Amendment to land-use and zoning regulations eliminates counting of hotel rooms as residential units countywide
Even before Sarasota County Commission Chair Alan Maio closed the Oct. 27 public hearing on the proposal, Commissioner Michael Moran was ready to make a motion to approve a 170-room, 80-foot-tall hotel planned on four parcels between Beach Road and Calle Miramar on Siesta Key.
Five habitable floors will be constructed over three levels of parking on slightly less than 1 acre. Access to the hotel will be via Calle Miramar, which has numerous residential structures that are less than half the height of the planned hotel, speakers pointed out.
Maio cast the deciding votes on all three motions that the board approved after close to four-and-half hours of testimony in its chambers in downtown Sarasota. Commissioner Ron Cutsinger cast the other vote of approval, with Commissioners Christian Ziegler and Nancy Detert in the minority.
Maio indicated that he was persuaded partly by remarks that Sarasota attorney Robert Lincoln made as one of the last of 45 speakers.
Maio represents the southern part of Siesta Key as part of his District 4 territory.
During the project team’s presentation, attorney William Merrill III of the Sarasota firm Icard Merrill, stressed, “Every reference to density in today’s Comprehensive Plan — and there are at least 150 … — applies to housing and residential dwelling units, not hotels.”
Moreover, Merrill testified, the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS), says hotel rooms “are fundamentally non-residential commercial land uses.”
The team was proposing an amendment to the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC), which contains all of the land-use and zoning regulations, that would eliminate residential density counts for hotel rooms countywide. A new subsection the team had proposed, Merrill said, will prohibit hotel guest rooms from having kitchens.
Under the previous applicable zoning, up to 26 hotel rooms per acre were allowed, by Special Exception, on any parcel zoned Commercial General (CG) in the Siesta Key Overlay District, as long as none of those rooms had kitchens.
The standard residential zoning density for CG property is a maximum of 13 dwelling units per acre.
In fighting the hotel proposal, residents on Siesta Key maintained that the County Commission should abide by the language in Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1 in the Comprehensive Plan. As county staff explained in its report on the project, that policy and two others that are specific to the county’s barrier islands “have worked together, along with zoning codes, as a guide for limiting residential density and the intensity of development-related activities on the barrier islands for many years …”
Future Land Use (FLU) Policy 2.9.1 says, “Barrier Islands are designated on the Future Land Use Map to recognize existing land use patterns and to provide a basis for hurricane evacuation planning and disaster mitigation efforts. The intensity and density of future development on the Barrier Islands of Sarasota shall not exceed that allowed by zoning ordinances and regulations existing as of March 13, 1989, except that with respect to lands zoned RMF [residential multi-family] as of that date and consistently so thereafter, a non-conforming duplex whose density exceeds the density restrictions of the zoning regulations and restrictions may be rebuilt within the footprint of the structure, or a non-conforming multi-family structure may be demolished and a duplex rebuilt in its place within the prior footprint of the multi-family structure without violating this policy.”
Having begun his career as a planner on Sarasota County staff, attorney Lincoln told the commissioners that his first job in that role “was to help compile the existing land-use maps that were used for the 1989 Comprehensive Plan, including existing uses, densities and intensities on the barrier islands.”
“The commercial districts [on the barrier islands] were not included in the density analysis,” Lincoln continued. “There was no requirement that you treat hotels as residential density.”
Therefore, Lincoln added, “The [proposed UDC] text amendment will not increase intensity.”
Lincoln further pointed out that when the county adopted the Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD) zoning regulations, it did not eliminate the prospect of the granting of a Special Exception for height up to 85 feet in a Commercial General (CG) zoning district, which is the zoning for the 0.96-acre hotel site.
Lincoln stressed, “There was no intent in SKOD to get rid of that extra height.”
The standard height allowed in a CG zone is 35 feet.
CG parcels in other areas of the county can have structures up to 110 feet, for mixed-use developments, with the approval of a Special Exception, he noted. However, that provision was not allowed in the SKOD, he added. Thus, Lincoln indicated, if county commissioners had wanted hotel rooms to count as residential dwelling units in the SKOD, they could have made that distinction.
Nonetheless, Lincoln did point out that it is up to the commission to decide “whether a specific proposal for a specific hotel at a specific height and configuration is appropriate at that location [on the island].”
Officially, the applicant for the hotel was SKH1 LLC, whose principal is Robert T. Anderson Jr., a RE/MAX Realtor who has leased the property for many years. The primary owner of the land is Louise Khaghan of New York City.
‘All of Sarasota County lost’
In response to a Sarasota News Leader request for comments after the board vote, Mark Spiegel, president of the nonprofit Siesta Key Coalition, provided a statement.
