County staff to research potential changes to zoning regulations to allow voluntary demolition of deteriorating, decades-old condominium complexes and reconstruction of them with same number of units

Siesta architect reports dilemma of Sea Club V owners, whose buildings have suffered damage

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

On Jan. 11, the Sarasota County Commission directed county staff to research the potential of an amendment to the county’s zoning and land-use regulations to allow redevelopment of condominium complexes subject to disasters similar to the June 28, 2021 collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside.

The action, by consensus, followed remarks by Siesta Key architect Mark Smith.

During the Open to the Public period of the Jan. 11 meeting, Smith pointed out that he was representing the owners of the Sea Club V condominium complex, which stands at 6744 Sarasea Circle, on the southern part of the island. However, Smith said, his comments related to all older condominium projects — those constructed in the 1950s and 1970s.

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

Sea Club V, as its website explains, 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.

Under the current zoning of the property — Residential Multi-Family-3 — Smith told the commissioners that only 18 units would be allowed if the owners voluntarily demolished the existing structures and built new ones.

The Sea Club V owners paid for a structural engineering report prepared by Sarasota architect C. Alan Anderson and Snell Engineering Consultants of Sarasota, Smith continued. That report, Smith said, pointed out, “Structural components are corroding. This deterioration became significant after 20 or 30 years.”

Thus, Smith added, the Sea Club V owners want to prevent a disaster. “They’ve been putting Band-Aids on their buildings for years.”

On behalf of Sea Club V, Smith said, he had talked with county Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson. She explained that condominiums can be rebuilt at the same size after a natural disaster, such as a hurricane. However, in the absence of such a catastrophic event, Smith said, the owners would have to abide by the current zoning regulations in regard to residential density.

This is an engineering drawing that Mark Smith provided to the commissioners, showing more details about the reconstruction issues, based on current zoning regulations. Image courtesy of Mark Smith

Smith then referenced the county’s Post-Disaster Redevelopment Plan, which was completed in 2014. He read the following section: “Current zoning regulations allow any residential structure or structures in any residential zoning district to be rebuilt after destruction to the same height and density of units per acre regardless of the percentage of destruction, except when the destruction has occurred by the voluntary act of the owner.”

“That’s physically impossible on the coast,” Smith stressed of redevelopment after a disaster. “You have to build higher to begin with, to get out of the flood zone,” in accord with the requirements of the Florida Building Code and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), Smith added.

All of the Sea Club V units were constructed on the ground, he pointed out.

This is the cover of the county’s Post-Disaster Redevelopment Plan. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Post-Disaster Redevelopment Plan (PDRP) also notes, “The plan emphasizes seizing opportunities for hazard mitigation,” adding, “The intent of all PDRP activities is to improve the community’s ability for long-term recovery and redevelopment. Implementation of these activities, however, may occur pre-disaster …”

In an email responding to Sarasota News Leader follow-up questions about his remarks, Smith emphasized his view that it makes sense to allow voluntary demolition of older structures that do not conform to the current construction codes before a disaster occurs.

He also pointed out that the situation involving decades-old condominium complexes not only affects all of Siesta Key, but it also likely should be viewed in a countywide context.

Commission comments and direction
After Smith concluded his Jan. 11 remarks, Chair Alan Maio told his colleagues that he had talked with Smith about the issue on three separate occasions and that he had met with a group of representatives of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce. (Smith was a director and officer of the Chamber for many years.)

Moreover, Maio continued, he had spoken with staff of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, who had advised him, “Their hands are a bit tied” by county regulations.

Therefore, Maio said, he wanted to propose an assignment for County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and staff: determine what could be done in response to the concerns Smith had raised. Among the potential actions, Maio noted, could be the drafting of an amendment to the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC). That is the document that contains all of the county’s land-use and zoning regulations.

Maio emphasized of the Sea Club V owners, “In this case … they’re willing to tear [the complex] down at their own expense and rebuild.”

Commissioner Nancy Detert. News Leader image

“You bring up a wonderful point and a potential solution,” Commissioner Nancy Detert told Smith. Moreover, she said, “The timing’s good,” as bills have been introduced in the 2022 legislative session in response to the Surfside disaster.

She told her colleagues that she believes county staff should work with the county’s lobbyist in Tallahassee to try to “offer [voluntary demolition and reconstruction] as part of the solution because I think it’s really a good idea.”

A Jan. 10 article in the South Florida Business Journal pointed out that about 60% of the state’s condominiums are older than 30 years — a total of more than 912,000.

One measure the Legislature will address this year is House Bill 771, filed by Rep. Robert Alexander Andrade, R-Pensacola, Journal reporter Brian Bandell noted. It would “require the Florida Building Commission to develop uniform standards” to be used in inspections of buildings throughout the state.

The Building Commission should decide how often older structures should be inspected and what those inspections should entail, Andrade told Bandell.

Second, Senate Bill 1780, filed by state Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, whose district includes Surfside, calls for condominium associations to have 30-year-old buildings inspected by an architect or engineer, with subsequent inspections to follow every five years. That bill also would require condominium associations to provide local government officials and condo association members with copies of any inspection report within five days of its completion. Then an association board would have 21 days to vote on a plan for repairs.

“This would apply to condos at least four stories high located within a half-mile of the coast,” Bandell pointed out.

During the Jan. 11 County Commission discussion, Detert emphasized of Smith’s comments, “It really is an offer of an idea that I’ve not heard before, and I think it’s a good one.”

“We’re going to need changes to our own zoning code,” Maio replied. Moreover, he said, the section of the Post-Disaster Redevelopment Plan regarding building height needs to be revised. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sets base flood elevation in coastal areas, Maio added. FEMA says how high off the ground the first finished floor of a structure must be, based on its location, he noted.

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

Commissioner Christian Ziegler, who represents the northern part of Siesta Key, offered his support for the staff assignment, as well. In the wake of the Surfside condominium collapse, Ziegler pointed out, “There’s a lot of ‘Monday morning quarterbacking’ going on … The government, it seems like, is in the way … I think that’s silly.”

“At the bare minimum,” Ziegler continued, “I think we should keep the status quo for [Sea Club V], to avoid penalizing people for being proactive.”

After making certain no other board members wished to address the issue, Maio said, “I see no objection [to the board assignment], Mr. Lewis.”

“I think you’re going to see very big involvement [by the commissioners in this],” Maio added. “Staff needs this to be a policy decision.”
Maio said he already had communicated that to Matt Osterhoudt, director of the Planning and Development Services Department.