Attorney for owners of Point of Rocks Circle property shows why his clients’ preferred site is better than county staff-proposed location
On Sept. 8, Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out that she generally votes against petitions for Coastal Setback Variances if the proposed construction will be seaward of the county’s Gulf Beach Setback Line (GBSL).
That line, she has stressed, was established in 1979 to protect landward structures from storms and other flooding events.
Yet, after watching a presentation by attorney Matthew Brockway of the Icard Merrill firm in Sarasota, she joined her colleagues in supporting plans for a new single-family residence and accessory structures at Point of Rocks Circle on Siesta Key.
The new home would be 98 feet seaward of the GBSL, Brockway said, while the proposed pool deck would be the farthest seaward of the line, at 100 feet.
Through a series of slides — using data available from the county’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software — Brockway demonstrated that if Siesta suffered a 7-foot storm surge, 97% of the barrier island would be underwater, including almost all of the alternate site on the property where county Environmental Permitting Division staff proposed the new home be built. That area is landward of the GBSL.
His clients’ property, which actually comprises three building lots at 7136 and 7140 Point of Rocks Circle, is among the highest sections of Siesta, Brockway told the commissioners. The first finished level of the home would be elevated to 22.5 feet NAVD, he said. (NAVD is a more technical determination of base flood elevation, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency explains.)
Even with a 10-foot storm surge, Brockway demonstrated with the GIS software, only the ground level of his clients’ new dwelling would see flooding — not the habitable area.
“I think that this gentleman did a brilliant presentation, frankly,” Detert said, referring to Brockway. Her primary concern, she said, in reviewing the materials in the agenda packet, was that the construction was being proposed too far seaward, when sufficient area landward of the site was available.
“I think your PowerPoint with the floodplain was very effective,” Detert told Brockway. “You overcame my objections, and, believe me, I always object to these.”
Then Detert added, “I hope to never see you back here,” if the house is built and it ends up in danger of falling into the Gulf of Mexico, “because I believed your presentation.” If such a future scenario does materialize, Detert noted, “I’m going to say, ‘Oh, well, I guess God’s telling you you shouldn’t have put [the house] there.’”
Both Commissioner Michael Moran, who made the motion to approve the Coastal Setback Variance (CSV), and Commissioner Ron Cutsinger, who seconded it, concurred that Brockway’s presentation made it clear that the portion of the property the owners had designated for the new construction was a better choice than the site recommended by county staff.
Details of the proposal
The owners of the property at 7136 and 7140 Point of Rocks Circle are Michael and Monica Wijas, Brockway pointed out. (They paid $1.9 million for the 7136 Point of Rocks Circle property in May 2020, Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office records show. In October 2018, they bought the 7140 Point of Rocks Circle parcel for $3.3 million, the Property Appraiser’s Officer notes.)
During his Sept. 8 presentation, Brockway explained the unique conditions of the property. “There are three existing, non-conforming, slab-on-grade dwellings [on the property]. …
We’re retiring two dwelling units from Siesta Key,” he added.
(Later, Chair Alan Maio noted, “It’s maybe a matter of semantics”; however, Maio asked whether Brockway could say that two of those dwelling units would be “forever extinguished”?
(Brockway replied that the County Commission in the future could take action to allow new homes to replace them.)
Brockway also pointed out that the plans call for the new house and accessory structures to be landward of the existing line of construction on the site.
Additionally, a rock revetment on the Gulf side of the property stands at 12.5 feet NAVD.
Brockway showed the board members a series of slides depicting the location of the parcels, south of Stickney Point Road. Aerial views also made clear the “naturally occurring hardened bottom shoreline,” he noted.
“The GBSL cuts right through the middle of the property,” Brockway said.
Then, referencing facets of the county’s Coastal Setback Code, Brockway talked about the criteria the County Commission must consider in granting a CSV. Among those, the board has to agree that the petition represents the “minimum reasonable use” of the property — not, he stressed, the “minimal reasonable structure.”
“‘Use,’” he explained, refers to “the purpose for which a property is intended.”
Brockway also emphasized, “Size doesn’t matter,” according to the County Code.
Because the combined parcels have three buildable lots, as shown by county property records, one single-family home could be constructed on each of those lots, Brockway continued. “We’re proposing one single-family residence with accessory uses,” which represents one-third of what would be allowed, by right, he reiterated his earlier point.
Then Brockway presented slides illustrating how low property is on Siesta Key. The average elevation on the island is 3.4 NAVD, he noted.
Therefore, he continued, “Ninety-seven percent of Siesta Key is located at or below 7 feet NAVD.”
He added, “Only 17 parcels on Siesta Key” are at 12 feet NAVD or higher, and the Wijas’ property is among them. Three of the others are bridges — the Siesta Drive and Stickney Point Road drawbridges, along with the Midnight Pass Road bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway.
He explained that the Wijas’ property “slopes dramatically downward from the Gulf [of Mexico] to the street. … This makes the property extremely well suited to withstand storm and flood events.”
The seaward side of the property, he pointed out, “is four times higher than the landward portion of the property.” Yet, county staff proposed that the new construction be erected on the more landward area, he added, because of the position of the GBSL.
Moreover, Brockway continued, if the construction took place on the portion of the site selected by the owners, only four trees would be impacted. The driveway alignment had been designed, he said, to avoid trees and the coastal hammock on the eastern side of the property.
The staff-recommended site for the house construction would necessitate removal of 22 trees, he pointed out, adding that even more trees would be impacted by the driveway design associated with the staff location.
The Wijas’ preferred site also “has no impact to the coastal hammock,” Brockway told the commissioners. Alternatively, moving the house location more landward of the GBSL would affect the coastal hammock. Moreover, he indicated, the associated driveway and other paved areas would have an even greater impact on the coastal hammock.
Therefore, Brockway said, with all the construction landward of the GBSL, an unreasonable hardship on the land would result: more potential for flooding, more trees removed, and unavoidable impacts to the coastal hammock.
Following Brockway’s presentation, Staci Tippins, an environmental specialist on county staff, did run through primary points in the staff report.
Among her comments, Tippins told the commissioners that if they approved the construction by granting the CSV, the house “would be the largest in the area, and the subject site would be more densely developed” than surrounding properties.
The county staff memo in the board packet explained, “The variance requested includes 16,801 square feet of habitable area, a 7,670-square foot paver driveway, a 2,579-square foot swimming pool, and a 3,520-square foot pool deck. The average habitable area of properties in the vicinity of Point of Rocks is 4,127 square feet. The Sarasota
County Board of County Commissioners (Board) may find that this request does not represent the minimum variance necessary for use of the property.”
For another example, the staff memo noted that, although the site is among the highest on the Key, it “is at risk of inundation during a 100-year storm event.”
Further, staff had included in the agenda packet a table of criteria the commissioners should consider in determining whether the plans were consistent with county policies and regulations. Among those, staff wrote, “Eight of the 24 developed Gulf front parcels located in the Point of Rocks area have residential structures located entirely landward of the GBSL.”
As soon as Chair Maio closed the public hearing, Commissioner Moran made his motion to approve the CSV. “I don’t believe this adversely affects the coastal system there,” Moran said, referring to attorney Brockway’s testimony.
Moreover, Moran talked about the fact that the owners were seeking one dwelling, when three legally could be allowed on the site, and the proposed height of the first finished floor at 22.5 feet NAVD “can’t be ignored.”
Commissioner Cutsinger agreed with Moran, he said.
After Detert offered her remarks, Maio called for the vote, which was 5-0 in favor of the variance.