From concerns about hurricane evacuation to those regarding character of Siesta Village, residents express opposition to Benderson Development plans for high-rise hotels on Key

Formal application for Comprehensive Plan and Unified Development Code amendments likely to be filed with county staff in February

This graphic, presented during the workshop, shows the site proposed for the hotel. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Approximately a third of the way through a two-and-a-half-hour-long, Sarasota County mandated Neighborhood Workshop on Jan. 8, focused on Benderson Development Co.’s plans for a high-rise hotel on Siesta Key, one participant pointed out, “We’ve heard a lot of reasons why residents would oppose this process.”

Among those are worries that residents will be hampered by hotel guest traffic as the residents attempt to evacuate the island when a major storm has been predicted to strike the coast; exacerbation of traffic in general; incompatibility with the one- and two-story businesses that line Ocean Boulevard in Siesta Village; and the growing efforts of private property owners to keep people off their portions of the beach, resulting in a reduction of space for visitors and residents alike.

Then the man asked the workshop hosts to take an opportunity to explain why residents should support the proposals for multiple amendments to county policies and zoning regulations to make possible an 85-foot hotel adjacent to the sidewalk along Ocean Boulevard in Siesta Village.

Attorney William Merrill III, of the Icard Merrill firm in Sarasota, responded that, in the first place, “A hotel provides a location that is managed for visitors, and so you have more control … over what is done on that property,” compared to what happens at some of the vacation rental homes on the island. Merrill mentioned noise, accumulations of garbage at the curb, illegal parking and trespassing as examples.

Additionally, Merrill continued, transportation analyses have shown that having a hotel on the Key would lead to a reduction in trips by visitors to the barrier island, which commonly leads to the circling of parking lots and residential areas to find parking spots.

Moreover, Merrill said, the proposed site of the Benderson hotel — in place of two strip plazas near the southern end of Ocean Boulevard — “is an ideal location because it capitalizes on that trip capture and the mixed-use [commercial development] that is out there in the Village.”
He also noted that Benderson would create a wider sidewalk in front of the hotel and provide new retail storefronts. “That will create a more pedestrian-friendly atmosphere,” he maintained, in place of the large parking lot that takes up space in front of the stores in those two plazas.

William Merrill III. File photo

Finally, Merrill pointed to the fact that the new hotel would have to conform to all of the most current building code standards, including those related to coastal construction.

Neither the man who asked the question nor others that evening expressed any satisfaction with Merrill’s points.

Along with Merrill, certified Planner Philip DiMaria of the Kimley-Horn consulting firm in Sarasota hosted the workshop.

Siesta resident Lourdes Ramirez, who won two legal challenges last year against County Commission action in October 2021 that allowed high-rise hotels on the Key, noted in a Jan. 9 newsletter to her supporters that 246 people attended the workshop the previous evening. County Planning and Development Services staff confirmed that for The Sarasota News Leader via email on Jan. 11. Staff wrote, “As of 6:15 p.m., there were 246 attendees. Planning staff will receive a total count as part of the workshop summary the applicant is required to provide at the time of an application submittal, which is estimated to be in February.”

No one the News Leader heard speak voiced support for Benderson’s proposals. The event was conducted via Zoom.

Although the preliminary application that DiMaria submitted to county staff last year showed plans for 147 hotel rooms in six habitable floors on 0.97 acres — plus the retail space and a restaurant — DiMaria stressed several times during the workshop that further analysis could change figures in the Binding Development Concept Plan.

Regardless of the final details of the proposal, Glen Marino, who lives on Siesta, voiced an opinion that the News Leader has found to be a more common refrain in recent months among county residents who have opposed developments that the county commissioners ended up approving: The commissioners, as elected officials, swore an oath “to serve the best interest of the people, and if you were to poll the people,” 99% of those on the Key would say they do not want to see high-rise hotels constructed there, Marino told Merrill and DiMaria of Kimley-Horn.

“This [proposal] is not serving the people,” Marino continued. “It is serving the pockets of the developers, and that’s what’s bothering me. … I hope that the commissioners vote properly.”

At the outset of the workshop, which began shortly after 6 p.m. on Jan. 8, DiMaria explained that the project team likely will file its formal application in February. The materials will contain not only the details about the hotel, but also all of the amendments proposed to the county’s Comprehensive Plan — which guides growth in the community — and the Unified Development Code (UDC), which contains all of the county’s land-use and zoning regulations.

Among the Comprehensive Plan amendments for which the Benderson team is seeking approval is one that would eliminate the counting of hotel and motel rooms for residential density purposes almost countywide. In October 2021, the county commissioners seated at that time voted 3-2 to approve a UDC amendment that achieved that purpose. However, both a Florida administrative law judge and a 12th Judicial Circuit Court judge ruled against the board for taking that action. The decisions came in response to Siesta resident Ramirez’s litigation filed in late 2021.

