Condominium owners working with Siesta Key Association and Siesta Key Condominium Council to educate people about project
Siesta Key resident Mark Spiegel was in a state of shock, he says.
Having just seen a presentation about a proposed 170-room hotel that would stand more than 80 feet tall on what he describes as his “quiet residential street” just off Ocean Boulevard, Spiegel told The Sarasota News Leader his immediate reaction was the effect the project would have the character of the island.
Siesta Key, he continued, has “a great local flavor.” He talked of the “very delicate balance” between permanent homeownership and seasonal visitors.
Taller commercial buildings with more density, Spiegel said, are “not what attracts people to Siesta Key, and that’s not why we have the No. 1 beach.”
Catherine Luckner, president of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), pointed out to the News Leader that county leaders “really [have] done a good job” of maintaining diverse areas. “We don’t all want to be cookie-cutter beach communities.”
With approximately 220,000 square feet on 0.96 acres, Spiegel added, the hotel would have the highest density per acre on the island of any construction in the past 30 years.
Those reasons — and others — are the foundation upon which a group has been organizing over the past couple of months to fight the hotel proposal and a related issue involving density on all the barrier islands within the county’s jurisdiction. The members of the group are calling themselves the SK Coalition, and the SKA has agreed to include on its website a project page devoted to the work of the coalition.
Spiegel told the News Leader he made his first trip to Siesta about 15 years ago. The island became a vacation spot and then — approximately five years ago — his home.
Before purchasing a condominium in a complex on Calle Miramar, he said, he researched the zoning restrictions. As a developer himself, he added, he knew the potential existed for someone to undertake the transformation of the neighboring land, which was zoned Commercial General (CG) and had single-story office buildings on it. However, he was satisfied that the restrictions for that area, as detailed in the Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD), would not allow anything too intense. “I learned what was allowed by right,” he pointed out. “Ironically, not hotels.”
For example, Spiegel continued, the maximum height for development in the CG/SCKOD zoning district is 35 feet above the ground-floor elevation specified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Recent construction plans the Sarasota County Commission has considered have put that first level of construction just above the 18-foot mark.
“I’ve never opposed a development my entire life,” Spiegel added, emphasizing that he would not object to what someone has the right to build.
Steve Blaising, who represents the owners of the condominiums at 222 Beach Road, which is across Beach Road from the hotel parcels, agreed with Spiegel on that point. “I always assumed that [the site] would be developed.”
Yet, Blaising added of the hotel proposal, “The magnitude of it is a challenge.”
Because of county staff concerns about traffic counts in the vicinity of the Ocean Boulevard/Beach Road intersection, Spiegel said, Calle Miramar would serve as the primary entrance and exit for the hotel property. As he understands it, Spiegel added, the Ocean Boulevard/Beach Road intersection is “the busiest … on the north side of the Key.” It is adjacent to
Beach Access 5, he pointed out.
And those facts underscore yet another concern about the plans.
At sunset and during evening dining hours, Spiegel noted, “There’s a line of cars trying to get into the Village,” which already poses safety issues.
Blaising concurred with Spiegel again. “At any sunset,” Blaising said, “it’s a very busy access. … I’m just not sure how you would handle that many more people,” he added, referring to the potential of hundreds of hotel guests.
The density concern
One other, “deeply concerning” factor, Spiegel told the News Leader, is that the owner of the planned hotel site — in collaboration with RE/MAX real estate agent Robert T. Anderson Jr. — is calling for the elimination of the density regulation for accommodations on all the county’s barrier islands.
Attorney Matthew Brockway of the Icard Merrill firm in Sarasota explained in the preliminary application for the project that his clients plan to request an amendment to Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1 in the county’s Comprehensive Plan, as well as an amendment to the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC), which combines all the county’s zoning and land-development regulations.
The Comprehensive Plan amendment calls for treating transient accommodations as a non-residential use. The proposal would remove the language in the Code that says, “Each transient unit not having a kitchen shall be equal to ½ dwelling unit. Each transient unit having kitchen facilities shall be equal to one dwelling unit.”
