Circuit Court judge agrees to oral arguments in Siesta Promenade lawsuit in early October

Benderson Development wins county tree permit to begin clearing of site at U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road

Circuit Court Judge Andrea McHugh. Image from the 12th Judicial Circuit Court website

Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Andrea McHugh has agreed to oral arguments in a case challenging the Sarasota County Commission’s approval of the Siesta Promenade project.

A hearing has been set for 3:30 p.m. on Oct. 10 in the Judge Lynn N. Silvertooth Judicial Center in downtown Sarasota, the case docket shows.

Additionally, The Sarasota News Leader has learned that county staff on Aug. 15 issued the necessary tree permit for the clearing of the Siesta Promenade site to begin.

In an Aug. 21 order, McHugh wrote, “Having carefully considered Petitioner’s motion, the case file, and the applicable law, the Court finds that hearing oral argument would assist the Court in this case.”

McHugh was referring to a motion filed on July 31 by Ralf Brookes of Cape Coral, attorney for Pine Shores Estates resident Sura Kochman. Brookes explained that, given the complexity of the Siesta Promenade lawsuit, which involves multiple issues and numerous commission votes of approval in December 2018, “The court would benefit from the presentation of oral argument in this case and the opportunity to ask questions and [seek] clarification …”

McHugh had given the parties “no later than forty-five (45) days after the date of this [Aug. 21] order” to agree on when the oral arguments would be conducted. In her Aug. 29 order, she explained that the parties were able to provide only two dates of availability within the 45-day timeframe, but she was not available on either of them. Therefore, she extended the deadline and set the hearing for Oct. 10, she added.

Along with Sarasota County, Benderson Development — the primary firm behind the Siesta Promenade proposal — and an affiliate of Benderson that actually is handling the project — Siesta 41 Associates LLP — are involved in the case. McHugh allowed the two companies to intervene. They are represented by attorney Robert Lincoln, whose eponymous firm is located in Sarasota.

McHugh also noted in her Aug. 29 order that each side, not each party, would have 20 minutes to argue before the court during the hearing.

In early January, Brookes filed the Petition for Writ of Certiorari on behalf of Kochman, seeking to overturn the commission’s decision to allow the mixed-use development to be constructed on approximately 24 acres in the northwest quadrant of the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road. Pine Shores Estates is immediately adjacent to the site.

This is the Binding Development Concept Plan for Siesta Promenade approved by the county Planning Commission and the County Commission. Image courtesy Sarasota County

For years, as Benderson Development Co. and Siesta 41 Associates LLP worked to refine plans for Siesta Promenade, Kochman argued for a much less intensive project. Benderson did modify its proposal from a concentration on retail development to a plan with a mix of uses. Yet, instead of planning for no more than 13 dwelling units per acre, which would have been the maximum allowed on the site after the County Commission rezoned it to a Commercial General district, Benderson also sought approval of a Critical Area Plan (CAP) for its proposal. With the commission having approved the CAP, as well, the developer could build up to 25 dwelling units per acre. Benderson plans 414 apartments/condominiums, along with a 130-room hotel, 133,000 square feet of retail space and 7,000 square feet of office space.

Kochman has maintained that the resulting flow of traffic into the neighborhood — to avoid the already heavily congested area of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road — plus construction of buildings as tall as 65 and 80 feet next to mostly single-family homes are violations of county policy requiring new development to be compatible with existing uses.

As for the tree permit: In response to a News Leader request for details, County Media Relations Specialist Brianne Grant reported on Aug. 23 that it was approved “for removal of trees addressed in this phase of site development (infrastructure removal and septic tanks).”

An engineering drawing in the demolition materials shows details about areas to be cleared, including tree species, as a consultant to Benderson Development has proposed. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Earlier, Benderson and Siesta 41 Associates received a minor earthmoving permit from the county, so workers could rid the site of the septic tanks, as well as asphalt and concrete pads and roads associated with a trailer park that stood on the property for many years.

Grant added that the tree permit included the following stipulations: “All trees barricaded are to be protected,” and replanting requirements have been listed “for the completed developed parcel.”

On Aug. 26, the News Leader contacted WRA Engineering of University Park, which was identified on both the tree and minor earthmoving permit applications, to ask when the site clearing would begin. A spokesman said he did not have the details, but he would relay the request for information to the person in charge of the scheduling. He did indicate he was not certain that the person would provide the details to the publication. The News Leader did not receive a call with the information.

Further, Grant wrote in the Aug. 23 email, staff told her, “The issued permit will be amended (with necessary fees and required documents) as further development phases are reviewed and approved through [the county’s Site and Development and the Land Development Regulations divisions].”

This is a closeup view of one section of the tree boundary diagram for the Siesta Promenade site. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In comments to Siesta Key Association members in May, attorney Brookes explained that, typically, construction of a project will not begin until after litigation has been completed.

Todd Mathes, Benderson’s director of development, has pointed out in public meetings and in documentation provided to county staff that the company is planning on the build-out of Siesta Promenade taking several years.