In spite of concerns Smith expresses about allowing more development in county’s Coastal High Hazard Area, majority of county commissioners approve new 11-unit structure on Siesta Key shoreline

Commissioners Moran and Rainford point to fact that new complex will meet all modern building code standards

In spite of concerns that Sarasota County Commissioner Mark Smith, a Siesta Key resident, expressed this week about an application for a new 11-unit condominium complex planned on the northern part of Siesta, the rest of his colleagues approved the petition.

As an architect who has dealt with numerous Coastal Setback Variances, Smith said, he believed the proposal submitted for the new structure on property between North Beach Road and Avenida Veneccia was too intense. Much of the accreted beach property that the attorney for the applicant used in calculating the number of dwelling units that could be built on the site was underwater slightly more than a decade ago, Smith emphasized.

He referred his colleagues to historical, aerial graphics provided in the county staff report for the agenda item.

“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, and it just so happens the Lord has been giving sand to Siesta Key recently,” Smith said. Though that part of Siesta’s shoreline is much wider than in past years, he pointed out, it could disappear in the future.

In comments to the commission during the July 11 public hearing on the application involving the parcels located at 70 Avenida Veneccia and 77 Beach Road, county Environmental Specialist Staci Tippins did explain that the property “is within [the county’s] Coastal High Hazard Area,” which — she noted — was established by Coastal Policy 1.1.1 in the county’s Comprehensive Plan, which guides growth. That area is “subject to storm surge from a Category 1 [hurricane],” she added.

The Comprehensive Plan says, “The Coastal High Hazard Area, defined by section 163.3178(2)(h)9 [of the] Florida Statutes, is the area below the elevation of the category 1 storm surge line, as established by a Sea, Lake, and Overland Surges from Hurricanes (SLOSH) computerized storm surge model, and is an area particularly vulnerable to the effects of coastal flooding from tropical storm events. As indicated in the inventory, the coast line of the Gulf of Mexico is subject to hurricane impact. Sarasota County has experienced structural damage caused by relatively minor hurricanes, tropical storms, and near-miss situations. It is therefore expected, based on past storm events and increased level of development along the coast, that future hurricanes of larger magnitude could have a greater effect on storm surge and ultimately its destructive impact along the county coastline.”

“Of course,” Tippins acknowledged to the commissioners, “it’s not guaranteed” that the applicant’s property could be destroyed in a storm. However, she said, a storm event “may render this property unusable or unreachable …”

Further, Smith pointed to statements in the county staff report on the proposal, emphasizing that the county’s criteria for awarding a Coastal Setback Variance “is based on minimizing the amount of development … seaward of the Gulf Beach Setback line and basically on the barrier island to begin with.”

The GBSL is the county’s figurative line in the sand established in 1979 to protect dunes and coastal habitat, which, in turn, protect landward structures from storm surge and other flooding events.

One bullet item in the staff report said, “The proposed construction will increase the habitable area seaward of the Gulf Beach Setback Line (GBSL) by more than 500%.” Another noted, “The proposed project includes more than 9,000 square feet of new impervious area.”

In regard to concerns that strict enforcement of the County Code in this case would impose an “unreasonable hardship on the land” — a reference to private property rights specified in state law — Smith reminded his colleagues that the plans call for demolishing six motel units and constructing 11 new units. “Somewhere in between that would be more reasonable.”

Yet another statement in the staff report that he felt was important, Smith said, involved the proposed increase in impervious area: “Additional development located within the Coastal High-Hazard Area may exacerbate erosion, causing damage to neighboring structures during tropical storm events.”

Yet, attorney Matthew Brockway of the Icard Merrill firm in Sarasota, who was representing the applicant — Siesta Beachfront Resort LLC — told the commissioners that Comprehensive Plan policy is “all the more reason you should allow the redevelopment of this property.”

The new condominium complex will replace two decades-old structures, dating to 1925 and 1977, Brockway pointed out during the July 12 hearing. Because of their age, he contended, those buildings pose more of a danger to neighboring residential structures than the new building would be, as it would conform with all Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and the Florida Building Code standards.

Moreover, he noted, while his client has enough square footage to support 14 units, Siesta Beachfront Resort was seeking approval for just 11.

“Only 19% of the property is landward of the Gulf Beach Setback Line, (GBSL)” Brockway also pointed out.

The new construction, including a pool, would be a maximum of 75 feet seaward of the GBSL, he said. Additionally, the multi-family building would be about 450 feet from the Mean High Water Line.

Brockway also stressed that his client’s Coastal Setback Variance (CSV) application involved the “minimum reasonable use” of the property with the Avenida Veneccia and Beach Road addresses. That statement also was a reference to private property rights.

Further, Brockway referred to six neighboring properties whose owners had received Coastal Setback Variances from the County Commission in recent years. Among them, he indicated on slides, is a six-unit complex under construction at 89 Beach Road. In 2016, Brockway noted, the County Commission approved the Coastal Setback Variance (CSV) for that construction.

