Compatibility of project among concerns of speakers
One by one on Aug. 19, they strode to the podium in the Commission Chambers in the Sarasota County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota.
Seventeen of them altogether, they were united in opposition to an eight-story, 170-room hotel planned on slightly less than an acre on the edge of Siesta Village.
They talked about the proportion of the proposed structure in comparison to surrounding residential buildings. They talked about traffic congestion that has grown worse over the years. They talked about private property owners restricting public access to private areas of the beach.
In the end, after three-and-a-half hours of testimony, questions and debate, the Sarasota County Planning Commission took two votes, neither unanimous. The members recommended that the Sarasota County Commission approve the project on four parcels located between Beach Road and Calle Miramar.
Planning Commissioner Andrew Stultz made the two motions. The first endorsed a proposed amendment to the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC) of land-use and zoning regulations. That amendment would eliminate consideration of residential density for what county staff calls “transient accommodations” — hotel and motel rooms. The county staff report said such accommodations should be treated as commercial purposes, based on national planning standards.
The second motion focused on the applicants’ request for two Special Exceptions. One would allow the hotel to stand 80 feet above base elevation, instead of 35 feet, which is the standard height on the Commercial General property where the Calle Miramar hotel is planned. The second would allow transient accommodations on the Commercial General parcels.
Before Stultz made his motions, Planning Commissioner Teresa Mast told the audience packing the Commission Chambers, “Siesta Key is in desperate need of a hotel. … I have spoken to hundreds of people who don’t live on the Key — hundreds of people.” All told her, Mast continued, that they would love to have a place on the island where they and their loved ones could stay and enjoy the amenities.
“It’s a destination for our community, and we’re not going to stop people from coming,” Mast pointed out of Siesta Public Beach.
She had calculated that the majority of the emails the planning commissioners had received in opposition to the hotel were from people who live on the island, with 90% of the emails from winter residents, Mast said.
“I have to think about 433,000 residents,” Mast added, referring to the county population.
Further, she noted, the project team members had testified that, through the years, many parcels on Siesta that used to be home to hotels were bought and redeveloped into condominiums. “There’s that history nobody seemed to want to touch on,” she said of the speakers who had addressed the board that night.
Chair Colin Pember added that if people cannot find accommodations on Siesta, they will stay on the mainland and drive back and forth to the barrier island. If they are able to be guests in a hotel on Siesta, he continued, they will walk or use other types of transit options, including the free Siesta Key trolley.
“I do think we need hotel accommodations on Siesta Key,” Stultz said.
Planning Commissioner Justin Taylor told his colleagues that he did not like the proposed UDC amendment. The hotel would have six-and-a-half more rooms, he stressed, than the total of 26, without kitchens, allowed by right in the Commercial General zoning district of the Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD). Although staff had noted that no commercial property exists on Casey or Manasota keys, he continued, he just could not support the proposal.
In response to Taylor’s concerns about the potential of other developers seeking to build hotels on Commercial General property on the Key, Pember pointed out that he had researched the other property on the island with that zoning designation. “They’re very, very small pieces,” Pember said, “unless you assemble them [for another hotel].”
Moreover, Pember pointed out, “[On] really any highly traveled road … there’s [Commercial General parcels in the county].”
Taylor also said he did not believe the Special Exception requests are consistent with the county’s Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1, which was implemented in 1989. That restricts density and intensity of development on the county’s barrier islands, primarily out of concern regarding hurricane evacuations.
During the public comments period of the hearing, land-use attorney Patricia Petruff of the Bradenton firm Dye, Harrison, Kirkland, Petruff, Pratt & St. Paul, questioned why one developer “who owns less than 1 acre of property is allowed to change the land-development code for the entire county.” She added that attorney William Merrill III of the Sarasota firm Icard Merrill — the primary agent for the applicants — had noted that 163 people participated in the Jan. 11 county-mandated Neighborhood Workshop on the hotel project. Why were no Neighborhood Workshops required for people who live in the other areas of the county, she asked.
Many county residents live next to parcels zoned Commercial General, she stressed, and they “have no flipping idea this [hearing] is happening today.”
