Commissioner Moran makes motion to direct county staff to process Benderson policy proposals that would allow for high-rise hotels on Siesta Key

More than a dozen Siesta residents urge commissioners to consider island’s constrained infrastructure, including road network

This parcel, outlined in purple, which a Benderson affiliate owns in Siesta Village, includes the Bonjour French Cafe. It contains slightly less than one-third of an acre. It is one potential site where the company could build a hotel, if county policies were updated. Image from the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office website

Fifteen Siesta Key residents, plus the leader of the Pine Shores Neighborhood Alliance, urged the Sarasota County Commission this week not to process any of the three proposed Comprehensive Plan amendments that would allow extra residential density on the barrier island in the form of new hotel and motel rooms.

One of those amendments — proposed by Benderson Development Co. of University Park — would mirror a 2021 ordinance that modified the county’s land-use and zoning regulations. That ordinance, approved on a 3-2 vote on Oct. 21, 2021, eliminated the counting of hotel and motel rooms for residential purposes throughout most of the county. The Benderson proposal calls for the amendment to affect only Siesta Key.

That was the sole proposed amendment that the commission majority approved for processing.

On a motion by Commissioner Michael Moran, seconded by Commissioner Neil Rainford and passed on a 3-1 vote, county Planning Division staff will proceed with processing that application, for potential future approval. Benderson already has indicated to the Planning staff that it wants to construct a hotel up to 85 feet tall on commercial property it owns on Ocean Boulevard in Siesta Village.

Yet, during the Open to the Public period at the start of the Nov. 28 commission meeting, David Wolter told the board members, “If you allow hotels in [Siesta Village], you will kill the Village. It’s the best half-mile in America. I moved here to live in that Village.”
Wolter added, “You’ll completely overtax the infrastructure. You will not be able to control the guests.”

Another speaker, Catherine Luckner, president of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), pointed out to the commissioners, “You are the people that we rely upon to really be our stewards. We elect you to represent us.” However, she continued, “I have been increasingly concerned that that’s no longer true,” except for Commissioner Mark Smith, she said.

A Siesta resident, Smith was elected to the board in November 2022. Luckner noted that he has been keeping the promises he made during his campaign. Smith cast the “No” vote on Moran’s Nov. 28 motion.

Luckner also reminded the board members about the Siesta Key Community Plan, which won the approval of the commissioners seated in 1999. It was created on the basis of a survey of about 12,000 island residents, she explained. That plan established the island’s zoning districts and provided measures to protect the natural resources, Luckner added. “It has been the guide … for how we do things.”

“We want to keep what we have,” Luckner continued. “Without what we have, we will be no better than the … East Coast, where we have unbelievable traffic, unbelievable injury, and nobody wants to go there.”

Sura Kochman addresses the board on Nov. 28. News Leader image

Sura Kochman, who spent 10 years fighting the intensity of the planned Siesta Promenade development, next to the Pine Shores Estates community, told the board members she had a question for them to ponder:

“When you’re planning a vacation, and there’s this fabulous resort you can’t wait to visit, and then you learn all the reservations have been taken, what do you do? Do you demand to talk to management and insist that they build more hotel rooms, because, after all, you have a right and an extreme desire to go there, or do you understand that they’re all booked up and you find another place to go?”

Kochman added, “It’s the same here. … To maintain the quality of life for residents of Siesta Key, and the neighborhoods in the vicinity on the mainland, you have to understand that Sarasota, especially in this area, is all booked up. We have no vacancies. Our roads and our bridges are all booked up.”

Just a couple of weeks ago, she continued, Mike Mylett — in his last appearance before the commissioners before his retirement from serving as director of the county’s Public Utilities Department — cautioned them that the county will need another 12 million gallons of water per day within the next 20 years.

“The phrase I hear so, so often,” Kochman said, “is ‘People want to come here; therefore, we must build!’ This is backwards thinking. … And I understand that growth is necessary, but you have to plan properly.”

Explaining that she was chair of a New Jersey planning board for 10 years, Kochman added that she understands how planning works. “And, unfortunately, it’s not being done to its best ability here.”