(That CSV hearing was conducted in conjunction with an application for the vacation of a 373-foot-long segment of North Beach Road, which the commissioners also approved.)

His client’s new building will be pile-supported, he continued, and it will not have any impact on sea-turtle nesting or the dune habitat in the area. In fact, he emphasized, his client has proffered a dune habitat enhancement and preservation plan as part of the CSV application.

Moreover, Brockway told the commissioners, the new construction will be “a less intense use” than the existing six motel units on the property, which “are occupied 90% of the time. Each room turns over on average every four days.” Additionally, Brockway said, the owners of those units allow the property to be used for approximately 24 events a year. The average attendance at those functions, he added, is 200 guests, with 50 vehicles.

Further, he pointed out, a denial would make it possible for the two existing structures with the six units “to remain there in perpetuity. [They] would be a continuing hazard to neighboring properties,” he said, indicating the potential for their damage or destruction during a storm.

“It’s common sense,” Brockway added in regard to his client’s proposal: “You’re replacing those aged structures that don’t meet modern codes” with new buildings that can “better withstand potential storm events.”

Letters of support and other commission-approved variances

Finally, Brockway pointed out that eight letters of support for his client’s application had been provided to the commissioners. Five of the writers, he said, had “no affiliation” with the Casto property management firm in Sarasota, with which his client is associated, as The Sarasota News Leader has reported.

(Richard Ulrich, an attorney with the Sarasota firm Ulrich, Scarlett, Watts, & Dean, who was representing the owners of the property located at 89 Beach Road, disputed Brockway’s figure. Ulrich told the commissioners that five of the writers are affiliated with Casto, while a sixth is the person who sold the parcels to Siesta Beachfront Resort.)

Nonetheless, Brockway indicated, all eight letters were written by people who own property in the immediate vicinity of his client’s land.

Commissioner Michael Moran ended up making the motion to approve the variance. He said he found the proposal to be consistent with policies in the Comprehensive Plan, and he stressed — as Brockway had — that it will comply with the latest regulations regarding construction in a coastal area.

Moran also referred to “common sense,” adding, “We’re talking about a parcel that’s already developed to some degree …”

Nonetheless, Moran told Smith, “I think you do well by your constituents on these conversations.”
As for the neighboring properties that Brockway had noted, for which the board members had approved Coastal Setback variances in recent years, Moran conceded that he did not recall the specific hearings. However, referring to illustrations Brockway had presented, Moran said,

“They’re beautiful, and people are staying in them and having amazing times with their friends and families. … Beautiful structures; beautiful projects.”

In seconding Moran’s motion, Commissioner Neil Rainford talked of having had a residence on a barrier island that was near a house that did not conform to modern Florida Building Code standards. During Hurricane Ian, Rainford said, half of that non-conforming house blew off and damaged an adjacent structure. That is why he believes it is important, Rainford added, to encourage development that meets current standards.

The Board of Zoning Appeals hearing

During the hearing, Commissioner Smith also asked county Environmental Specialist Tippins if his understanding was correct that county Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson had issued a determination in 2021 that the residential density of the new Sunset Beachfront Resort complex could not be based on a calculation of square footage derived from combining the parcels the limited liability company owns seaward of North Beach Road with those landward of the road.

“That’s correct,” Tippins responded.

“I happen to agree with our zoning administrator,” Smith said.

As the News Leader reported last week, after Thompson issued that determination, attorney Brockway appealed the decision to the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals. All but one member of that board approved a motion declaring that Thompson had erred in her decision.

The crux of that issue was the fact that an alley called Tenacity Lane separated the two sets of parcels — those more seaward and those landward — that Siesta Beachfront Resort owns. Thompson relied on county regulations, she said, to assert that the alley would have to have been vacated for the square footage to be combined.

During the July 12 County Commission hearing, Brockway noted at the outset of his presentation that a “Unity of Title,” which stipulated that the more seaward parcels could be considered contiguous with the landward property, had been produced. Tippins had provided a copy of it to the clerk to the board for the meeting, noting that the Office of the County Attorney had reviewed it and approved it.

That Unity of Title, as Assistant County Attorney David Pearce explained during the Feb. 14, 2022 Board of Zoning Appeals hearing, does allow the property on either side of Tenacity Lane to be consider abutting for residential density calculations.

In response to a question from Chair Ron Cutsinger, County Attorney Joshua Moye confirmed that during the July 12 CSV hearing.

Smith told his colleagues that he would like to have staff look into that issue regarding alleys that have not been vacated and provide a report to the board. “I think we need to clear that up, quite frankly. … We have properties all the way down Siesta Key,” up to the location of Siesta Beach Park, whose owners might try to take advantage of the Board of Zoning Appeals decision, he indicated.

Commissioner Moran agreed with Smith.

Cutsinger asked Smith to bring up the topic during the next regular commission meeting, as that is the type of issue that the commissioners discuss during their reports.

The commission will be on its annual summer break for four weeks, starting July 24. The next regular meeting is scheduled for Aug. 29.