Session to be held at County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota, beginning at 9 a.m.
Shortly after 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 12, the Sarasota County Commission will begin what is expected to be a day-long hearing on one of the most controversial projects proposed in the community in recent years: Siesta Promenade.
Residents of Pine Shores Estates, who live next to the site where the mixed-use development would be built, already have been “marshaling resources,” in a manner of speaking. They plan to try to make their case that, as designed, Siesta Promenade would be incompatible with their homes and push traffic onto their streets, some of which are only about 16 feet wide.
Likewise, representatives of nonprofit organizations on Siesta Key and residents of that barrier island plan to make their case that traffic congestion around the project site, which is the northwest corner of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road, already is unbearable during tourist season. Adding more development at that intersection — with the resulting additional traffic — will lead to even more gridlock and far more frustration as drivers try to get onto the island via Stickney Point Road, they say.
On Nov. 15, a number of Siesta speakers joined others in urging the county’s Planning Commission to turn down Benderson Development’s proposal for Siesta Promenade. Plans call for 414 condominiums/apartments, a 130-room hotel and 140,000 square feet of commercial space on approximately 24 acres.
Nonetheless, the Planning Commission voted 5-2 to recommend the County Commission approve the project. Only Planning Commissioners Laura Benson and Robert Morris explained that they, too, were concerned enough about issues opponents had raised that they could not vote “Yes.”
Several of the planning commissioners cited the design as the exact type of infill development for which county leaders have been advocating for some years. Chair Kevin Cooper was one of those who pointed to a county Future Land Use Map and other documents indicating the suitability of Siesta Promenade for the site.
Earlier this year, Benderson established a new website and a Facebook page to garner support for Siesta Promenade, fighting back against the detractors. A Dec. 4 post on the Shop Dine Live Siesta Facebook page said, “Nearly 40 years ago, Sarasota County’s first Comprehensive Plan … and all subsequent revisions, articulated a very clear plan to balance our growth and quality of life objectives. That plan and each subsequent revision has set forth consistent findings and policy objectives applicable to Siesta Promenade.”
A Nov. 30 post featured a graphic with the headline, “Benefits of Compact Mixed-Use,” and a Benderson reply to a comment touted the millions of dollars in tax revenue the county would realize from the project.
On Nov. 28, the Facebook page reported that it had reached the 1,000 likes.
After the Nov. 15 Planning Commission meeting, a Benderson post said, “We look forward to the next steps in bringing a compact, truly mixed use redevelopment that promotes walkability, pedestrian & bicycle travel, and an efficient use of land and infrastructure to truly embody Smart Growth that helps bring the commercial corridor into the next decade and beyond. We are committed to improving conditions in and around this site in the same way we have successfully revitalized dozens of properties up and down the Trail.”
‘Rallying the troops’
On the opposite side of the issue, Sura Kochman, leader of the Pine Shores Neighborhood Alliance, posted a message on Dec. 3 on a Facebook page she and others created to oppose Siesta Promenade as designed. Kochman reminded everyone of the Dec. 12 County Commission hearing, which will be held in the County Administration Center, located at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota.
“This is the ONLY chance to have your voice heard!” Kochman continued. “Benderson is counting on us having ‘meeting fatigue.’ This is not the time to be disillusioned or defeated — it is the time for ACTION!”
She added, “Write the commissioners and let them know how the approval of this application, with its density and height will affect your life,” noting that the email address is email@example.com.
Kochman and many of her neighbors have talked of county land use policies in the Comprehensive Plan, which require new developments to be compatible with adjacent residential properties. Benderson’s plans, including a 65-foot residential structure and an 80-foot-tall hotel in Siesta Promenade, so close to single-family homes in Pine Shores Estates, is not an example of compatibility, Kochman has stressed.
In her Dec. 3 Facebook post, Kochman also pointed to the growing number of signatures on an iPetition she created to garner support for her stance. She had 1,629 as of that writing, and she was hoping for 2,000 or more by Dec. 12, she added. (Just two days later, the figure had grown to 1,792, The Sarasota News Leader found.
