Board members laud owner’s outreach to residents and organizations on island, noting speakers acknowledged that, as well
Following a Sept. 1 public hearing that lasted close to two hours and 15 minutes, the Sarasota County Planning Commission members voted unanimously to recommend that the County Commission approve the application for a hotel with approximately 112 rooms on a 2.15-acre site at 5810 Midnight Pass Road on Siesta Key.
Planning Commission Chair Teresa Mast was absent from the meeting, so Vice Chair Justin Taylor presided.
The motion made by Planning Commissioner Neil Rainford called for one additional stipulation beyond the two that county staff had suggested. That new stipulation — to which the property owner, David Balot, agreed without hesitation — was for the erection of an 8-foot concrete wall to separate the site from the adjoining property of the Gulf & Bay Club condominium complex.
The staff-recommended stipulations call for the construction to take place “in substantial compliance with the Binding Development Concept Plan,” which dated to July 7; and the construction of a bus stop pad that would be compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations for accessibility, plus the installation of a bus shelter and bike racks that would meet the standards set by Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT).
Planning Commissioner Kevin Cooper, who served more than a decade ago as executive director of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, noted that he had voted “No” on the proposals for the prior two hotels planned for Siesta Key, in 2021. Acknowledging at first that he was “of two minds on this thing,” he added that he had had to separate his thoughts about this project, planned for the former site of a Wells Fargo bank, from the earlier ones.
“I’m very familiar with this lot,” Cooper continued. From the perspective of a member of the public who is not on the Planning Commission, he explained, “This is the [Siesta Key hotel proposal] that made the most sense,” both because of its location and the design.
Nonetheless, Cooper also noted, “It’s hard for me to get my head around all of these Special Exceptions,” for this hotel and the other two.
In this case, Balot, the property owner, is seeking a Special Exception to exceed the 35-foot height restriction for a parcel zoned Commercial General in the Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD) zoning regulations and another Special Exception so “transient accommodations” — what county staff calls hotel and motel rooms — could be constructed on the land.
The height of the six-story structure would be a maximum of 59 feet, project team members pointed out. The first two levels would encompass parking, including approximately 43 spaces for members of the general public who wish to go to the nearby Siesta Beach Park that the county owns.
Moreover, the design includes construction of a driveway parallel to Midnight Pass Road, so vehicles headed to the hotel would be able to pull into the property to pick up and drop off guests, architect Mark Sultana explained. Thus, he added, those vehicles — including the Siesta Key Breeze trolley — would not hold up other traffic along Midnight Pass Road.
Among other points of discussion during the Sept. 1 hearing, planning commissioners noted that a number of the speakers had commended applicant Balot for his outreach to community organizations and other groups on Siesta Key.
“I think the applicant did a good job [of that],” Planning Commissioner Rainford said.
Vice Chair Taylor acknowledged, “I started out as a ‘No’ ” on Balot’s application. However, he continued, in preparation for a public hearing, he always takes a look first at staff’s report of the county-required Neighborhood Workshop on a proposed project. After reading the narrative regarding Balot’s workshop, Taylor added, he felt he never had seen as much documentation as that provided about conversations between the applicant and the affected residents.
Further, Taylor pointed out, speakers had testified that Balot had tried “to be honest and transparent” about his plans.
Planning commissioners also complimented architect Sultana of DSDG Architecture in Sarasota.
As Sultana explained, “I was basically provided the job of creating a ’60s-inspired kind of low-impact hotel design.” He added that, having lived in Sarasota for 27 years, “I’ve seen a lot of changes …” However, he continued, one constant has been the style of the Sarasota School of Architecture, which — he indicated — was the basis for his proposal.
Among other details about that design, Sultana pointed out, “All the rooms in the hotel face inward and not towards the street.”
Further, he said, the extra height was necessary to accommodate a Grand Tree on the site, which, according to county regulations, has to be preserved. (A tree must meet a minimum requirement of trunk diameter to be accorded that designation.)
As attorney Scott E. Rudacille of the Bradenton firm Blalock Walters pointed out during the presentation, the hotel will be surrounded by condominium complexes on land zoned Residential Multi-Family 3 in the Siesta Key Overlay District, which allows for buildings about 5 feet taller than the hotel would be. In fact, Rudacille noted, some of those condominium buildings are seven and eight stories in height.
Speakers that night did express concerns about the potential of guests trespassing on private property — including areas of the beach — that belongs to those nearby complexes.
They also voiced concerns about the prospect of guests at the rooftop pool and bar disrupting residents of those neighboring condominiums, and they talked of worries about bringing more people to the barrier island, which has only two accesses, both of which have drawbridges.
Project team members pointed out that far more traffic would be generated by other commercial uses allowed on the site by right, including a retail center. Further, Balot himself — who is co-owner of the Siesta Key Beach Resort and Suites in Siesta Village — stressed that guests would have to be evacuated well in advance of an approaching hurricane.
In fact, Balot said, during past incidents when storms were forecast to strike Siesta, hotel staff ensured that guests with rooms booked during the anticipated storm strike received refunds or were rescheduled for later stays. Nonetheless, he added, he plans to have generators for the new hotel, and he would provide a significantly discounted rate for local residents who needed a place to stay after a storm.