The Coalition originated in the early summer of 2020 after Anderson began offering presentations to island groups about his plans for the hotel. Soon, members of various organizations told the News Leader, they began learning that Anderson was telling people that he had found plenty of support for the initiative, when that was not the case for many of those who had listened to his proposal.
From the outset, Spiegel has emphasized the Coalition’s stance is that development is welcome on the island, as long as it conforms to the existing zoning regulations. In fact, Coalition leaders have been advocates of boutique hotels, which, they point out, have proven successful in many areas at a fraction of the size of the structure planned on Calle Miramar.
The Coalition has grown to include 71 homeowner associations with about 6,500 households. The Siesta Key Association and the Siesta Key Condominium Council have been its allies, too, as noted on its website.
This is Spiegel’s statement:
“Obviously we are disappointed in the outcome of the 3-2 vote.” Not only was the decision a setback for Siesta Key, he continued, but also was a setback for the residents and taxpayers on the Sarasota County mainland, who “will now have to compete with over 1,000 transient guests (if all four proposed Siesta hotel projects win commission approval) for limited public beach space” and access to the island from just two drawbridges.
“The objective of exploiting the opportunity for more ‘bed tax’ revenue in the short-term will have long-term, unintended consequences,” Spiegel continued, since the majority of the commissioners and county staff “failed to study the cumulative impact of the precedents they just set.”
The “bed tax” is the 5% Tourist Development Tax charged on rentals of accommodations for six months or less time. For many years, Siesta Key has won the figurative battle among county locations for contributing the largest amount of bed tax revenue to the county.
“This has never been about the residents and stakeholders of Siesta Key trying to stop a hotel from coming to the Key, not welcoming our valued visitors, or trying to stop economic growth,” Spiegel pointed out. “This is about how certain of our County leaders put their agenda to get any hotels onto the Key above their obligation to be proactive planners. They did not honor or follow the clear objectives and policies of our Comprehensive Plan, nor the protective codes in our Siesta Key Overlay District, as they are called to do. County leaders have made multiple missteps in actions, decisions and due process that unnecessarily and likely will lead to legal challenges,” Spiegel added. “Primary among those was to ignore the many inconsistencies [of the hotel proposal] with the Comprehensive Plan,” which Coalition leaders and other residents testified to during the hearing.
Regarding what he called “multiple failures of due process,” Spiegel pointed out that the Calle Miramar hotel team started out in May 2020 with a proposal for a Comprehensive Plan amendment; yet, the team ended up withdrawing that “outside the public process,” with the help of county Planning Division staff. Amending the Comprehensive Plan would have required a supermajority vote — four out of five — of the county commissioners, he added.
Then the hotel team put its focus on the UDC amendment, Spiegel wrote.
“As Commissioner Detert accurately noted prior to her ‘No’ vote,” Spiegel continued, staff “may not really have considered the ‘unintended consequences” of such actions. “The residents Countywide have no idea what just happened, since they were never properly, legally ‘noticed’ to have the opportunity for input on such a broad-reaching action.”
He added, “Stakeholders, including the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, Siesta Key Association, Siesta Key Condominium Council, and our Coalition … have been calling for months for the County to engage, seek input, hear our ideas. That type of community engagement was how these regulations and policies were put in place by early Commissioners with significant study and thought. Now, [the current commission] just set the precedent of approving a hotel that is 6.8 times the size allowed in the existing code, more then twice the height allowed by right, detrimental to the adjacent residential owners’ rights, and over twice the floor-area ratio of what is allowed in the more commercialized areas of Sarasota County.”
Moreover, Spiegel stressed, “[D]espite that fact that it is convention nationally to restrict commercial hotels by either room per acre or floor-area ratios, to manage density and intensity of those uses, [county leaders] reactively approved the complete elimination of any density restrictions for hotels on commercial land countywide.”
“Unfortunately, those that voted in favor of the hotel feel that they did Sarasota County a service by setting a course for the development of multiple hotels and revenue generation on our Key.”
Over the long term, Spiegel continued, beach overcrowding, even greater traffic congestion and the over-commercialization of Siesta Key likely will result from the precedent set this week, as the island has approximately 30 acres of commercial land. Then, he pointed out, “the attractiveness of this special place will suffer,” along with its economy, its social structure and its environment. “And they wonder why Siesta Key has a movement to incorporate,” he wrote.
“All of Sarasota County lost [on Oct. 27],” he concluded the statement.
Leading the way to approval
In making the first of the three necessary motions on Oct. 27 to allow the hotel project to proceed, Commissioner Moran said, “I absolutely understand the concern and worry that we’ve heard here today.”
The majority of the 45 speakers had argued against the project, with many citing the charm and character that makes Siesta Key the top tourist attraction in the county. (See the related article in this issue.)
