County staff says it cannot stop the development, based on traffic concerns, but it may be able to reduce the intensity of it
One day before Benderson Development submitted its latest application to Sarasota County regarding its proposed Siesta Promenade project at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road, a Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) engineer sent a letter to Sarasota County’s transportation planning manager, pointing to the “astonishing 175 percent total increase” in crashes at that intersection between 2010 and 2014.
The Siesta Promenade plan has been classified a Development of Regional Impact (DRI), according to a document filed with the county’s Planning and Development Services Department. According to Florida State Statute 380.06(1), a DRI “is defined as any development which, because of its character, magnitude or location, would have a substantial effect on the health, safety or welfare of citizens in more than one county.”
The Benderson application proposes the rezoning of the approximately 24-acre site to Commercial General “in order to allow 140,000 square feet of commercial space, 150 hotel rooms and 581 dwelling units.”
The number of residential units has fluctuated between 600 and slightly more than 500 as Todd Mathes, director of development for Benderson, has made public presentations about the project since early June.
In response to a question from The Sarasota News Leader about the timeline for county staff review — and subsequent Planning Commission and County Commission public hearings on Siesta Promenade — county spokesman Jason Bartolone wrote, “This submittal is under review by county staff, due back Aug. 10. Once that review is completed and approved, the applicant can then submit a full CAP [Critical Area Plan] and rezone application.”
The CAP approval is necessary, Mathes explained to Siesta Key Association (SKA) members in June, because of the firm’s plans for density. Under the CAP, the development can have up to 25 dwelling units per acre. The current zoning, Mathes said at the SKA meeting, would allow only 9 per acre.
On July 25, Keith Slater, traffic services program engineer with FDOT, sent a formal letter to Paula Wiggins, the county’s transportation planning manager, following up on comments FDOT representatives made in meetings with county staff, Bartolone told the News Leader this week. County staff had requested the letter, Bartolone added, noting that it “is being shared with Planning and Development Services staff so that it can be entered into the record and considered once the rezone application and Critical Area Plan have been submitted.”
Slater’s letter points to “the growing safety and operational concerns related to the intersection of U.S. 41 and State Road 72 [Stickney Point Road]. [FDOT] has a responsibility to provide a safe and efficient roadway for our residents and the thousands and thousands of visitors and tourists that come to our great state each year. Sarasota County is one of the larger tourist areas within the state with many new residents moving to this county annually.”
Slater noted that the intersection is on the county’s “High Crash Segments” list and that “over the past five years there has been a constant increase in crashes within this segment.”
Slater continued, “Crashes have increased on average 30 percent per year with an astonishing 175 percent total increase between 2010 and 2014. Having reviewed the crash data for this area, it became very clear why coordination efforts for this area are so vital.”
He further noted, “As for our operational concerns, significant increase in traffic for eastbound and westbound will only cause additional delay and congestion. During peak hour, the traffic queues regularly reach past Stickney Point Bridge. … The eastbound left turn movement has up to 75 percent more volume than the roadway design can accommodate. To simply maintain the current Level of Service with additional traffic added, [traffic light] cycle lengths would need to be significantly adjusted.”
The letter pointed out that department representatives met with “key county staff” on May 12 to discuss the concerns about the intersection and the county’s approval of land uses for the surrounding property, “[s]pecifically, the parcel(s) making up the northwest quadrant of the intersection of U.S. 41 and S.R. 72 north to Upper Glencoe Road and from the intersection west to Glencoe Road.”
During that May 2015 meeting, Slater added, and “via the permitting process,” FDOT staff learned of the potential for the county to approve the rezoning of the Benderson property.
Preventing a ‘losing battle’
Selina Carroll, a traffic engineering specialist with FDOT, sent an email to Slater, L.K. Nandam — FDOT’s district operations engineer in Sarasota — and other department staff on May 18 to summarize the May 12 session with county staff. She noted that Nandam “advised the FDOT access permit is the final leg in the process and a losing battle if the county approves a large density [on the Benderson property]. That’s why we are here — to get the county’s cooperation at the beginning of the process.”
