at 80 feet above Base Flood Elevation, which is a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) term for construction in a flood zone, Merrill pointed out.
Along with a Special Exception from the County Commission for the hotel to exceed the 35-foot height limit for construction in a Commercial General zoning district in the Siesta Key Overlay District — SKOD — the team will seek a Special Exception to allow transient accommodations on the property. “Transient accommodations” is the county term for a hotel or motel.
The hotel will have a restaurant that will serve breakfast and lunch for guests, and it will have a bar with the restaurant on the fourth floor, as well as a bar on the roof, along with the pool, Merrill said. In response to questions about whether the bars would be open to the public, Merrill told speakers he would have to check with the ownership group. However, he stressed that the operator of the hotel would ensure that noise emanating from the rooftop bar would not exceed county limits or disturb neighbors. The operator would not want noise complaints from guests, Merrill stressed.
Further, the project team is calling for an elimination of the county regulations that count each hotel room without a kitchen as half a residential dwelling unit. The team’s proposed amendments to the county’s Comprehensive Plan and the Unified Development Code (UDC), which contains all of the county’s land-development and zoning regulations, would apply countywide, Merrill explained during the workshop.
A Commercial General zone allows for 13 dwelling units per acre; thus, a hotel without kitchens in its rooms could have up to 26 rooms per acre. The Calle Miramar hotel site comprises 0.96 acres, according to the formal application filed with Sarasota County staff.
Research undertaken by the project team found that Siesta Key is the only barrier island within the county’s jurisdiction with commercial property zoning districts where “transient accommodations” could be built, Merrill said during the workshop. Thus, he added, the amendments would not apply to Casey Key or Manasota Key.
Lourdes Ramirez, a past president of both the Siesta Key Association and CONA, noted the residential density proposal in pointing out that the policy the project team wants to amend was put in place in 1989. It “was created by the county commissioners back then because they recognized that the barrier islands could not handle any more intensity.”
The commissioners considered the need to evacuate the island when hurricanes approach, realizing that flooding occurs, she told Merrill.
Yet, Ramirez continued, the hotel’s residential density essentially would be six-and-a-half times what would be allowed on the Commercial General site. The island’s infrastructure, she said, “just can’t handle it.”
“Here it is, 30 years later,” she added, and “the storms are worse [and more frequent].”
She was unsure, Ramirez said, how the project team could convince the County Commission “that this [proposal] is a good thing.”
Another workshop speaker, Frank Jurenka, president of the Siesta Key Condominium Council, told Merrill and Kelley Klepper, senior planner and project manager for the Kimley-Horn consulting firm — another member of the team — that when the Council undertook a survey on the preliminary hotel project application submitted to county staff in May 2020, “One hundred percent of the respondents opposed [the plans].”
Jurenka noted that the Condominium Council represents approximately 90% of the more than 100 condominium associations on Siesta Key, or about 7,000 of the approximately 10,000 condominium and household doors, as Jurenka put it.
The Council sent the results of that survey to the hotel project team, Jurenka added. “So why did you press forward with something unnecessarily large requesting so many exceptions and revisions to our barrier island protections, when we have yet to meet anyone that is not opposed [to this]?” Jurenka asked Merrill.
Moreover, Jurenka noted, last November, when the County Commission heard a report on the 2020 Citizen Opinion Survey, the University of South Florida group that handled the initiative reported that the most important issue for county residents was “Population growth/new development,” as voiced by 26% of the survey respondents. Additionally, Jurenka referred to the survey question regarding gaps between what respondents expect and what they experience. The issue with the biggest gap was “Traffic flow specific to the barrier islands,” he said.
Based on 50 to 60 presentations made to community groups in the spring and early summer of 2020, Jurenka continued, RE/MAX agent Anderson “claims all [the responses from Siesta residents about the hotel plans] were positive. … Who are these supporters?”
“We recognize that there are folks that are opposed to this,” Merrill replied. “We have heard some from folks that are favorable to this, as well. I don’t know what the numbers are, though.”
Merrill added, “Sometimes people are afraid to speak up in groups.” Nonetheless, Merrill told Jurenka, “We will take your comments into account.”
Yet another participant in the workshop, Siesta Key Association Director Joyce Kouba, pointed out that, according to county policies and regulations, the hotel plans must comply with specific standards to win the Special Exceptions the team is requesting of the County Commission. Among those provisions is Article 5, Section 124-43 of the UDC, which says in part, “The proposed use, singularly or in combination with other Special Exceptions, must not be detrimental to the health, safety, morals, order, comfort, convenience, or appearance of the neighborhood or other adjacent uses by reason of any one or more of the following: the number, area, location, height, orientation, intensity or relation to the neighborhood or other adjacent uses;” and “The proposed use must be adequately buffered to effectively separate traffic, visual impact and noise from existing or intended nearby uses.”
“I find that the proposal is detrimental [to those standards],” Kouba stressed.
“Why do you feel that you qualify for a Special Exception?” she asked.
“We feel that we can meet those requirements,” Merrill told her. “The county staff is going to delve into [this application] very deeply … [However,] the County Commission will be the one that decides [whether to let the project go forward].”
Privacy concerns of the closest neighbors
Yet another workshop participant was Mark Spiegel, president of the Siesta Key Coalition, which was organized last summer to oppose the hotel on Calle Miramar.
