Others talk of demand for luxury hotel on Siesta Key
For more than four hours on Wednesday, Oct. 27, the members of the Sarasota County Commission heard laments and pleas; looked at videos, charts and photos that members of the public put up on the county visual aide called “the Wolf”; and listened to quotes from county policies and regulations, the Florida Statutes and even naturalist John Muir.
Of the 45 people who ended up at the podium, addressing the proposal for a 170-room on Calle Miramar in Siesta Village, the majority urged the commissioners to vote “No.”
By count of The Sarasota News Leader, 12 of them offered strong support for the project.
Yet, at the end of the public hearing, the commissioners split 3-2 in favor of the new hotel. (See the related article in this issue.) Their votes also ensured that the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC), which contains all of the zoning and land-use regulations, will be amended to eliminate the consideration of residential density in regard to the number of hotel rooms planned for any county property designated for commercial use, regardless of where that property is located.
In making the first of three motions that would allow the hotel to be constructed, Commissioner Michael Moran cited the phrase he often uses during board discussions, “I’m listening.” Commissioner Nancy Detert appeared to question that assertion when she offered her own thoughts, given the opposition of the majority of the speakers.
A number of those opponents were representatives of the Siesta Key Coalition, which was organized in the early summer of 2020, after RE/MAX Realtor Robert Anderson Jr. began touting plans for the hotel.
As Mark Spiegel, president of the Coalition told the commissioners this week, he himself has enjoyed a 35-year-long career in commercial real estate development. This is the first project he has opposed, he stressed.
During the months that the Coalition has been in existence, he continued, 71 homeowner associations on Siesta Key, representing about 6,500 households, had joined the nonprofit in its fight to preserve the charm and character that drew those homeowners to the island in the first place.
Given the fact that a total of four hotel proposals for the Key have been submitted to county staff since May 2020, Spiegel said, the leaders of the nonprofit would have liked for county staff to approach Siesta residents for a dialogue about the potential for “such major precedent-setting issues,” instead of letting the owners of only about 1 acre of land “dictate and shape how hospitality is brought” to the island.
Reading from Section 124-43 of the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC), Spiegel explained that the commissioners are required to make specific findings of fact to grant a Special Exception. In the case of the hotel proposal, two Special Exceptions were necessary, county Planner Kirk Crane had pointed out: one regarding the additional height up to 80 feet, instead of the standard 25 feet allowed in a Commercial General (CG) zoning district; the other, regarding permission for the “transient accommodations” use on the 0.96-acre site on the edge of Siesta Village.
“Transient accommodations” is the county term for hotel and motel rooms.
(Even though the formal request of the County Commission was to allow the hotel to stand 80 feet, that measurement comes atop the base flood elevation for the site as determined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA. As a result of that requirement, the hotel actually will be about 92 feet tall, speakers pointed out.)
The first line that Spiegel read to the board says, “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 second finding of fact he cited requires that the proposed use “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.”
During the Aug. 19 Planning Commission hearing on the proposed Calle Miramar hotel, Spiegel explained, the project team criticized him for showing images that a nationally known architect had created for him pro bono. The images illustrated the mass of the hotel would appear in the Calle Miramar neighborhood. Because he had not signed a contract with that architect, Spiegel told the county commissioners, he was unable to name the person during that hearing.
As a result, he continued, the Coalition hired a Sarasota architect who used drone photography and Google Earth to create new images of the hotel within the Calle Miramar neighborhood. “We talked to an executive of Google Earth,” Spiegel added. “This is accurate.”
As he put up one of the images, Spiegel continued, “No, this is not Sarasota Memorial [Hospital]. That’s the hotel.”
“If that looks shockingly large to you,” Spiegel told the board members, he wanted to assure them, he said, that the image was not out of scale. The hotel will comprise 220,000 square feet, he continued, and it will be “jammed onto 42,000 square feet. That is the densest property in all of Siesta Key, if you were to approve it.”
Spiegel was among a number of the speakers who also stressed that none of the project team’s renderings showed the hotel in relation to the three- and four-story structures that would stand southeast of it, or in relationship to the three-story condominium complex across Beach Road from the site.
“All their images showed the Terrace buildings,” Spiegel said, referring to the 12-story Terrace East across from the Ocean Boulevard/Calle Miramar intersection and the 17-story Beach Terrace, at the intersection of Beach Road and Ocean Boulevard.
The proposed hotel, Spiegel emphasized, “is not compatible at all with the neighborhood.”
Emphasis on the lack of compatibility
Rose and John Battles, who own a condominium in the Beach Villas at the Oasis complex, located at 300 Calle Miramar, underscored Spiegel’s remarks,
Rose Battles pointed out to the commissioners that she and her husband are the closest neighbors to the hotel property.
“You can imagine our shock and displeasure,” she said, “when we found out their plans” for a structure that would be only 20 feet from the couple’s second home.
They knew when they bought the condominium, Rose Battles continued, that the property next to them was zoned Commercial General. Yet, she added, they relied on the restrictions for Commercial General parcels in feeling that their purchase was a safe one.
“Hotel guests will be able to look into our windows and look down at our pool,” Battles said. “Can you tell me of any other hotel in Sarasota that is within 20 feet of someone’s house?”