In his preliminary application, submitted to county staff in May, Brockway added, “These text amendments will eliminate residential density and residential density calculations for Transient Accommodations, and instead rely on existing height, bulk, setback and other commercial development standards and requirements.”
Diane Erne, vice president of the Siesta Key Condominium Council, pointed out to the News Leader that if the County Commission were to get rid of the density requirement for transient accommodations, the Calle Miramar hotel no doubt would be the first of many.
Spiegel referred to that potential as “the slippery slope,” noting “how dangerous those precedents can be.”
About 44 more acres on Siesta have the same CG/SKOD zoning as the hotel site, he said. For one example: Through his research, Spiegel noted, he learned that Louise Khaghan of New York City, owner of the land slated for the hotel, also owns the 27,850-square-foot parcel that is home to Blasé Café. That is across Calle Miramar from the proposed hotel site.
Among the Condo Council’s concerns, Erne stressed the fact that the people staying at the hotel would have vehicles, which would add to the congestion with which island residents already have been contending, given Siesta Public Beach’s international recognition on Top 10 lists over the past decade.
As she sees it, she told the News Leader, Brockway’s proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment says hotel guests “don’t really exist. … That’s a crazy argument.”
And that is not the only problem, she continued. With 170 rooms, plus a restaurant and bar, the hotel likely would have at least 100 employees, Erne said. Most of them, she expects, will live off the Key, which means they will have to use some means of transportation to reach the hotel.
Combining the vehicles of the guests and the employees, Erne added, “That’s got to be something close to 300 or 500.”
Building the opposition
As Anderson, the real estate agent, showed the hotel presentation to more and more groups on the island, and word spread, Spiegel told the News Leader, people began reaching out to each other. “We found a lot of common ground,” he said.
The goal with organizing now — even before the formal application has been filed with county staff — is to “get ahead of it,” Erne of the Condo Council, pointed out. The core members of the group are working hard to educate Siesta residents about the multiple facets of the proposal.
(In early August, Brockway told the News Leader he anticipated filing the formal application before the end of the year, but he did not provide a timeline.)
Erne talked of her excitement about the coalition leaders. “There’s energy; there’s commitment; there’s depth of understanding.”
“What we aren’t,” Spiegel emphasized, “is a bunch of cranky neighbors that hate development.”
He is not the only developer in the coalition, Spiegel added.
“We’re fortunate to have a couple of developers,” Blaising of 222 Beach Road told the News Leader. “They know all the details of zoning.”
In support of the coalition’s efforts, leaders of the Condominium Council launched a survey of their members, who represent approximately 100 condos on the island. On Sept. 11, Erne told the News Leader that all the respondents expressed opposition to the hotel project and to the proposed amendment to the Future Land Use Policy in the Comprehensive Plan.
Spiegel also indicated that the number of condominium homeowner associations with which he has been working has been growing, as the word has spread.
Just last week, representatives of the coalition met with two county commissioners, Luckner of the SKA told the News Leader, though she declined to identify them.
Quasi-judicial public hearings would be necessary on various facets of the project, she explained, so three commissioners were reluctant even to listen to the group’s presentation. However, she continued, as she understands county policy, the board members are allowed to meet with groups such as the coalition, as long as the commissioners do no more than accept the information.
A quasi-judicial hearing is similar to a proceeding in court, as the commissioners must consider evidence and testimony and then decide whether the proposal before them complies with county regulations and policies. Commissioner Alan Maio has explained on numerous occasions that, like a jury, the board members must take care not to indicate how they are leaning until after they have read all the relevant materials provided to them for a public hearing and then listened to presentations and testimony during the hearing.
Luckner added that her next step will be to organize a meeting of the Barrier Island League, which encompasses residential associations on Casey and Manasota keys, along with the SKA.
Spiegel also has put together a PowerPoint presentation to highlight the common concerns of the coalition members.
He emphasized the focus on what he called, for the Key, the “death by 1,000 cuts” if the hotel project and Comprehensive Plan amendment ultimately win approval.
“Pretty soon,” he said, “we’re on a path to being a very dense and congested area overall.”