Speakers during Neighborhood Workshop express frustrations about problems that tourism growth already has created, including traffic congestion
Editor’s note: This article was updated on June 4 to correct the spelling of the name of one of the workshop participants, Glen Marino.
This week, quality-of-life concerns once again were the focus of Siesta Key residents’ comments as they participated in the third Sarasota County staff-mandated Neighborhood Workshop on proposed hotel projects on the island.
On May 10, members of the team behind the planned redevelopment of the Siesta Key Beach Resort and Suites on Ocean Boulevard explained facets of their application and sought questions. Mostly, they heard comments.
In fact, at one point, Michael Barfield of De Novo Law Services LLC in Sarasota, representing the hotel owners, asked everyone “to dial it down a little bit,” after a woman began complaining about the trash tourists leave in Siesta Village.
The proposal for the hotel at the intersection of Ocean Boulevard and Calle Miramar call for demolishing the existing 55-room structure, which dates to 1955, and replacing it with new buildings that could accommodate potentially 170 rooms. The team also is seeking changes to a county Future Land Use policy and zoning regulations, so it can construct part of the new hotel over two levels of parking.
Island resident John Sudnik told the project team that, in 1970, his grandfather bought the residence he lives in and that he himself has been coming to the barrier island since he was 9 or 10.
“Even in the last 10 years,” Sudnik pointed out, “Siesta Key has transformed into something that I would say most residents, permanent residents like us, don’t find that appealing. … It’s a very stark difference.”
“If you were really concerned about the community,” he told the team members, “you’d be more concerned about our concerns and less about profitability. … I think you need to listen to what the community is saying here.”
In explaining why he and his wife bought a house near Siesta Village, Glen Marino noted, “The attractiveness to Siesta Key is the quaintness of local businesses,” the feeling of safety in being able to walk around the Village and the cleanliness of the barrier island. “I think that is threatened quite a bit here.”
He referenced crime statistics for April, which Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office substation on the island, presented to Siesta Key Association members during their monthly meeting held on May 6. (See Siesta Seen in this issue.)
The Sheriff’s Office had 556 calls for service in April, Marino said. During the extended spring break period on the island this year, he continued, “It did not feel that safe walking around at nighttime.” Visitors who come to Siesta, he added, are “there to have a good time and possibly be a disruptor.”
In expressing a desire “to keep the character and charm of Siesta Key” through their plans, Marimo told the project team members, “You’re kidding us.”
Tripling the number of rooms at the hotel, Marimo and other speakers pointed out, will lead to more problems.
“That’s a huge, significant change,” long-time Siesta activist Lourdes Ramirez pointed out. “Density is the enemy.”
Michael Holderness, one of the owners of the hotel, and Weiqi Lin of Port and Coastal Consultants in Sarasota, explained at the outset of the workshop that the new hotel would be compliant with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines.
Because of what is known as the “50% Rule,” Lin said, any improvements made to an exiting structure in a flood zone that exceed 50% of the market value of that structure necessitate that the building be elevated. Therefore, Lin and Holderness pointed out, to redevelop the hotel beyond renovations undertaken in 2019, the owners have no choice but to comply with the FEMA and ADA standards.
Moreover, Lin pointed out that the hotel is functionally obsolete.
“The aesthetics of what we provide to this community will be nothing short of what the hotel felt like when it was brand new 50 years ago,” Holderness said. “I don’t have a drawing,” he continued, but he talked of “aspirational ideas,” including open-air balconies and open corridors. “We want to build something very timeless.”
Holderness also emphasized his desire to see county incentives created for redeveloping older “transient accommodations,” as county staff calls hotels. He stressed that he is not certain that the final tally of new rooms will be 170, as he addressed current county regulations regarding the design of hotel rooms.
In an email to the News Leader, Holderness expressed frustrations with those county regulations, including what he asserts are outdated parking requirements.
The current facility has a $10-million annual economic impact on the county, Holderness pointed out during the workshop. The larger hotel would double that, he said.
Exacerbating traffic woes
Traffic issues were yet another subject residents addressed during the May 10 event.
Rodney Linford, who lives in The Terrace, adjacent to Beach Access 5 — close to the 5311 Ocean Blvd. site of the entry to the existing Siesta Key Beach Resort — explained to the team, “We have a bird’s eye view of the junction of Ocean Boulevard and Beach Road and the existing problems we have with that intersection.” He stressed that “it’s one of the most heavily traveled and congested” on the island.
Although the speed limit for Siesta Village is 20 mph, Linford said, “Many motorists and bicyclists take that [120-degree curve from Beach Road onto Ocean Boulevard] at speed.” The Village welcome sign in that area has been knocked down on several occasions during crashes, he continued.
Furthermore, Linford said, the pedestrians and bicyclists who use the two crosswalks at that intersection “can’t be seen [by drivers] till the very last minute. … We’ve seen several near misses.” With up to 340 people in the redeveloped hotel, he added, “I can only imagine how much worse [the intersection] will be.”
Margaret Jean Cannon, who noted that she lives between Beach Accesses 9 and 10, talked of her routine trips into Siesta Village. “The traffic backs up a lot from [the intersection of Ocean Boulevard and Beach Road]. … We do not need more intensity/density in our Village.”