The Coalition’s attorney, Patricia Petruff of the Bradenton firm Dye, Harrison, Kirkland, Petruff, Pratt & St. Paul, talked of her 42 years of experience in handling land-use issues.
One of the highest densities for hotel rooms in the state is in Orlando, she pointed out, and that number is 60 per acre. The Calle Miramar hotel would put 170 rooms on not quite 1 acre, she stressed.
“You have no idea how many areas you’re doing this to in Sarasota County,” Petruff said of the Unified Development Code change that will eliminate residential density considerations for hotel rooms. Neither staff nor the board members, she continued, have any idea how many parcels zoned Commercial General are next to residential properties with single-family homes. “I will assure you that you have many.”
Daniel DeLisi, a land-use planner who also is a consultant for the Siesta Key Coalition, talked of the intensity of the project. Because the county’s Comprehensive Plan does not define “intensity,” he said, he was relying on the definition in the Florida Statutes: “the extent to which land may be developed or used,” including the use of the space above or below the ground, the demand on natural resources, and the demand on facilities and services, such as utilities. “It’s also the massing and the bulk of the building.”
DeLisi asked the commissioners to “think about the activity on the site,” with a 92-foot-tall hotel containing 170 rooms.
For his entire career, he added, he has been in favor of development. This is the first time, he said, that he has represented a group opposing development.
“I do believe in the field of land-use planning,” DeLisi continued. “There’s got to be some constraint to protect private property rights of residents.”
A Siesta Key resident, David Sullivan, explained that he was relatively new to the island. He has worked with a variety of real estate developers through the years, he said — “millionaires and billionaires” — primarily providing computer services to them.
He asked the commissioners to visualize the hotel in comparison to the smaller Siesta Village structures, showing them Legos blocks to illustrate his point.
Sullivan also said, “Humbly, I would suggest, given the current state of the world, this plan might not pan out as lucrative as [the developers] would hope.”
Among the last group of speakers, Karen West, an educator who works with special needs students who said she had to take the day off from work to appear at the hearing, talked of moving to the barrier island in 1989. “I found love on Siesta Key,” she said, noting that she worked at the Beach Club in those early days and ended up marrying the bouncer.
“We’ve all seen the community change [on the island],” she continued. With her voice shaking, West said she was beginning to feel “the bad guy’s always winning, and money rules everything.”
Many years ago, West pointed out, the County Commission chose to preserve the Turtle Beach Campground on south Siesta, instead of turning it into a parking lot.
“The Westin has killed downtown [Sarasota],” she added. “It’s breathing on top of the sidewalk.”
West concluded her comments with a quote from naturalist John Muir in 1869: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
Among the speakers who urged support for the hotel, Clayton Thompson, proprietor of Clayton’s Siesta Grille, told the commissioners, “I think Siesta Key needs a beautiful hotel. I think Siesta Key is underserved and needs several additional hotels.”
(The County Commission’s second public hearing on the four new hotels proposed on the island is set for 9 a.m. on Nov. 2. It will involve chiropractor/businessman Gary Kompothecras’ plans for a 120-room structure on Old Stickney Point Road, at the Peacock Road intersection. That hotel would stand about 83 feet in height. Thompson’s restaurant is close to the hotel site.)
He also talked about the increasing number of homes on Siesta that are being rented through online platforms such as Airbnb and Vrbo.com, noting that those houses sleep 12 or more guests each night. He added that he believes the Calle Miramar hotel “would put a huge dent” in those rentals “and could take care of” problems associated with them, such as late-night partying, piles of garbage waiting at the curbside for days to be collected, and multiple vehicles spread out on driveways and in yards.
“People would like to have “upper-end” accommodations on the Key, he pointed out, but many cannot afford the $600 to $800 per night for the Hyatt Residence Club near Point of Rocks on south Siesta. (Attorney William Merrill III, who was the leader of the Calle Miramar project team, told the Planning Commission that the new hotel likely would have rooms costing $600 per night.)
Two speakers — Rich Chojnacki and Kimberlie MacDonald — said they have clients who live well away from Sarasota County who would enjoy staying in a new hotel on Siesta Key.
A financial adviser, Chojnacki explained that he cannot entice them to visit the community because they do not want to stay in downtown Sarasota; yet, “They do want a nice flag hotel to stay in.”
He was referring to the branding of accommodations. Marriott International, for example, has a number of “flags” for hotels in its company. The Art Ovation hotel in downtown Sarasota carries the Marriott flag as part of its Autograph Collection.
Patti Waller, who noted that she moved to Siesta eight years ago, talked of the strong demand for upscale hotels, as outlined in a Visit Sarasota County strategic planning report. (Visit Sarasota County is the county’s tourism office.)
Waller said that she has colleagues who live in other parts of Florida and all over the United States. They like to come to Sarasota for a long weekend, she continued, but they stay at the Ritz-Carlton or the Hyatt in downtown Sarasota because of the lack of a luxury hotel on Siesta Key. “They do not want kitchens; they do not want remodeled condos,” she said. “A brand resort is the niche that’s missing.”
John LaCivita, executive vice president of Willis A. Smith Construction in Sarasota, told the commissioners that he grew up on Siesta Key. After college, he continued, after college, he moved back to the island. “I know exactly what [Siesta] Village is all about, and I love the Village.” Referring to the project team members, he added, “I think they did a great job at trying to create a true landmark for Siesta Key and for all of Sarasota County.”