Circuit Court judge agrees to put Board of Zoning appeals case on hold while county staff works on amendment to Siesta Key zoning regulations

Siesta residents vow again to fight any revision that would figuratively open the door to a big new hotel on the island

Judge Frederick P. Mercurio. Image from the 12th Judicial Circuit Court website

Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Frederick P. Mercurio has granted a joint motion of Siesta Acquisitions LLC and Sarasota County to hold in abeyance a dispute over a June Board of Zoning Appeals decision regarding street setbacks for tall commercial buildings in the Siesta Key Overlay District.

In the joint motion — filed July 27 — Siesta Acquisitions and Sarasota County pointed out that the County Commission directed County Administrator Tom Harmer “to bring forward a possible amendment to the Zoning Regulations” that would make it unnecessary for every building taller than 35 feet to have a setback of at least 25 feet from the street.

Siesta Acquisitions’ principal manager is Dr. Gary Kompothecras, known for his 1-800-Ask-Gary advertising for his chiropractic clinics. Charles D. Bailey III of Sarasota, the attorney for Siesta Acquisitions, has told the Board of Zoning Appeals and the County Commission that the limited liability company is interested in building a hotel on Old Stickney Point Road, where Kompothecras already owns some commercial property.

In their joint motion, the company and the county agreed that late October would be the earliest the County Commission would be likely to take final action on a revision to Siesta Key’s zoning regulations. That is because of the commission’s summer recess until Aug. 21, the necessity of the county’s Planning Commission to consider any proposed amendment and the possibility that two hearings on the revised language might be required before the County Commission, the motion explains.

Still, if the amendment wins ultimate approval, the motion points out, the legal dispute would be moot. “Judicial economy and the administration of justice will be served by abating the current proceedings until the [commission] has the opportunity to consider the zoning amendment,” the motion adds.

No later than Nov. 1, Mercurio directed in his Aug. 11 order, “the parties shall submit a written status report advising whether the [County Commission] has taken action” approving or denying the amendment.

Sarasota County is handling the case on behalf of the Board of Zoning Appeals, just as it would handle any litigation regarding one of the county’s advisory boards, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh has explained.

A plan taking shape

On July 12 — just before the County Commission broke for its summer recess — the chair of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce and representatives of island businesses asked the board to clarify the setback provisions of the Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD) regarding commercial construction. Architect Mark Smith — the Chamber chair and longtime island leader — said the intention of the Siesta zoning regulations was to make commercial areas more pedestrian-friendly by having businesses situated close to the sidewalk.

Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson. File photo

However, in response to correspondence late this spring from Bailey, county Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson wrote that if a building exceeds the 35 feet set forth as the maximum height in the Commercial General districts in the SKOD, then it must have a minimum setback of 25 feet from the street; the maximum setback would be 42.5 feet if a proposed project was granted a special exception allowing the structure to stand 85 feet tall. Based on Thompson’s interpretation, a building between 35 feet and 85 feet — the maximum height allowed on the county’s barrier islands — must have a setback of 25 feet or half the height of the building, whichever is greater.

Smith told The Sarasota News Leader that Thompson’s interpretation was correct, but he made the point to the County Commission on July 12 that the setback requirement is excessive.

Acting on behalf of Siesta Acquisitions, Bailey appealed Thompson’s interpretation to the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals. After a June 12 hearing, that board voted 3-2 to uphold Thompson’s assertions.

When the News Leader informed Bailey on the afternoon of July 12 that the County Commission had directed staff to research a revision of the SKOD setback requirements, he was pleased by the news. Nonetheless, he said, his client would have to meet the 30-day requirement to file a Petition for Writ of Certiorari, in an effort to overturn the Board of Zoning Appeals’ decision in the event the County Commission did not end up approving an amendment satisfactory to his client.

The petition Sarasota attorney Robert K. Lincoln filed in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court on July 13 says, “Thompson legally erred by ignoring the plain language of the Zoning Code and rewriting the ordinance to impose an incorrect street yard setback requirement for properties zoned “[Commercial General/SKOD] … The singular and only provision of Sarasota County’s Zoning Regulations specifically governing street yard setbacks for property [with that zoning] states ‘the minimum street yard setback shall be two feet.’”

Bailey is an attorney specializing in land use issues; he does not handle litigation, he has explained. That is why Lincoln filed the petition.

County Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson provided this graphic in her presentation on June 12 to the Board of Zoning Appeals. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Lincoln argued that Thompson was wrong to apply general county Commercial General (CG) zoning requirements to property in the SKOD. The motion explains, “A ‘street yard’ is the minimum distance the owner must leave open between a building (or other structure) and the property line abutting the street.”

During the June 12 Board of Zoning Appeals hearing, the motion for the writ notes, both Bailey and former County Administrator Jim Ley — who was still in that management position when the SKOD was implemented — discussed the history of the commercial zoning regulations devised for Siesta Key; they emphasized what Smith told the County Commission on July 12.

Bailey also pointed out that the County Commission could require the developer of a project to have a street setback exceeding 2 feet, because the only way a building higher than 35 feet could be constructed on Siesta would be by special exception. Therefore, the commission could stipulate in granting the special exception that the distance from the street be a specific distance, Bailey added.

The writ says that one Board of Zoning Appeals [BZA] member — Thomas Arthur — “appeared confused [during the June 12 hearing] because there was no ‘hard’ development proposal before the [board].” However, the writ continues, “Assistant County Attorney David Pearce instructed the BZA not to base its ‘decision on the fact that the Zoning Administrator did not have a concrete proposal’ for development.”

As recently as the Aug. 3 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting, residents vowed to fight any attempt to revise the SKOD’s provisions.

Former County Administrator Jim Ley (left) and attorney Charles Bailey III try to convince the Board of Zoning Appeals that their interpretation of the Siesta Key Overlay District setback regulations is correct. Rachel Hackney photo

Lourdes Ramirez, a past president of the SKA and the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA), said she believes Kompothecras wants to make certain his hotel project is exempt from the current density standards for Siesta Key, as detailed in the SKOD. If Kompothecras wanted to construct a hotel, she pointed out, he could do so on property zoned Commercial General, but the building could be no taller than 35 feet, unless he sought a special exception from the County Commission. She also reiterated Thompson’s assertions about the setback requirements.

A number of island residents have said during SKA meetings this year that they believe Kompothecras wants to construct a 100-room hotel, but Bailey has pointed out to both the Board of Zoning Appeals and the County Commission that no design has been proposed yet for the project. During a neighborhood workshop in early December 2016 on a related issue, Bailey said Kompothecras is interested in constructing a “boutique hotel” that would not be nearly as tall as the condo towers on the island.

“We have to stay on top of [the plans] from Day One,” Ramirez told the SKA audience on Aug. 3.