“You have to understand your responsibility is to the people,” Kochman stressed, “not to the developers and their greed. … Keep our existing protections. We’re all booked up!”

Another speaker, Larry Kaplan, a 33-year resident of the island, did tell the commissioners that he believes they “get a bad rap.” While he has heard they work for Benderson Development, he continued, “I don’t believe that.”

The company “has been great,” Kaplan added.

Nonetheless, he stressed, “Don’t take Siesta Key and make it look like hell.”

Michael Gatz, chair of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, did ask the board members to allow the processing of the Chamber’s proposal for a modification of county policy to permit boutique hotels with a maximum of 75 rooms, with no more than 52 per acre, on property zoned for commercial purposes.

He did note that one of the other two proposals — submitted by the Stantec consulting firm in Sarasota on behalf of businessman Dave Balot — mirrored the Chamber’s proposed amendment to the Comprehensive Plan.

Balot won unanimous County Commission approval in October 2022 for a hotel comprising about 112 rooms on a 2.15-acre parcel that formerly was home to a Wells Fargo Bank; the property stands at 5810 Midnight Pass Road.

Traffic is backed up at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road on Dec. 30, 2020. That intersection is part of the access to the south bridge to Siesta Key. Contributed photo

Speaker after speaker talked of concerns about the Key’s constrained road network and its access to the mainland via only two bridges. They noted long waits in traffic to commute to work, and, especially, they warned of the dangers of increasing residential density on a barrier island that has had recent brushes with hurricanes. Hotel guests would be adding to the clogged roads during evacuations, they emphasized.

Yet, in spite of the nearly 60 minutes of comments, Commissioner Moran called for the county’s Planning and Development Services Department staff to focus solely on the proposal submitted by an agent for Benderson Development. Moran emphasized that a companion Comprehensive Plan amendment that Benderson has proposed would limit new “transient accommodations” — the county term for hotel and motel rooms — to no more than 15% “of the total, combined acreage” of all of the parcels zoned Commercial General (CG) and Commercial Intensive (CI) in the Siesta Key Overlay District zoning regulations. That would prevent unlimited new hotel construction on the barrier island, he pointed out.

A process request’ only

Before he made his motion, Moran sought clarity from County Attorney Joshua Moye that the public would have ample opportunity to comment on the Benderson proposals, given the county requirement for a Neighborhood Workshop, a Planning Commission hearing and two County Commission hearings before the amendments could be adopted. (The first County Commission hearing would be necessary for approval to send the proposed amendments to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), for formal review. The DEO staff analyzes all proposed Comprehensive Plan amendments in the context of the affected local governments’ existing policies and then offers comments on its analyses. Provided the DEO does not point to any issues that its staff considers to be problematic, the local government body then formally has to approve the amendment during a second hearing.)

“This is a process request,” Moran emphasized after Moye assured him that he had described the chain of events accurately.

Further, Moran pointed out, after staff has completed its review of Benderson’s proposals, the County Commission could choose not to allow the process to continue.

These are part of the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendments that a representative of Benderson Development submitted to county staff in an Oct. 2 letter. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“I think the real discussion, the real debate for the community, will come through those public hearings,” Moran added.

“I think that was well outlined, Commissioner Moran,” Commissioner Neil Rainford said. A “quick study” he had made of the three proposals, Rainford continued, showed that if the commissioners opted for the Siesta Chamber proposal, it could lead to 1,500 to 2,000 new hotel/motel rooms on the Key. “I’m definitely in favor of limiting the transient accommodations,” Rainford told his colleagues.

Then Moran made his motion, and Rainford seconded the motion.

County Attorney Moye asked for clarification that Moran did not intend to allow the Planning Division staff to work on the other two proposals.

Moran told Moye that that was his intent.

“I just think this needs to be fully vetted out,” Rainford added, “and I think that’s going to happen through this process.”

Chair Ron Cutsinger said he would support the motion, too. Referencing the remarks of one Siesta resident, Janice Webster, in regard to the need for solid data about the infrastructure on the island — not just the roads but water and sewer capacity — Cutsinger added, “I think that’s exactly what we’re asking for, [along with the desire to] make sure that we have the correct information we need.”

