County Commission votes to delay until late August a vote on authorizing processing of proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment that would allow for voluntary demolition and reconstruction of aging condominium complexes

Representatives of several Siesta Key organizations request more public discussions first

This is a view of the remains of Champlain Towers South in June 2021. Image from Miami-Date Fire-Rescue, via Wikipedia

In response to requests from representatives of three Siesta Key organizations, the Sarasota County Commission this week agreed to delay until late August a vote on authorizing the processing of a Comprehensive Plan amendment that would allow for the voluntary demolition and reconstruction of aging condominium complexes on the barrier islands.

The item was listed on the commission’s Consent Agenda of routine business matters for its July 12 meeting.

Leaders of the Siesta Key Condominium Council, the Siesta Key Association (SKA) and the Siesta Key Coalition urged the board members first to provide for public meetings about the amendment.

Members of all of three organizations have concerns about intensity and density of development on Siesta Key, Mark Spiegel, president of the Coalition, told the commissioners. Their goal, he continued, is to allow constructive discussion of the proposal before the commissioners “run off down the road and start a process that we all have to react to.”

Hilla Blatt addresses the commissioners on July 12. News Leader image

Hilla Blatt of the Condominium Council, whose members, she noted, would be affected by the changes in the Comprehensive Plan, pointed out that the new policy “could have far-reaching unintended consequences … regarding density, intensity and safety on the barrier island.”

The Comprehensive Plan is the county document that guides growth in the community.

She further noted that the county’s “current model of workshop and hearings” on such amendments “has been insufficient to protect Siesta Key residents.”

The Council, Blatt noted, has 90 member associations representing 7,000 condominium households on the island.

Spiegel added that the Coalition represents 71 neighborhood associations with about 6,400 residents.

Spiegel and Catherine Luckner, president of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), also specifically requested that the commissioners not waive the “scoping” requirements for the amendment. The scoping process typically delves into a multitude of issues that a new policy would affect.

“As we’ve all learned, unfortunately, through the hotel process,” Spiegel said, “the neighborhood workshops aren’t a very good forum to interact with the Key.”

He was referring to the county requirement for a public meeting for county residents who would be affected by a proposed new development or a modification of county policies or regulations.

Spiegel and other Siesta residents founded the Coalition in 2020 in an effort to fight plans for new high-rise hotels with hundreds of rooms on the island. Following two public hearings last fall, the commissioners cast split votes to allow the construction of an eight-story, 170-room hotel on four parcels between Beach Road and Calle Miramar, on the edge of Siesta Village; and a seven-story, 120-room hotel at the intersection of Old Stickney Point Road and Peacock Road, on south Siesta Key.

A third hotel, with about 112 rooms on the Midnight Pass Road property where a Wells Fargo bank stood for years, also is planned. However, county Planning Division staff has continued to review the application for that development, the county Communications Department staff has told The Sarasota News Leader.

Litigation has been filed to fight both of the approved hotel projects.

Siesta Key Association President Catherine Luckner. File photo

In a July 11 email to the commissioners, written on behalf of the SKA, Catherine Luckner questioned “the use of the Consent Agenda … to approve the development of [the] previously unannounced Comprehensive Plan Amendment …”

She added that if the board member chose to discuss the item on July 12, she asked that they address the following:

  • The scope of the area that the proposed Comprehensive Plan Amendment would affect “(the entire County, the County’s unincorporated barrier islands or Siesta Key).
  • “[W]hom you will inform of the details of this proposal in an appropriately noticed public notice.
  • “[W]hether it will be a change in allowable land use density or intensity and thus require a super-majority [four of five commissioners in favor of it].
  • “[W]hat, if any, density limits will remain in the Comprehensive Plan or UDC [Unified Development Code] for Residential Multi-Family uses.”

The UDC contains all of the county’s land-use and development regulations. Siesta Key is covered by an overlay district.

She concluded her email by writing, “Please, let’s not start another bad experience.”

Commission support

Following the public remarks, Commissioner Nancy Detert asked that the Comprehensive Plan item be pulled from the Consent Agenda, for discussion.

“They want to have a conversation, not just a bunch of rubber-stamping,” Detert added, referring to Blatt, the Luckners and Spiegel.

She pointed out that Siesta Key architect Mark Smith, a long-time leader of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, had proposed the voluntary demolition of condominiums and rebuilding of them when he addressed the board members earlier this year. The goal, Smith explained, was to prevent aging structures with damage from collapsing, as the Champlain Towers South building did in Surfside in June 2021.

Smith had been working with the owners of the Sea Club V complex on south Siesta, which had undergone a structural engineering inspection, he told the commissioners in early January. The inspection found significant deterioration, he noted.

This is a view of Sea Club V looking west. Image courtesy of Mark Smith

“I think it’s a good proposal,” Detert said. “It provides safety for hurricanes.” Owners also want buildings that meet modern building code standards, she pointed out.

“I think if we allow them to have a meeting between themselves before we move down the highway, that that really is a better way to govern, and it’s a better way to handle this situation,” Detert continued, referring to the organization representatives and Smith. “I know both sides are extremely thoughtful, smart and reasonable people.”

Chair Alan Maio responded that multiple public hearings would be conducted during the processing of the amendment.

Nonetheless, he told Detert that if she wanted to allow time for discussions among the speakers, she might make a motion for a 30-day pause on the board vote to direct staff to proceed with the work on the amendment. “I’m not sure any harm would be done.”

Detert then made her motion, calling for the item to be placed on the board’s Aug. 30 agenda.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler. File image

Commissioner Christian Ziegler, who represents the northern part of Siesta Key, seconded the motion.