As a result of those decisions, the Office of the County Attorney pointed out in a memo to the County Commission last year that an amendment to the Comprehensive Plan mirroring the 2021 UDC modification would be the “fix” that would allow new hotels and motels to provide more than 26 rooms per acre on commercial property on Siesta Key. Twenty-six is the limit, provided most of them do not have kitchens.

This is the mission of the Siesta Key Coalition, as shown on its website. Image courtesy Siesta Key Coalition

(Mark Spiegel, a commercial developer with projects nationwide who was a founder, in 2021, of a nonprofit organization called the Siesta Key Coalition, pointed out during the Jan. 8 workshop that he was unaware of any other county or municipality in Florida that has beaches that does not restrict hotels and motels to a specific number of rooms per acre. Such a measure, he pointed out to Merrill and DiMaria, enables local governments to determine more accurately the residential density of accommodations, along with the utility usage and impacts on traffic that the visitors will have. In fact, Spiegel said, “Even the most intense development in Florida,” which stands along International Boulevard in Orlando, has a 60-room per acre restriction for hotels and motels. “In your situation,” he told Merrill and DiMaria, “you can do a box and make it as big as you can [at] the maximum height and [with the required street] setbacks.”)

Further, Benderson is seeking to limit the construction of the high-rise hotels to no more than 15% of the total property on the island that is zoned for commercial purposes. Merrill reported that the amount of land zoned either Commercial General or Commercial Intensive adds up to 44.37 acres.

He also told the workshop participants that the project team anticipates the 15% being consumed on a first-come, first-served basis. That comment came in response to a question from attorney Susan Schoettle, who had asked, “Is it going to be a land rush where everybody’s trying to get their proposals in to the county as fast as they can?”

”We’re still looking at the percentages,” Merrill responded.

She also asked about the potential effect of such a limitation on property rights. Merrill indicated that many local government regulations impose percentages, “and they don’t necessarily violate property rights laws.”

Nonetheless, Schoettle called the provision of such a percentage “a very bizarre and actually a pretty much unsophisticated way of approaching a limitation.”

“We wanted to have some degree of limitations on it,” Merrill replied. The project team members had heard “a lot of concern,” he added, that “every square footage [of land zoned for commercial uses on the island] is going to become a hotel and … we don’t believe that’s the case.”

(Additionally, Michael Holderness, who co-owns the Siesta Key Beach Resorts and Suites on Ocean Boulevard, asked whether the 15% limitation would apply to existing hotels. DiMaria of Kimley-Horn replied that a member of county staff already had posed the same question, pointing out that it would be preferable to have that issue resolved by the time the formal application was submitted to the county’s Planning Division.)

Further facets of the formal approval process

This is the proposed Binding Development Concept Plan for the hotel, as shown in documents provided to county staff in regard to the Jan. 8 workshop. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The county Planning Division staff will collaborate with the project team in a review of the Benderson application, working to iron out any problems before declaring that stage of the process complete, DiMaria explained. That is called a “sufficiency review,” he noted.

Then, the next step would be a formal public hearing before the county’s Planning Commission, whose members make recommendations to the County Commission.

The County Commission first would have to hold what is called a “transmittal hearing” on the Comprehensive Plan amendments that Benderson is seeking. Provided that the amendments clear that hearing, they have to be forwarded to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), which — under state law — reviews all comprehensive plan amendments to ensure that they are consistent with those already in place for the affected local government.

This is another slide presented during the Jan. 8 workshop. It regards Benderson’s request for the necessary Special Exceptions to allow hotel and motel rooms on commercial property and to exceed the maximum 35-foot height on property zoned for commercial purposes. ‘DCP’ stands for Development Concept Plan. Image courtesy Sarasota County

After the DEO review is complete — that typically takes 60 days if local government officials request an expedited review, county staff has reported — then the County Commission would have to vote on whether to implement the amendments. A supermajority — four votes among the five commissioners — would be necessary for the Comprehensive Plan amendments to win approval. Only three votes are needed to modify the Unified Development Code.

Too much residential density already on a barrier island

As the workshop proceeded, Larry Hersh pointed out to the project team, “Already, Siesta Key has three times the population density of the rest of Sarasota County, according to Wikipedia.”

He added that a person heading onto the island by means of the Siesta Drive drawbridge already will “see at least a half-dozen major developments going on with the current zoning.” Moreover, Hersh continued, it seems to him that on every part of the island, single-family homes are being demolished and then replaced by buildings with three to five stories that can be used for vacation rentals.