Cutsinger also voiced support for the 15% cap in the Benderson plans, noting that, he believes, the Key has 45 acres zoned for commercial purposes.

Commissioner Mark Smith asks a question during the Sept. 27 board meeting. File image

A few weeks ago, Commissioner Smith proposed that his colleagues support the processing of the Siesta Chamber proposal. The Benderson Comprehensive Plan amendments, he pointed out on Nov. 28, involve “unlimited density on Siesta Key.” Yet, he continued, the county already had lost two legal challenges of the UDC amendment that the majority of the commissioners approved in late 2021, which eliminated the counting of hotel and motel rooms for residential density purposes almost countywide.

“I’m not comfortable changing the Comprehensive Plan,” Smith said, to allow unlimited density on Siesta Key.

After Moran and Rainford addressed Moran’s motion, Smith pointed out, “So we’re going to say 15%, so it’s first-come, first-served …”

“I think the fairer thing to do,” he continued, is to direct staff to process all three proposals. “I see serious flaws [with the Benderson amendments],” Smith added, “but I would like to hear the public’s comments [on those, as well]. I think we’re narrowing our public input by just having one proposal go forward.”

Smith then asked Moran whether he would be willing to amend his motion to direct staff to process all three.

“My motion’ll stand,” Moran replied. “That support of that amendment won’t come from me.”

It took about 10 minutes and 30 seconds for the discussion to conclude with the 3-1 vote.

The direction to staff was necessary, as Laura Wilson of the Planning and Development Services Department explained, because the amendments had been proposed outside the normal cycle for members of the public to propose such modifications to the Comprehensive Plan, which guides growth in the community.

Several of the speakers had urged the commissioners to reject the processing of any of the amendments because they were initiated on a private basis outside that cycle.

Commissioner Joe Neunder was absent from the meeting.

3 thoughts on “Commissioner Moran makes motion to direct county staff to process Benderson policy proposals that would allow for high-rise hotels on Siesta Key”

  1. I have been living on Siesta sine early 1990’s. The commissioners pursuit of $$$ from developers is a CANCER to residents as donations from developers to commissioners is what runs commissioners. There are names for those that take $$$ for services !

  2. I have been a Key resident since 1981 – the majority of those years in the Village area. And I have traveled to Venice for work for over 41 of those years. I have experienced many times the traffic congestion going over the south bridge – especially after work. I can only imagine what it would be like to maneuver my way back and forth with multiple mega hotels, all of which I would have to pass by to get to and from work.

    Mark Smith was the only voice of reason at the recent County Commission meeting (Commissioner Neunder was absent). He alone was the only Commissioner who supported allowing public input on the three proposed growth plan amendments presented at the recent meeting. Instead, the majority of those present supported only one proposal to be considered – for unlimited density on the Key.

    Why not give the public the opportunity to comment on all 3 proposals – especially those of us who live on the Key?

    Are the majority of Commissioners following in the steps of our state legislators who refused to allow us to vote on whether to incorporate or not?

    Why are they all so intent on taking away our voice? I think we all know the answer to that.

    I guess it’s easy to make a decision if you are not affected by it on a daily basis.

    Thank you, Commissioner Smith. At least you get it!

    Marlene S. Merkle, M.A.
    Siesta Key

  3. It is sad that the County Commissioners voted 3-1 to work toward allowing unlimited density on Siesta Key – at least for Benderson, but not for other developers; however it was completely predictable. The BOCC has a history of completely ignoring public wishes in favor of developers.

    I believe that Moran, Cutsinger, and Rainford decided thier vote before any of the presenters spoke.

    More interesting to me was that Neunder was “absent”. Perhaps he was ill or had some other event prevent his participation. In that case I may owe him an apology. There is usually more explanation given than just “absent”. It seems to me that it was likely a strategic absence to avoid this well-publicized topic. It would have a lose-lose to Neunder. If he voted his inclination to join the majority of commissioners, he would anger the Siesta Key residents in his district and hurt his re-election chances in 2026 when his term expires; a big factor since commissioners are now elected by only their district voters. If he voted as his district residents wanted he would have jeopardized Benderson’s financial support in that election. So he took the cowards way out and stayed home.

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