(A June 6 letter from county Planner Todd Dary to Mathes explained steps necessary to Benderson’s winning approval for Siesta Promenade. In it, Shannon Rodden of the county’s Transportation Planning Department staff estimated that the mixed-use development would generate more than 100 peak hour trips in the afternoon.)
The May 18 email said Wiggins pointed out that the county’s Comprehensive Plan shows the proposed Siesta Promenade site designated for commercial purposes in future land use planning. She added that the county has “no control over intensity based on traffic.” However, the email continued, Wiggins added that the County Commission “may be able to consider a lower intensity based on compatibility or safety & operational issues.”
The email noted that Slater “advised capacity and [Level of Service] leads before safety & operational [concerns].”
Wiggins countered that, “by law the county is unable to restrict development based on capacity & traffic.”
Then Wiggins and FDOT staff concurred that Glencoe Avenue would be the preferred access point for the Benderson property. The email pointed out, “She added the [County Commission] can deny it based on compatibility if residents resist.” On May 18, an email from Nandam to Carroll and the other recipients of the earlier email showed his suggested revision to that statement: “She added the [County Commission] can consider compatibility as an item if residents resist.”
During the Jan. 19 Siesta Key Condominium Council meeting, Commission Chair Al Maio told island residents that the board would be sued if it denied Benderson the opportunity to put a project on the property.
‘Trying to sell this plan’
A June 30 email from Carroll summarized discussion at an “Internal [FDOT] meeting to discuss access plan for Siesta Promenade.” That session was held at the District One headquarters in Bartow, Carroll noted.
An FDOT construction project administrator, Nathan Kautz, presented the latest traffic study and site plan for the Benderson project, which he had received on June 21 from the Kimley-Horn consulting firm, the memo said. After he and another FDOT staff member had reviewed it, the email continued, they determined, “FDOT would need more information before developing an access plan for [Siesta Promenade].”
When Nandam asked what Kimley-Horn was seeking at that time, the response was that the firm is “in the process of going through zoning approval with the county. … [The firm’s representatives] are looking for an access plan from FDOT because they are trying to sell this plan to the [residents],” the email noted. If FDOT did not have a final site plan, Nandam pointed out, it could not make a final decision, the email said.
Kautz “recommended FDOT not provide an access plan until [Kimley-Horn provides] an acceptable traffic study.”
The application that Benderson filed with the county on July 26 includes as part of the scope of work, “a full traffic analysis consistent with Sarasota County [Land Development Regulations] and FDOT requirements … including, without limitation, internal traffic circulation patterns, proposed driveway locations,” planned Sarasota County Area Transit bus stops “and an analysis of opportunities for bicycle and pedestrian improvements.”
As the County Commission worked in June and July to revise its Comprehensive Plan for submittal to the state for review, Pine Shores resident Sura Kochman — who has been one of the most vocal representatives of neighbors opposed to Siesta Promenade — urged the board to make certain the updated document incorporated two key elements. Although she never mentioned Siesta Promenade, an observer would have been able to infer that it was one of her focal points.
Quoting from the current Comprehensive Plan, Kochman pointed to Future Land Use Objective 1.2: “Protect the quality and integrity of established residential neighborhoods from adjacent incompatible development.” She told the board that the draft of the revised Comprehensive Plan no longer included that as “a standalone policy.” Instead, she said, a person would have to look for references to it in specific sections, such as those for Critical Area Plans and affordable housing.
“I think it’s so important that it warrants its own little policy to be easily found,” Kochman added. That would show “that it’s tantamount … to protect the integrity of established neighborhoods.”
Then Kochman asked the board to look at Future Land Use policy regarding intensification of land uses within the county’s most vulnerable hurricane evacuation zones — including Siesta Key. The draft revision of the Comprehensive Plan calls for the county to “discourage” such intensification, she noted. “I would highly suggest” the board modify that to say that no such intensification would be allowed next to “any hurricane evacuation zone when in conjunction with a constrained or deficient roadway.”
She added, “We are so overdeveloping Sarasota County.” When roadways cannot support additional projects, Kochman continued, the issue becomes one of safety. “Emergency vehicles need to get where they’ve got to go.” If an area becomes too congested, she pointed out, “People are going to die ….”