Petruff referred to the “smoke and mirrors” of the effort to get around Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1. “You can’t change a land-development code 20-plus years later and say, ‘Oh, that solves the Comprehensive Plan policy.’ It does not …”
“With 170 units versus 26,” Petruff pointed out, “I defy anybody to tell me that that’s not an intensification of use.”
Earlier during the hearing, Todd Dary, manager of the county’s Planning Services Division, pointed out of the proposed UDC amendment, “Staff had already relayed to the [County Commission] that we wanted to look into something like this as an alternative.” The Calle Miramar hotel application, Dary added, “aligned with that. … We do believe a floor/area ratio basically … should be used to physically dictate what the maximum is on a piece of property,” with the required Special Exception approvals serving as “additional safeguards.”
Dary told the planning commissioners that they and the County Commission still would have to determine whether a particular proposal is compatible with the area where it would be built.
Planning Commissioner Kevin Cooper added that he agreed with county staff’s call for eliminating the factoring of residential density into plans for hotels countywide. Yet, he noted, “This is a pretty clever application.”
“Countywide, is this a problem?” he said of the proposed UDC amendment. “No.”
However, in regard to Siesta Key, Cooper said, “I think that’s a bridge too far for me as a planning commissioner.”
Cooper ultimately voted in favor of the UDC amendment, while Taylor opposed it. However, Cooper joined Taylor in voting “No” on the Special Exception applications.
The proffered stipulations
Planning Commissioner Stultz’s motion to approve the Special Exceptions, which was seconded by Planning Commissioner Neil Rainford, did not include four stipulations that the applicants had proffered. Deputy County Attorney Joshua Moye had cautioned the board members that legal points could be raised about the validity of those proffers.
The first called for left-out access only for drivers leaving the hotel site. Attorney Merrill explained that the goal was to try to prevent guests from heading into the residential areas of Calle Miramar.
The second proffer called for installation of a crosswalk with flashing beacons on Beach Road, for visitors to use in heading back and forth between the hotel and Beach Access 5, which is next to the Beach Terrace condominium tower. Merrill said the project team planned for it to be similar to the crosswalk between Morton’s Gourmet Market and Libby’s restaurant in Sarasota’s Southside Village.
The multi-county transportation planning body that includes Sarasota County — the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) — had identified the intersection of Beach Road and Ocean Boulevard as one with significant safety issues, Merrill noted.
County Planner Kirk Crane said Planning Services staff had encouraged the project team to work with the county’s Transportation Planning staff on the crosswalk. “The problem … exists now,” he said of the safety issues for pedestrians and bicyclists at that location. “Certainly, the hotel will exacerbate the problem,” Crane acknowledged.
Nonetheless, he said, staff was wary of the enforcement factors, if that proffer were approved.
The third proffer provided for an 8-foot wall with more vegetation, including bamboo, to separate the eastern side of the hotel property from the adjacent condominium building.
The fourth called for 36 spaces in the three-level parking garage to be reserved for public use.
Planning commissioners encouraged the project team to pursue the stipulations, if the County Commission approves the hotel.
Therefore, only two county stipulations won Planning Commission recommendation. First, the hotel would have to be built in accordance with the Development Concept Plan the project team had submitted to county staff on April 30. The second regarded the filing and updating of state records regarding historic structures on the parcels where the hotel would stand.
The compatibility concerns
The public remarks that drew the greatest backlash from the project team were delivered by Mark Spiegel, president of the Siesta Key Coalition, which was established in 2020 to oppose hotel projects that do no comply with the existing Siesta Key zoning regulations.
The nonprofit has support of 70 homeowner associations on the island, representing about 6,400 residents, Spiegel noted.
Pointing out that he has been a developer for 35 years, Spiegel told the commissioners, “This plan is excessive and not a boutique hotel,” as the application describes it.
The Coalition hired a national architectural firm to prepare what Spiegel said developers refer to as a “3D massing plan,” showing the actual bulk of the proposed 220,000-square-foot hotel in a residential neighborhood. Spiegel added that the accuracy of the images was at the 99.9% mark.
