Attendees at Neighborhood Workshop ask how they can stop the project
The potential for exacerbated traffic congestion proved the primary focus of public consternation during an Aug. 23 Neighborhood Workshop, as the director of development for Benderson Development discussed plans for Siesta Promenade.
The proposed mixed-use project would be located at the northwest corner of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road.
Over approximately three hours during the session, conducted in the Pine Shores Presbyterian Church sanctuary, about 400 attendees responded with loud rounds of applause whenever speakers noted heavy traffic on Stickney Point Road, particularly during tourist season.
After Todd Dary, manager of the Sarasota County Planning Department, opened the workshop with comments about how people can participate in the upcoming public hearing process on the Siesta Promenade application, the first question a member of the audience asked was, “What do we do to stop this thing?”
One woman told Dary, “You’re going to add 400-some houses [to the area]. … What about getting to the hospital? What about fire [and other types of emergences]? This is ridiculous, what you guys are trying to do. What you want to do is outrageous!”
“This is not my project,” Dary replied.
A woman representing the Gulf Gate Community Association expressed concern that “the volume of traffic that this will generate will back up into Gulf Gate Drive.”
Another man told Dary, “I live on Siesta Key. It is 1.3 miles down Stickney Point Road from [U.S.] 41 to my home. Last month, it took me one hour; the [Stickney Point Road] bridge did not go up once. And I don’t understand … how the county or whoever could even think about making [the road] busier.”
More applause rang out in the sanctuary.
Todd Mathes, director of development for Benderson Development, explained that the Siesta Promenade proposal comprises 414 condominiums/apartments, a 130-room hotel that will be 80 feet tall, up to 133,000 square feet of retail space and up to 7,000 square feet of office space.
Access to the site will be provided via three points on Crestwood Avenue, two on Glencoe Avenue and three on Stickney Point Road, Mathes noted.
One recommendation Benderson has for improving traffic flow, Mathes told the audience, is for the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to re-time all the signals on the U.S. 41 corridor. He estimated the number to be between 30 and 50. The department does periodic re-timing, he explained.
FDOT has advised county and Benderson staff that it would not adjust traffic signal timing just to facilitate the flow of vehicles associated with Siesta Promenade, if the project is approved and constructed.
Yet another aspect of the project that has riled residents of Pine Shores Estates — which is adjacent to the Siesta Promenade site — is the prospect of vehicles pouring into the neighborhood to avoid the heavier traffic flow on Stickney Point Road and around that road’s intersection with U.S. 41.
Sura Kochman, a leader of the Pine Shores Neighborhood Alliance, confronted Mathes about that issue.
“You told us,” Kochman said, that no Siesta Promenade traffic would flow onto the neighborhood streets. “Honestly, hand to God, you were not going to do that to the neighborhood,” she continued.
For four years, Kochman stressed, that was Mathes’ promise, as he and Benderson Development staff worked on the proposal.
The initial application filed with the county did not include access to Siesta Promenade from Glencoe Avenue, Mathes responded, “and we worked at that for quite a while.” Later, he pointed out, consultants and county staff reviewing the plans “all said the neighborhood roads would be … important, so people don’t have to go to [U.S.] 41 to get to the development.”
“You’re twisting it,” Kochman replied. “You’re saying the people from the neighborhood would want access to your development, and that is why you’re making the access points. It’s the reverse. It’s the people leaving your development. They’ll be traipsing up and down Glencoe. … You promised me personally … ‘There won’t be any traffic on Glencoe.’”
“You’re opening up a nightmare for Pine Shores,” she told him, drawing another round of applause.
How is it possible for the public to believe anything he says, Kochman asked Mathes, “because you’ll change it on the fly.”
“We’re not changing it on the fly,” he replied, adding that the county’s Planning Commission could recommend — and the County Commission could agree — to stipulations designed to keep Siesta Promenade traffic out of Pine Shores.
Another point of contention
Additionally, during their workshop exchange, Mathes initially disputed Kochman’s assertion that she never had voiced total opposition to a project on the 24-acre site Benderson purchased years ago.
If the County Commission rezoned the land to Commercial General, the county’s Zoning Administration staff has explained, then Benderson could build up to 13 dwelling units per acre. Yet, the company is seeking a Critical Area Plan (CAP) designation for Siesta Promenade, which would allow density up to 25 dwelling units per acre
Because hotel rooms count as half a dwelling unit, Kochman indicated during the Aug. 23 workshop that the company would be entitled to 350 units on the site, with the Commercial General rezoning. “Why not start there and have an honest dialogue to see if we can have a meeting of the minds?” she asked Mathes.