Tom Surprise — who, like Cannon, is a director of the Siesta Key Association — told the team, “There’s such heavy traffic at times that it’s bumper to bumper, and you can crawl faster than cars go.” He further stressed that Ocean Boulevard is one of two main accesses to the island, so it is critical for vehicles to be able to traverse it easily, in the event of emergencies.
Holderness maintained that intensity and density are two different things and that the redeveloped hotel would not increase intensity of uses on the island.
Moreover, Holderness pointed out that more and more people use Uber and Lyft, instead of driving, when they come to the island as tourists.
Lourdes Ramirez disputed that, saying she has read that Uber and Lyft drivers try to avoid trips to the Key because of the traffic congestion.
Holderness further noted that, with the current availability of two- and three-bedroom units in the hotel, multiple members of families arrive in vehicles to share adjoining rooms. He indicated that in the hotel trade, such guests are called “trunk slammers.” Those will be eliminated with the new design that will feature only one bed per room, he said.
During his remarks, Linford also pointed out that he is a founding member of the Siesta Key Coalition, which was organized last year to fight proposed hotel projects that would exceed the existing height and residential density standards for commercial property under the Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD) zoning regulations. Linford then asked whether the Siesta Key Beach Resort team plans to conduct a traffic study.
Consultant Lin explained that county staff has not required such a study because of the existing hotel. Lin added that county staff considers the new design “no significant change.”
“You’re going from 55 rooms to 170,” Linford told Lin. “That’s three-and-a-half times more density.”
A need for a comprehensive process
Additionally during his remarks, Linford pointed to the plans for another 170-room hotel — an eight-story structure — just down Calle Miramar from Siesta Key Beach Resort. “From our perspective,” he continued, referring to Coalition leaders, “we can’t deal with one hotel at a time. We have to be conscious and concerned about the implications of two hotels cheek to jowl.”
“I am totally against the global change that would allow mega hotels to come on Siesta Key,” Holderness replied.
Along with the other Calle Miramar project, chiropractor and businessman Gary Kompothecras has applied for a seven-story, 120-room hotel on Old Stickney Point Road; and another owner of Siesta Key Beach Resort, Dave Balot, is the registered agent of a limited liability company proposing a 100-room boutique hotel on the 5810 Midnight Pass Road parcel where the Wells Fargo bank previously stood.
The project team behind the Calle Miramar hotel is seeking its own changes to county Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1, regarding the barrier islands, along with an amendment to the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC), which contains all the county’s land-use and zoning regulations. That team wants to secure the elimination of residential density considerations for transient accommodations on the barrier islands in the unincorporated portions of the county. However, William Merrill III, a partner with the Icard Merrill law firm in Sarasota, explained during that group’s Jan. 11 Neighborhood Workshop that Siesta would be the only barrier island affected by the change; none of the others has commercial property, as Siesta does, he indicated.
Forty-year island resident Linda Dickinson, who said she has been a real estate agent for 35 years, told the Siesta Key Beach Resort project team of her love for the island and her knowledge of it. She voiced concerns about “the impact that these [four hotel projects] would have on residential property values on Siesta Key due to the increased traffic and [tourists].”
Mark Spiegel, president of the Siesta Key Coalition, also expressed worries about the fact that if the Holderness team wins approval of the amendments it is seeking, “There’s a precedent that would be set …”
Lin of Port and Coastal Consultants explained during his opening presentation that the team wants to construct the new building on Ocean Boulevard above one level of parking. The new buildings on Calle Miramar, with the hotel rooms, would stand above two levels, Lin added.
Lin defended the proposal, citing the fact that the hotel parcels are surrounded by Residential Multi-Family (RMF) zoning that allows condominiums to be built above two levels of parking. The hotel structures would be 35 feet tall above parking, just like many of those RMF buildings, Lin said. Each of the new hotel structures would be slightly taller than 50 feet, with the parking, he added.
Spiegel pointed out that one parking level could range from 8 to 12 feet in height.
“By definition,” Spiegel continued, “[Residential Multi-Family zoning is] much less intense [than the hotel would be]. It also has a different density restriction.”
A hotel on a Commercial General parcel — which is what all of the Siesta Key Beach Resort property is zoned — can have up to 26 hotel units per acre, if no kitchens are included. However, Spiegel pointed out, RMF zoning allows between 13 and 18 condominium units per acre.
If the County Commission ultimately approved the Siesta Key Beach Resort plans, Spiegel said, a developer could pursue a legal challenge if the commission denied plans for another hotel proposed to stand 35 feet over parking.
Lin insisted that that would not be the case, because of the specificity of the Holderness team’s Comprehensive Plan and UDC amendments’ language. Siesta Key Beach Resort would be the only property allowed to purse that type of construction, Lin said.
Thirty years ago, Lin added, no commercial developer wanted to build anything over parking, because the goal was to have people just walk into a business from the street level. He also indicated that county leaders should revise their parking regulations to take into account changes that have taken place in recent years, including the growing use of Uber and Lyft.
Resident Gary Sommer talked of the fact that both Lin and Holderness kept focusing on the hotel as an existing use. “You say that enough that you think it has legal significance. I think that’s a specious argument. … Call it what you will, that seems like a new development to me.”
“At the end of the day,” Sommer added, “it’s about how many more people we’re inviting to our residential oasis — that [many] more people that need to escape [in the event of an emergency].”