Residential density on Siesta Key, he stressed, “is already out of control.”

He asked the project team, “How can you justify putting something like this [hotel] that’s going to add another 100 people to the area, or 200 people …? This does not make sense.”

This is a a still from a video showing an aerial view of Siesta Village. It was taken by a drone in August 2019. Neal Schleifer, vice president of the Siesta Key Condominium Council, showed the drone video to the county planning commissioners on Aug. 19, 2021. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Hersh further objected to the plans for an 85-foot-tall hotel in the middle of Siesta Village. “This is going to have a major impact on the aesthetic value and the ambiance of the Village by putting this monolithic building right at midblock …”

“I think all these developers want to make [the Village] look like Miami Beach, and that’s not what the people of Siesta Key want,” Patricia Nazzaro added.

Joyce Kouba, vice president of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), pointed to other amendments that Benderson has proposed, regarding construction of hotels along the county’s coastline.

County Comprehensive Plan Coastal Policy 1.2.3, she said, encourages the location of hotels in hurricane evacuation zones C, D and E, instead of A and B; the latter are most vulnerable to storm surge.

Yet, she noted, Benderson is seeking the removal of that policy from the Comprehensive Plan.

“Why would you favor putting people and buildings in harm’s way?” she asked.

Yet another section of the Comprehensive Plan that Benderson has proposed to modify is Coastal Objective 1.3, which relates to “safe and timely evacuation.” Both Kouba and Ramirez asked questions about that facet of the company’s preliminary application.

The current policy says, “To protect the public safety during emergency evacuation by reducing or maintaining emergency evacuation clearance time for residents; maintaining an adequate emergency evacuation roadway system; and ensuring adequate shelter space.”

Benderson’s modifications would make the policy read as follows: “To protect the public safety during emergency evacuation by reducing or maintaining emergency evacuation clearance time for residents; maintaining an adequate emergency evacuation roadway system; and ensuring adequate shelter space; and/or providing appropriate mitigation. Appropriate mitigation shall include, without limitation, payment of money, contribution of land, construction of hurricane shelters and transportation facilities (including without limitation contributions for hurricane hardening of existing and proposed schools designated as hurricane shelters), implementing operational standards for early evacuation, meeting or exceeding current hurricane construction standards, and providing vehicular shelter for EMS, fire, law enforcement, utility and other emergency vehicles and personnel during hurricane events and hurricane recovery events. Required mitigation may not exceed the amount required for a developer to accommodate impacts reasonably attributable to development. A local government and a developer shall enter into a binding agreement to memorialize the mitigation plan, as necessary.”

“How much do [Benderson company officials] think our lives are worth?” Ramirez asked.

Ramirez also questioned the fact that the modified policy specifies residents. Kouba further pointed out that many people who do not live on the Key work on the island or are there on a routine basis because they operate businesses there.

“We are not proposing to not evacuate visitors,” Merrill told Ramirez.

In terms of monetary mitigation, he added, “We’re proposing for mitigation through either an assisted evacuation or providing shelter.” He emphasized that the proposed changes to that section of the Comprehensive Plan are consistent with language in state law.

Kouba also asked Merrill and DiMaria whether they had sent notifications of the workshop to residents of all of the barrier islands in the county, as those persons would be affected by such changes to the Comprehensive Plan, as well.

They did not answer that question.

4 thoughts on “From concerns about hurricane evacuation to those regarding character of Siesta Village, residents express opposition to Benderson Development plans for high-rise hotels on Key”

  1. I’ve lived on the Key for 43 years – the majority of those in the Village – and have owned property since 1987. How can anyone logically think that a hotel of this magnitude is a good idea? Obviously those who support this construction do not live or work on the Key and do not deal with the challenges of overcrowding, traffic and safety issues on a daily basis. It’s all about the dollar signs in their eyes.

  2. I asked during the zoom workshop for the Benderson proposed hotel and accompanying amendments:

    Since these amendments, if approved, are applicable Countywide, does Benderson have any plans to refile Siesta Promenade in order to receive more density for the hotel or to add another hotel?

    The answer from Philip DiMaria “Not at this time , not to my knowledge.”

    It ain’t over!.

  3. Here we go again! What Benderson wants, Benderson gets. The people pay, and get what we don’t want.

  4. Absolutely amazing there is not one urgent care medical facility on Siesta Key!!!!!

    We’re entertaining a huge hotel, yet an urgent care medical facility never mentioned once during the presentation.

    Why are the Sarasota Commissioners insulting us with a plan to be part of the development that will really put so many people’s lives in harms way, why???

    Please do the right thing and strike this project down immediately

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