“I’ve always said there was flexibility with the project,” Mathes told her. “The truth is, from my perspective … that when we tried to have those discussions, they ended up with you separately communicating and advocating against the project, and we never, ever, ever reached the point where you said there was community consensus.”
“I have never advocated against the project,” Kochman stressed. “I’m against this project as presently proposed. … You are entitled to develop your property [with Commercial General zoning],” because that is the county’s Future Land Use designation for the site, she pointed out.
Finally, Mathes acknowledged that she was correct — that she had told him she was against the project “‘as proposed.’”
Yet another facet of Siesta Promenade to which people cited objections are the heights of the residential structures, especially the hotel.
When Barbara Jensen asked if the hotel would comprise eight stories, Mathes told her, “It would probably be more like six or seven stories.”
However, he conceded, “It could be [eight stories].”
Mathes also explained that Block 1 of the five blocks proposed on the site plan has been designed with a maximum height of 65 feet for residential structures. Nonetheless, the buildings within 100 feet of the Glencoe Avenue boundary would be a maximum of 40 feet, he said.
How the process will work
During the workshop, county Planner Dary also explained that the county Planning Commission tentatively is set to hold its public hearing on the project on Thursday, Oct. 4. The County Commission public hearing tentatively has been scheduled for Oct. 23, Dary added.
One woman asked how the public could trust the Planning Commission “when we see all the helter-skelter developments going on in Sarasota without any consideration for the traffic.”
A man asked whether the five county commissioners “are going to come down here and walk this property and visualize what Mr. Mathes is going to show on the [church’s TV] screens,” referring to the concept plans Benderson has filed for Siesta Promenade.
“I can’t really answer that,” Dary responded.
Another man asked, “By what process can this project be stopped?” eliciting more applause.
“All land use decisions, all land use changes, rest in the power of the County Commission,” Dary said. “The ultimate decision is by the elected officials …”
Another person asked whether the Nov. 6 General Election will have any effect on the membership of the Planning Commission, prompting more applause.
“The elections will not affect the Planning Commission,” Dary explained. The nine members of that advisory board serve two-year terms; they are appointed by the County Commission. The Planning Commission can only recommend that the County Commission approve or deny petitions, Dary added.
A woman asked why staff was holding the Neighborhood Workshop on Aug. 23, “not when everybody is here. Do you know how many part-time residents we have, because it will affect their lives [too]?”
“We cannot hold up petitions when they are ready to go to public hearing,” Dary explained. “We schedule them. That is the policy for all land use changes, petitions, in the county.”
The due process issue
During the public hearings on Siesta Promenade, Dary told the audience, every speaker generally will be allowed 5 minutes to make remarks. However, depending on the number of people signed up to address the Planning Commission or the County Commission, he noted, the time could be reduced to 3 minutes per person.
Kochman of the Pine Shores Neighborhood Alliance pointed out that the Benderson application has four distinct facets. The company is seeking designation of a Critical Area Plan (CAP), so it can increase the residential density of the project; it is seeking a rezoning of the approximately 24 acres; it has to have formal approval of the boundary of the project; and it is seeking a vacation of part of Crestwood Avenue.
“Normally, each one of those gets its own public hearing of 5 minutes,” she told Dary. “It’s the applicant’s decision to move this altogether as one application. It seems like … there’s a due process violation when the public is being limited to speak.”
Those comments prompted more applause.
“The Office of the County Attorney would disagree with you,” Dary told her. “The policy has always been, if it’s one unified project,” the commissions consider all the facets of the project at the same time. “The [County Commission] has been consistent about that,” Dary added.
The format calls for the applicant to have 20 minutes to make a presentation, he noted, and then the applicant has 5 minutes for rebuttal after public comments have been completed.
In this case, Dary said, if the County Commission were to hold separate hearings on all aspects of the Siesta Promenade application, the commissioners “would have to dedicate essentially three hours to the applicant,” plus time for the public comments. “That is not how business is conducted. It is one project; you can critique it on all [levels at one time].”
Another person asked about county requirements for the commissioners to address all the issues members of the public raise in correspondence to them.
“It’s public testimony provided to the Board of County Commissioners,” Dary replied. “So it’s for their consideration.”
If the commissioners would like for staff to address a particular issue raised in correspondence, he said, they will make that request of staff.