“I’m your closest resident to this property,” Spiegel said, adding that he lives in the condominium building standing at 300 Calle Miramar, which is part of Beach Villas at the Oasis. “My driveway’s immediately adjacent to the [hotel site’s] eastern property line,” Spiegel noted.
The Coalition has about 2,000 member households on the island, he continued, along with the alliance of the SKA and the Condominium Council.
The hotel would be twice the height of his building, Spiegel told Merrill. “We’re four stories.” By his reckoning, given the need for the hotel to be constructed above the Base Flood Elevation, Spiegel added, it will be about 95 feet tall.
Then Spiegel noted a rendering of the hotel that shows balconies on the rooms facing his condominium complex. “You’re going to be looming over our pools,” he told Merrill.
Moreover, Spiegel said, his view of the Gulf of Mexico would be “wiped out” by the hotel, hurting his property values.
John Battles, another Beach Villas resident, concurred with Spiegel about the privacy concerns. “There’s going to be an entire wall of balconies and windows basically overlooking … a very private place.”
Merrill said he was not certain whether the balconies in the rendering are just an architectural design or whether guests would be able to go out on them.
Further, Battles pointed out, if the hotel’s rooftop bar is open to the public, “It will obviously be the destination in all of Sarasota County,” because of the view it will afford.
“The intention is that we’re focusing on the guests,” Merrill told him. The hotel will be a “very high-end” property. “Everything’s supposed to be top of the line.” Therefore, Merrill emphasized, the goal would be to limit noise so as not to cause problems for the guests or the neighbors.
On another point, Spiegel referred to language in the formal application the team submitted to county staff in December 2020, which said, “Multi-story multi-family uses are located to the Property’s east, many of which are utilized as Short Term Rentals (as defined in UDC Section 124-301; also known as ‘Vacation Rentals’).” The application added, “A cursory search of www.vrbo.com and www.airbnb.com reveal that Numerous Short Term Rentals are located adjacent and in close proximity to the Property.”
That was not true, Spiegel maintained. Having researched the facts, he continued, he had found that the six condominium complexes closest to the hotel site have approximately 150 residential units. “Only about 5 to 6% of these actually rent [units],” and the minimum rental periods typically are 30 to 60 days. “These are … not vacation rentals,” Spiegel asserted.
On another point, Spiegel noted that Calle Miramar is “a fairly quiet residential area.” Yet, hotel guests will be coming in by personal vehicle, taxis and Ubers, for example, and that will have an effect on the traffic flow on the street.
“We feel that this is a compatible use and a compatible structure,” Merrill replied, referring to the hotel.
A traffic analysis is required by county staff, Merrill pointed out, though that had not been completed prior to this week’s workshop. After it has been submitted to county staff, Merrill said, it will be available to the public for review.
“We do not anticipate [hotel] traffic going into the neighborhood,” Merrill said.
Nonetheless, Spiegel countered, the intersection of Ocean Boulevard and Beach Road, which is close to the hotel site, is one of the busiest on the Key, and it has a Level of Service rating that is near or at the bottom of the Florida Department of Transportation scale. (“Level of Service” refers to how drivers perceive the flow of traffic on a street or road. The ratings are comparable to report card grades, with “F” being the worst.)
Cars “are stacked up” on Beach Road trying to get into the Village, especially during high tourist season, Spiegel said. Yet, the hotel plans call for 223 more parking spaces.
Those vehicles will not be coming to the hotel all at one time, Merrill responded, adding that he guaranteed that the extra traffic on Calle Miramar would be “significantly lower — way, way below — the 223.”
(Merrill had explained that even though county regulations require 187 spaces to accommodate the hotel use, the project team added in the others for the lower-level garage, based on the demand for parking on Siesta Key.)
Moreover, Merrill said, the project team anticipates that guests will leave their vehicles at the hotel and walk to destinations in Siesta Village. “We actually think it’s a very good location,” Merrill pointed out, from which people can explore other parts of the island on foot. Further, he said, the project team understands that the goal is to have hotel shuttles available to transport guests to places on the Key and to other parts of the county.
As for the height of the hotel, Merrill continued, “There are other taller buildings in this immediate vicinity and immediate neighborhood.”
At one point, Merrill noted that the Terrace, next to Beach Access 5, comprises 17 stories, while the Terrace East complex on Ocean Boulevard has 12 stories.
“We do want to work with you guys as far as any buffering goes,” Merrill told Spiegel.
A second nearby neighbor who addressed the project team was Rodney Linford, one of the founding members of the Siesta Key Coalition and the representative, Linford noted, of a majority of the owners of the 71 units in the Terrace. Linford concurred with Spiegel in regard to traffic congestion at the Ocean Boulevard/Beach Road intersection.
A big concern, Linford continued, is that hotel guests “will probably want to access the beach” by walking over to Access 5, at the western end of Ocean Boulevard. They will have to navigate the 120-degree curve at the intersection for drivers turning north onto Ocean, Linford said. Even though the speed limit is 20 mph, many drivers and motorcyclists take that curve “at speed,” he emphasized, which poses dangers to pedestrians.
Line-of-sight issues exacerbate the situation, he continued. “I’ve witnesses several near misses,” he said, adding that he has personal experience of such incidents.
“We strongly oppose this ill-conceived project,” Linford told Merrill, “and I’ll let that statement stand.”
Merrill replied that the project team would look into the intersection issues.