County Commission says owners of two Siesta Key parcels can take the county’s offer for the land or take the county to court

Board refuses to agree to higher price — and certain restrictions — sought by owners of 162 and 168 Beach Road

A county graphic shows the parcels at 162 and 168 Beach Road, shaded in green. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On a 4-1 vote this week, the Sarasota County Commission essentially told the owners of two parcels on Siesta Key’s Beach Road that they can accept the $2,850,000 the county is willing to pay for the property, or they can file suit against the county for preventing them from building homes on the Gulf-front land.

The board members also made it clear that they would not impose restrictions sought by the owner of the parcel at 168 Beach Road — Wendy B. Cooper, trustee of the Burton M. Cooper Credit Shelter Trust No. 1 — if the county ends up buying that land.

The commissioners further directed staff to make the offer again in a timely fashion.

A county staff report provided to the commission in advance of its regular meeting on Sept. 13 said the trust had requested designation of that property as a preserve, “with the only allowable improvement” to be a 10-foot-wide walkway from Beach Road “toward the Gulf of Mexico along the northerly boundary of the Property.”

The memo added, “An additional restrictive condition states that Sarasota County remove all invasive vegetation on the Property within one year of purchase,” and if the county could not accomplish the work within that timeframe, “the owner of 145 Beach Road would have the right to remove the invasive vegetation at the county’s expense.”

The owner of the property at 145 Beach Road also is Wendy B. Cooper, trustee of the Burton M. Cooper Credit Shelter Trust No. 1, county property records show.

The restrictions were part of a verbal counter offer the county received from the owners of the two parcels on April 27. Ronald and Sania Allen of Osprey, who own the 162 Beach Road land, wanted $1.7 million for it, the staff report noted, while Cooper wanted $1.8 million, for a total of $3.5 million.

Commissioner Charles Hines. File photo

After two failed motions from Commissioner Michael Moran and Commissioner Nancy Detert, a motion by Commissioner Alan Maio prevailed at the conclusion of almost one hour and 10 minutes of discussion on Sept. 13. Maio called for repeating the county’s March offer, with “no … strings attached.”

Commissioner Charles Hines seconded the motion, which won approval from all the board members except Detert.

The county would pay $1,400,000 for 162 Beach Road and $1,450,000 for 168 Beach Road.

Detert made the first motion, which called for the board to inform the owners that the county was not interested in moving forward with the acquisitions. That died for lack of a second.

Moran later made a motion calling for the board to split the difference between county staff’s March offer and the owners’ April counter offer. That would give the Allens $1,550,000, he said, while the trust would receive $1,625,000.

It died for lack of a second, too.

During the discussion, Hines, especially, focused on the fact that Sarasota County Property Appraiser Office records show that the Allens paid $5.4 million for the parcels at 162 and 168 Beach Road in May 2009, but the land never has been valued close to that amount.

“It does not make sense,” Hines added, noting that the highest value the Property Appraiser’s Office ever gave the 162 Beach Road land was $1,215,100 in 2014. In fact, Hines pointed out, the 2017 value of the parcel is $137,500.

The current value of the land at 168 Beach Road, according to the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office, is $140,500.

Yet, the $5.4-million figure “is still being used today against us, to say, ‘You guys are getting a good deal,’” Hines continued. “I would like to buy these two properties, but not at this [price] and not with these stipulations.”

William Merrill III of the Icard Merrill firm in Sarasota, who represents the Allens, explained that after the commission denied the Allens’ last petition for a Coastal Setback Variance to build a house on the 162 Beach Road parcel — in October 2015 — the Allens were able to get the taxable value of the property lowered.

A county aerial map shows the 162 Beach Road parcel (outlined in blue) in 1948. Image courtesy Sarasota County
An aerial shows the 162 Beach Road parcel in 2008. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Addressing Merrill, who also was speaking for Wendy Cooper’s attorney, Hines said that the county’s offer is “cash in the bank.” If the Allens and Cooper do not want to accept that, Hines added, they can file suit against the county over the economic value of the land, and “let the lawyers fight that out.”

However, he continued, if the Allens and Cooper took the county’s offer, that would “put money in their pocket very quickly; a lot of money.”

If they choose to file suit against the county, Hines also pointed out, they run the risk of having the court rule for the county.

“I agree with that,” Chair Paul Caragiulo responded.

Since he was elected to the board in 2012, Hines pointed out, he has heard four petitions for county Coastal Setback Variances from the Allens, who sought first to build two homes — one each on the 162 and 168 Beach Road parcels and, later, just on the 162 Beach Road land. The commission denied their request each time, he added, because the construction would have been fully seaward of the Gulf Beach Setback Line (GBSL). That line was implemented to preserve the coastal environment — including dunes — and offer protection to nearby property owners when storms batter the island.

Hines acknowledged that the board has allowed some structures, such as pools, to be built partly beyond the GBSL. “But we’ve kind of held the line when it comes to living structures in this situation.” Referring to the Beach Road parcels, he added, “The entire property is past the Gulf Beach Setback Line.”