The images of Siesta Village that the project team members had shown the board, he noted, depicted the hotel near the 17-story Beach Terrace and 12-story Terrace East structures. None of the images, he stressed, showed the hotel on Calle Miramar in the context of the adjacent three- and four-story multi-family residential structures.
Spiegel also pointed out that the Beach Terrace predated the establishment of the Siesta Key Zoning Overlay District (SKOD). In fact, he said that the construction of the Beach Terrace was a big factor in island residents’ calls for their own zoning regulations.
Catherine Luckner, president of the Siesta Key Association, reinforced the latter point in her remarks. The goal with the SKOD, she said, was to make certain nothing could be “built that high again.”
The members of the Coalition and the Association, which is a supporter of the Coalition, she added, are especially concerned about “the fact that we need to do thoughtful development.”
Spiegel noted that the Terrace comprises 101,000 square feet on approximately 2 acres, less than half the size of the proposed hotel, which also would stand on less than half the size of the Terrace site.
Yet, during the project team’s presentation, Kelly Klepper, vice president and senior project manager of the Kimley-Horn consulting firm, testified that Siesta Village “is an urbanized, mixed-use, commercial development.” It has restaurants, shops and lodging, he said. The project team renderings, he continued, show that the hotel “blends in with the nature of the Key and this specific area.”
Presenting his 3D models to the planning commissioners, Spiegel pointed out, “If that’s not intensification, I don’t know what is.”
However, Mark Sultana, principal of DSDG Architects in Sarasota, who designed the hotel, joined attorney Merrill in protesting Spiegel’s use of the models. “I feel they’re completely out of scale.”
The project team created its images by using a drone to capture video of Siesta Village, Sultana explained. It appeared that Spiegel’s source used the Google Earth app, he added. “You can see how pixelized [sic] and distorted [the images] are.”
Because he and his staff used actual pictures of the Village, Sultana continued, they were able to scale the image of the hotel for the renderings they created.
Under the guidelines for the county’s hearing procedures, Chair Pember did not allow Spiegel to respond to Sultana’s criticism.
Another speaker, Lourdes Ramirez, who leads an organization called Siesta Key Community, provided the planning commissioners a copy of a “white paper” that she wrote after researching the compatibility issues linked to the hotel.
She told the commissioners that the proposed UDC amendment is inconsistent with the same land-use policy that Commissioners Taylor and Cooper cited. Moreover, she said, zoning changes that are inconsistent with a county’s Comprehensive Plan are illegal because they violate Florida Statute 163.3194.
The 1989 zoning ordinances for the county’s barrier islands “provide clear maximum density limits for transient accommodations,” Ramirez wrote in the white paper, a copy of which she provided to The Sarasota News Leader.
In that document, Ramirez cited four judicial precedents, as well, in which Florida courts “upheld the requirement that governments must follow the clear language of ordinances and Comprehensive Plans.”
Yet other speakers cited the need for the Planning and County commissions to determine that a project complies with Article 5, Section 124-43 of the Unified Development Code before granting any Special Exceptions:
- “The proposed use, singularly or in combination with other Special Exceptions, must not be detrimental to the health, safety, morals, order, comfort, convenience, or appearance of the neighborhood or other adjacent uses by reason of any one or more of the following: the number, area, location, height, orientation, intensity or relation to the neighborhood or other adjacent uses;
- “The proposed use must be adequately buffered to effectively separate traffic, visual impact and noise from existing or intended nearby uses;
- “The subject parcel must be adequate in shape and size to accommodate the proposed use;
- “The ingress and egress to the subject parcel and internal circulation must not adversely affect traffic flow, safety or control; and
- “The subject parcel is adequate to accommodate the height and mass of any proposed structure(s).”
Rose Battles, who lives in the Beach Villas at the Oasis condominium complex at 300 Calle Miramar, right next to the project site, pointed out, “The hotel will literally block out our afternoon sun [and] invade our privacy.” Guests “will be able to look into my windows,” she added, and down at her building’s pool.
“You can imagine our shock and displeasure,” Battles said, when she and her husband learned about the plans for the 93-foot-tall structure “within 20 feet of our property line.”
“This hotel is too big, too high [and] in the wrong place,” she told the commissioners.