However, Moran continued, following a recent ribbon-cutting event in which the commissioners participated, he found himself reflecting “on all these iconic projects in our community,” such as Nathan Benderson Park and The Legacy Trail. “These legacy, iconic projects were met by some with incredibly fierce, aggressive opposition.”
One that the public especially fought, Moran noted, was the Ringling Causeway Bridge. Dave Mills, the late county commissioner, “literally had to get a restraining order over death threats” because of his support of that project, Moran said.
Referring to the Calle Miramar hotel, Moran added, “This isn’t some motel with a flashing neon ‘Vacancy’ sign in front of it. This is an absolute luxury resort. … I think it’s going to be an absolutely gorgeous project.”
Moran called the Sarasota School of Architecture design by Mark Sultana of DSDG Architects in Sarasota “very thoughtful” and predicted that the hotel would have 100% occupancy the first night it is open.
In seconding all of Moran’s motions, Commissioner Cutsinger pointed out, “We live in a community that a lot of folks want to be here. We’re fortunate to live in Sarasota County.”
“We’ve heard testimony from a lot of people,” Cutsinger added, that this is a much-needed amenity in our county.”
Cutsinger also emphasized of the UDC text amendment, “If anything has ever been examined thoroughly, it is this. … Staff has put a lot of time and talent into it,” and staff has found the amendment to be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan.
The other points of view on the commission
Addressing the audience members who opposed the project, Commissioner Detert said, “I think you’re all here in passionate defense of your lifestyle …”
She proposed that the board members continue the hearing until the Planning Division staff had an opportunity to consider the boutique hotel UDC text amendment that the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce had submitted for consideration. That action came during the September “cycle” for the public to offer such recommendations for staff review and then, ultimately, a presentation to the commission for its direction.
The Chamber amendment would limit boutique hotels on Siesta Key to 75 rooms, and their height would be dictated by the height of adjacent residential properties — though no hotel could be taller than 45 feet over two levels of parking.
“I think hotels will benefit the Key,” Detert continued. Yet, referring to the Calle Miramar project team members, she said, “I think they can probably make just as much money” if they design a structure in keeping with the Chamber’s recommendations.
During the hearing, Steve Cavanaugh, chair of the Siesta Chamber, read a letter that he had sent to the commissioners. While the Chamber board had agreed that transient accommodations — what county staff calls hotel and motel rooms — “should be considered a non-residential use on Siesta Key,” the letter said, “we do not support revising the UDC to eliminate the determination for the allowable number of hotel rooms being based on the commercial parcel size — units per acre. Using units per acre to determine the number of hotel rooms is the best way to keep new hotels in scale with the character of Siesta Key.”
The letter also pointed out, “[T]his proposed development is too large for the size of the land it’s being built on.”
As she has on multiple occasions in past discussions about Siesta Key, Detert noted her affection for Sanibel Island, which — she added — had to “break away from Fort Myers” so it could retain its character. “But they’ve managed to hang on to it for decade after decade.”
Sanibel Island has hotels and condominiums, she continued, but its height restrictions leave it in contrast to Marco Island. That distinction, Detert said, is “all the difference in the world to me.”
Further, Detert pointed out that she does not like privately initiated amendments to county policies and regulations. “I think it’s our job and our responsibility to put our names to something that we want to see in the future. … I cannot be proud of something to be decided by a policy by someone who owns 1 acre and that policy is for the entire county,” she added. “It’s really not our staff’s job to accommodate a private enterprise.”
“We can take the time to get this right,” Detert stressed. “This is probably the most important vote you’ll ever take in your political life …”
When the audience members erupted in applause, Chair Maio chastised them, though he did not raise his voice or bang the gavel.
Commissioner Ziegler, who represents the northern part of the island as part of District 2, talked of the difficulty of making a decision in the aftermath of the hearing. “The biggest challenge we have,” he said, “is the secret’s out on this place.”
He added, “We don’t really have the hotel capacity on the west side of the county.”
However, Ziegler continued, he spent a lot of time on the island before his children were born, and he and his wife continue to go to Siesta when they have the time. “I understand the charm.”
As a commissioner, Ziegler added, he has to view the island “as the premiere economic driver [for the county].”
“We’re at this tug of war between progress and going out there [and] basically reshaping the community … to handle the demand, versus protecting what we currently have and the charm we have.”
Indicating that he had not made up his mind until he heard the testimony that day, Ziegler said, “I’m going to side with the citizens on this …”
Having begun shortly after 9:30 that morning, the hearing ended at 3:10 p.m. The commissioners allowed every speaker up to 5 minutes, instead of reducing the time to 3 minutes, as they have in the past when they had a large number of speakers signed up to address them.
In fact, Chair Maio emphasized the 5-minute provision on a number of occasions during the hearing. The commission has been criticized in the past when it has cut the amount of time.