“This is different enough that this makes sense,” Maio said of the motion.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Ziegler added. “I think there’s kind of a bigger issue here. I would encourage staff to work with Mr. Spiegel a little bit,” Ziegler continued, “in terms of an open discussion between the county and the staff and with the citizens. I think we saw that with the hotels, and I just think there’s maybe an opportunity there to give [the affected stakeholders] more of a heads up and engage them a little bit more before the train starts rolling down the tracks.”

However, Commissioner Michael Moran told his colleagues, “I’m a little troubled by this. … It was to approve a process … and the process is littered with public input.”

Moran added, “I just want to be a little careful of setting precedent” in regard to stopping such a process.

Yet, Moran acknowledged, “I get it.” Sometimes [the process] doesn’t end well and sometimes it does. … But that’s the point, if you ask me.”

When the News Leader asked architect Smith if he would like to offer any comments about the action on July 12, he wrote the following in an email later that day: “In light of the Siesta Key hotel approval process, it is good that county staff will be meeting with the stakeholders on Siesta Key so that they can have all their questions answered.”

Then he added, “Sea Club V is not unique. All condominiums built before 2000, before the Florida Building Code was adopted, are susceptible to substantial damage in a major storm event. Sea Club V needs extensive repairs and wants to be proactive and voluntarily demolish their buildings before they get knocked down in a hurricane. However, through no fault of their own, their current number of condo units are deemed ‘non-conforming’ as the county has changed the units per acre for their zoning district over the years. Sea Club V has 41 condo units [but] current zoning allows 18. What the county is doing is allowing older, non-conforming condos to voluntarily demolish their buildings and build the same number of units back to current building and zoning codes. The current density will remain the same.”

Months of board consideration and staff work

In early January, Siesta architect Smith appeared before the County Commission during the morning Open to the Public session. He explained that the Sea Club V owners would like to take down their existing buildings and then rebuild the complex with the same number of units. However, the only county policy in existence that would allows reconstruction with the same number of units, he said, was linked to the original Post Disaster Redevelopment Plan the county released in 2015.

In other words, Smith told the commissioners, the buildings could be rebuilt to the same density if they were demolished by a hurricane, but not if the owners wished to avoid a disaster like the one in Surfside. “They’ve been putting Band-Aids on their buildings for years,” he said of the Sea Club V owners.

This aerial map shows the location of Sea Club V on south Siesta Key. Image from Google Maps

As its website explains, Sea Club V is a 41-unit time-share property “situated directly on the Gulf of Mexico” on Siesta Key. The complex comprises two, two-story buildings and one three-story building, the website adds. Sarasota County Property Appraiser William Furst’s website says Sea Club V dates to 1957.

Following Smith’s initial remarks to the full County Commission, Chair Maio explained to his colleagues that he had talked with Smith about the proposal on three separate occasions and that he also had met with representatives of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce. After consulting with the staff of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, Maio continued, he learned that one potential action would be the drafting of an amendment to the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC).

Maio asked his colleagues for their support of a board assignment: for staff to research Smith’s proposal and report back to the commission. No commissioner objected.

Following the release of that report, in February, Smith again appeared before the commissioners, to explain facets of the document that did not address what he said were all of the relevant issues.

This is a section of architect Mark Smith’s comments in response to the first, Feb. 7 staff report on the proposal regarding aging condominiums. Image courtesy of Mark Smith

Maio proposed a second staff report to try to clear up those concerns, and his colleagues agreed to that, as well.

Then, in early March, Smith was back before the commission to discuss remaining issues that still had not been resolved by the staff work in the second report.

For example, Smith pointed out, staff had focused only on Siesta Key residential multi-family zoning districts. “What about the nonconforming condos on Manasota Key?” Smith asked. “This is a countywide situation.”

Staff also had said the commissioners could consider allowing owners to demolish buildings and then reconstruct them with the same footprints. However, Smith told the commissioners, “I don’t think you want to build in a 1950s footprint.” One goal would be to relocate structures landward of the Gulf Beach Setback Line, he added.

That is the “figurative line in the sand” that was implemented in 1979 to protect dunes and beach habitat, which, in turn, protect landward structures from storm surge and other flooding events.

Smith, too, appeared before the board members on July 13. Once more, he focused on the March staff report, which recommended “There should not be an increase in the overall square footage” of the condominium complex.

“We wouldn’t build a condominium today in the same square footage as they did in the 1950s, or ’60s, or ’70s or ’80s,” Smith pointed out. Therefore, he continued, he would like to see the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment allow owners to be able to “build back the same type of units that were there originally. Stay away from the square footage.”

The move from a UDC amendment to a Comprehensive Plan amendment

This is the cover of the first volume of the Sarasota County Comprehensive Plan, which was updated in October 2016. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In explaining the transition from a UDC amendment to a Comprehensive Plan amendment to address Smith’s proposal for condominium demolition and reconstruction, a county staff memo in the July 13 board packet said that staff research and discussions had ended up focusing on whether a UDC amendment “would be consistent with the adopted Comprehensive Plan.” Staff finally determined that a new or amended policy in the plan’s Future Land Use Chapter “would be necessary to ensure overall consistency between the Comprehensive Plan and the Unified Development Code,” the memo said.

During the process, the memo added, a public workshop would be advertised and held “in accordance with the required procedures.”

The July 13 memo also pointed out that, following a Neighborhood Workshop with the affected residents, staff would develop a report on the draft Comprehensive Plan amendment. After that was completed, a public hearing would be conducted by the county Planning Commission. Then, the draft amendment would be presented to the County Commission during a public hearing. Provided the county commissioners gave it initial approval, the amendment would be transmitted to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity for state review. That generally takes a couple of months, county staff has reported.

After staff received state approval, another Planning Commission public hearing would be scheduled, and then the final County Commission hearing would be conducted.