Detert also commented on an assertion Merrill made regarding the board’s granting of CSV petitions: “I’m always shocked when Mr. Merrill keeps pointing out that 90% of the time we grant variances. … I think we ought to work on that number to make it 20% of the time, because, obviously, we’re doing something wrong. So it would be in [Mr. Merrill’s] best interest to quit saying that.”

Merrill told the board that the Allens had evacuated to North Carolina before Hurricane Irma struck, and he had been unable to reach them for the past week. He indicated, therefore, that he was not certain what their response would be to the board’s decision.

Getting to this point

William Merrill III. File photo

After the commission denied the Allens’ Coastal Setback Variance petition in October 2015, Merrill suggested that the action would lead to a lawsuit, because the county board was denying the couple the right to use their property. Under the state’s Bert J. Harris Jr. Private Property Rights Protection Act, Merrill indicated, the denial constituted a “taking.”

On Oct. 14, 2015, Merrill said, “To deny this variance would place an unreasonable hardship on the land because, without the variance, there’s no reasonable or economically viable use available for the property.”

Afterward, however, the Allens and Cooper sought the approval of the county’s Parks Advisory and Recreation Council (PARC) for the parcels to be considered for county purchase under the Neighborhood Parkland Acquisition Program and Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program (ESLPP).

On Oct. 11, 2016, the County Commission authorized County Administrator Tom Harmer to negotiate with the owners.

On Sept. 13, Carolyn N. Brown, director of Sarasota County’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, and Lin Kurant, the county’s Real Estate Services Division manager, noted the series of appraisals of the properties that had to be done as part of that process.

One set — completed in May 2016 — concluded each parcel was worth $338,000, Kurant said, based on the fact that no homes could be built on them. “It’s questionable to staff whether they’re buildable or not,” Kurant added.

However, the average of two other appraisals undertaken for the county — in February and April 2016 — produced an average of $1,230,000 as the value of the 162 Beach Road land and $1,252,500 for the 168 Beach Road property, the staff memo noted.

Appraisals in January raised those averages to $1,825,000 for 162 Beach Road and $1,975,000 for 168 Beach Road, the memo said.

Counter contentions

On Sept. 13, the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office showed these details for 162 Beach Road. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Sept. 13, Hines repeatedly questioned how the Allens’ 2009 purchase price for the parcels and the taxable value of the land “all plays together,” saying that that “really has never been clear. And that’s business. That’s fine. But you’re asking us … to pay a lot of money for these two properties,” he told Merrill.

“Regardless of what was paid,” Merrill responded, “that’s not the measure under the law.” He added that the Harris Act considers the value of the land when the Coastal Setback Variance (CSV) was denied.

At one point, Hines told Merrill, “For the record, as a land-use attorney, you’re saying that if we deny [the variance] for a single-family home, those properties have no other use … so they’re worth nothing?”

“Yes,” Merrill replied, “and the case law supports that.”

In response to board questions, Assistant County Attorney David Pearce named a number of other uses that would be permitted for both parcels under county zoning regulations. Among them would be a private parking lot.

When Hines suggested that to Merrill, Merrill responded that the county would not allow the land to be transformed into a parking lot.

“We’ve never denied that [kind of] variance [request],” Hines shot back. “That’s never been asked of us.”

“I understand,” Merrill replied.

On Sept. 13, the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office showed these details for the parcel at 168 Beach Road. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Detert noted Merrill’s assertion that the Allens’ CSV requests had been denied four times in five years. “That’s about how long they’ve owned the property,” she pointed out. “They knew what they were buying.” Referencing Merrill’s earlier comment explaining the current tax value of the property, Detert added of the Allens, “They went and complained about their tax bill, which kind of signals to me that they agree that they have an unbuildable piece of property. … I’m certainly not going to agree to spending $3 million for [the two parcels].”

Moran disagreed: “I think it’s an incredibly unique opportunity to buy two pieces of property right by the water.” He also noted that the staff memo said the county has the money available in its Neighborhood Parkland Acquisition and ESLPP accounts to pay for the land.

Still, Moran sought clarification from Brown, the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department director, that the county’s General Fund would not be the source of the payment to the Allens and Cooper.

All the money for the purchase would come out of the Neighborhood Parkland Acquisition Program, Brown responded. “It would be extremely tight,” she added, to pay the amount the Allens and Cooper want. “If we would accept their offer, it would probably take us into the red a little bit,” she explained, because of the financial commitments the commission has made in regard to purchasing the property needed for the North Extension of The Legacy Trail.

A chart shows details about the county appraisals of the two parcels. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Still, Brown said, “There may be a lag time where it will all fall into place.”

“There is some public benefit to purchase [the parcels],” Hines acknowledged.

“I would be more than happy to buy them at a smaller price,” Commissioner Maio added.

At one point, Merrill told the commissioners, “I very much appreciate all the discussion …”

“Oh, I’m sure you do,” Chair Caragiulo replied with a chuckle.