Further, Balot pointed out, “The hotel will not have a 7,000-square-foot restaurant,” though such a facility is referenced in the application. It will have a restaurant to which the public will be welcome, along with guests, and it will have a bagel and coffee shop, a ballroom and a meeting room.
The outdoor bar will be on the third floor, facing Midnight Pass Road, architect Sultana said. A wall to block noise from that facility has been included in the plans, he added.
No nightclub or bar is planned for the public, Balot stressed. “Guests require quiet enjoyment,” he told the commissioners. “My intent is to be a good neighbor.
He also acknowledged the concerns about trespassing, noting that he plans to provide signage in the lobby and in the rooms, plus information for guests during the check-in process, to alert them about the private beach issue and to advise them against trespassing.
Zoning administrator contradicts County Commission action earlier this year
During the public hearing, Mark Spiegel, president of the nonprofit Siesta Key Coalition — which was organized in 2020 to fight the proposals for high-rise hotels on the island — brought up a point about setbacks for structures on parcels zoned Commercial General.
In advance of the first public hearing last year on a new high-rise hotel on Siesta, he told the planning commissioners, representatives of the Coalition asked multiple times to meet with county staff to discuss what the Coalition leaders believed was an incorrect interpretation of the county’s zoning regulations.
As he and other Coalition officers read the code, Spiegel said, they understood it to require greater side and rear yard setbacks for buildings that would stand taller than 35 feet on parcels zoned Commercial General (CG).
However, county planning staff maintained a different stance on that, he noted.
Then, on Jan. 25, during a presentation to the County Commission, Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson explained that staff was proposing an amendment to the Unified Development Code (UDC) that would include the requirement for greater street setbacks. The UDC contains all of the zoning and land-use regulations.
She told the County Commission that staff had determined that language in the 1975 Zoning Code regarding greater street setbacks for higher buildings inadvertently was left out of a later revision of the regulations.
The 1975 code said that for every 4 feet of height above 35 feet in a CG zone, an extra foot of setback on the sides and the rear of a structure would be necessary.
If the commissioners authorized staff to proceed with the proposed UDC amendment to reinsert that setback requirement, Thompson added, then the two high-rise hotels the board members approved in late 2021 would be nonconforming.
When Commissioner Ron Cutsinger asked whether the UDC amendment would have to be applied retroactively to the hotels, Thompson told him that that would not be necessary.
The commissioners ended up voting unanimously to authorize staff to work on that amendment, as The Sarasota News Leader reported.
The official minutes of the Jan. 25 meeting, shown on the county website, confirm the accuracy of the News Leader’s report.
However, during the Sept. 1 Planning Commission hearing, Thompson said that the county commissioners “requested additional analysis of that [proposed UDC amendment] and did not suggest it go forward at that time.”
In response to a News Leader request for a statement regarding the contradiction between what the minutes of the Jan. 25 meeting show and what Thompson reported on Sept. 1, Thompson offered the following statement in a Sept. 8 email: “Planning and Development Services staff has not moved forward with further exploration of setbacks in commercial general zones adjacent to residential, even though the Sarasota County Board of County Commissioners authorized researching the potential amendment, as the county is currently in active litigation with two recently approved properties.”
During the Sept. 1 hearing, Thompson did point out that Balot’s hotel would have greater street setbacks in accord with the former zoning regulation. She described the effect as a “wedding cake appearance.”
The two other hotels planned for Siesta and the litigation challenging them
The first new Siesta Key hotel that the County Commission approved in 2021 would stand eight stories tall and contain about 170 rooms. It would be built on approximately 0.96 acres on four parcels between Calle Miramar and Beach Road, on the edge of Siesta Village. The second project entails a seven-story, 120-room hotel planned at the intersection of Old Stickney Point Road and Peacock Road in what is called the “South Bridge Area” of Siesta Key — the commercial district just to the south of the intersection of Stickney Point and Midnight Pass roads.
Speakers during the Sept. 1 Planning Commission meeting did note that litigation remains underway over the County Commission’s approval of the Special Exceptions for those two projects.
Planning Commissioner Andrew Stultz asked Assistant County Attorney David Pearce, who is representing the county in those lawsuits, whether the board members should recommend that the County Commission pause the process for this hotel planned for 5810 Midnight Pass Road — as speakers had requested that night.
“No,” Pearce replied. The applicant controls the approval process, Pearce explained. For county leaders to put this process on hold, he continued, a formal moratorium on such applications would have to be adopted for a legitimate reason, such as — for example — if work were underway on additions or amendments to the county’s zoning regulations.
Neither county staff members nor the county commissioners had indicated the need for a moratorium, Pearce said. Therefore, he added, staff had to process Balot’s application just as it would have processed any other development application. “The applicant bears the risk [in this case],” Pearce pointed out. “There’s no liability to the county.”
One major focus of the litigation is a county Future Land Use Policy that restricts residential density on the county’s barrier islands to the level in place as of March 13, 1989. No change to that county Comprehensive Plan policy was approved for either of the earlier hotel projects.
Instead, the first set of applicants — the owners of the site of the Calle Miramar hotel and the developer, RE/MAX Realtor Robert Anderson Jr. — sought an amendment to the county’s Unified Development Code. That modification eliminated the counting of hotel and motel rooms for residential density purposes countywide.
Commissioners Nancy Detert and Christian Ziegler voted against the UDC amendment during the first hotel hearing last year, which was conducted on Oct. 27.