The Siesta Key Association (SKA) website urges members to sign the iPetition. Noting the Facebook page for Siesta Promenade, the nonprofit’s December update on the project also pointed out, “Benderson has been gathering ‘Likes’ … [and] likely will try to use this to show that people in favor of the project outnumber the people opposed. It is up to you to help prove they are wrong.”
Leaders of both the Siesta Key Condominium Council (SKCC) and the SKA sent out email blasts to their members this week, reminding them of the Dec. 12 hearing.
“It is important for as many people as possible to attend the Public Hearing on the 12th to make sure the commissioners understand the magnitude of the opposition to this project,” the SKA website says. “Whether you plan to speak or not, your attendance shows that you care about the outcome of the commissioners’ vote.”
Kochman has urged all opponents of the project to wear blue shirts and to arrive early. Overflow parking is available in the State Street garage, she has written on her Facebook page; that garage is located at 1538 E. State St.
In their Dec. 3 email blast, the Condominium Council leaders wrote, “The opinion of the Board of Directors for the SKCC is that virtually all Condo Associations are against the Benderson proposal as now recommended by the Sarasota County Planning Commission. A representative from the SKCC will attend the [Dec. 12] meeting … and speak against the proposal on behalf of the SKCC. Condo Associations are urged to have a representative attend and if so desired, speak.”
The notice added, “You should email your letters AGAIN [emphasis in the notice] as [the county commissioners] are more likely to read from their inboxes, rather than dig through the electronic packet [for the meeting].”
The email also reminded members that they likely will be limited to 3 minutes, instead of the standard 5 for public hearings, because of the anticipated number of people who will address the board on Dec. 12. The email blast advised those who do wish to speak to fill out one of the cards provided on the counters at the rear of the Commission Chambers and then give the card to the clerk to the board, who sits to the right of the dais.
“It is SO important that we show up to this meeting!” the email blast stressed. “Don’t be disillusioned by the recommendation of Planning Commission. They make more technical decisions — does the application meet certain qualifications, policies, etc. The Board of County Commissioners makes policy decisions — and has a lot of discretion. We MUST make our voices heard!!”
Putting it in writing to the commission
The Siesta Key Association also sent a letter to the County Commission this week.
Signed by President Gene Kusekoski, the letter begins, “Siesta Key Association of Sarasota, Inc. (SKA) respectfully requests that you do not approve the Critical Area Plan (CAP) application for Siesta Promenade in its current form. The SKA Board of Directors and the majority of SKA members are gravely concerned that the project as proposed would have an immense detrimental impact on Siesta Key residents, property owners, businesses, and visitors, and that this area-wide impact has not been properly considered in the current plan.”
Benderson is seeking the CAP designation for greater density. If it sought the standard Commercial General zoning for the property, the number of dwelling units could not exceed 13 per acre. Under a CAP, the maximum is 25 per acre.
The SKA letter adds, “Clearly, the project currently being proposed by Benderson Development is a site-specific project that is absent the context of the overall area-wide plan required by our county ordinances. In reviewing Sarasota County public documents related to previously approved projects submitted under Critical Area Plans, all encompass a wide area surrounding proposed development sites and include all existing and potential residential and commercial entities within that area in the process. None are evident where the boundary is limited to a single development site without consideration of its surroundings.”
In the case of Siesta Promenade, Benderson has proposed the CAP boundary surround just its property at U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road.
The letter also says, “But beyond the technicalities of the CAP process, the Board of County Commissioners frequently remind us that they represent all of the residents of Sarasota County. Whether considered under a CAP process or not, and irrespective of how the boundaries are drawn, SKA believes that the Commissioners have a fundamental responsibility to consider the safety and welfare of all residents, property owners, businesses and visitors potentially affected by this project above all else in deciding how the project should proceed. SKA sincerely believes that in that context, the Commissioners must in good conscience insist that the project not proceed until significant changes are made to mitigate the impact on this vital area of Sarasota County.”
The SKA “sincerely respects the right of Benderson Development to utilize their property in a profitable way,” the letter says, “but we also must insist that they be required to do it in a way that is not damaging to the Siesta Key community.”