Neighborhood Workshop participants express concerns about potential abuse of proposed county policy and regulations allowing voluntary condo demolition and reconstruction on Siesta

Speakers talk of need for steps to ensure residential density on barrier island does not increase

This is a view of Sea Club V looking west. Image courtesy of Smith Architects

During an approximately hour-long, Nov. 20 Neighborhood Workshop hosted by a Sarasota County planner, Siesta Key residents voiced continued concerns about potential abuses of a proposed county Comprehensive Plan amendment that would allow for voluntary demolition and reconstruction of condominium complexes built before Jan. 1, 2000.

Planner Everett Farrell pointed out that to the approximately 18 attendees that, on Sept. 12, the county commissioners provided further guidance for the drafting of the proposed amendment, as well as a companion amendment to the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC), which contains all of the land-use and zoning regulations. The drafts he presented that evening included revisions based on that guidance, he noted.

During the workshop, Mark Spiegel, one of the founders of the Siesta Key Coalition — which has been focused on preventing construction of high-rise hotels on the barrier island — advocated for language in the amendments that would necessitate evidence of underlying structural damage before a condominium complex could be demolished and rebuilt.

Otherwise, Spiegel pointed out, a developer could buy out residents and construct a new complex with units to rented out to tourists, akin to a hotel.

As Farrell had explained, the proposed amendment to the Comprehensive Plan — which guides growth in the community — would allow the owners of any pre-2000 complex to tear it down and then rebuild the original number of units, regardless of any current zoning restrictions on the property in regard to residential density.

“I do agree with you,” Farrell responded to Spiegel’s concern. “It is a possibility that you have outside influence coming in to buy up these units,” as the condominium complexes stand on property that is zoned for residential multi-family housing (RMF) in the Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD) zoning regulations.

Newer buildings would be more attractive to tourists, Farrell acknowledged.

Nonetheless, Farrell pointed out, any person today could take majority ownership of an existing condominium complex and then proceed with short-term rentals through online platforms, such as Airbnb.

Farrell did say that he believed Spiegel’s comments “should be taken into account moving forward.”

Neal Schleifer, vice president of the Siesta Key Condominium Council, expressed concerns similar to those Spiegel offered.

Neal Schleifer addresses the county commissioners on July 13, 2021 on behalf of the Siesta Key Condominium Council. File image

“The criteria are way too broad” for the voluntary demolition and reconstruction,” Schleifer told Farrell. Saying every building erected before 2000 is unsafe, he added, “is just a fallacy.”

He pointed to the state law passed in the aftermath of the Champlain Towers South collapse in Surfside in 2021. The law calls for a “milestone” engineering inspection for condominiums based on age and proximity to the coast. Such an undertaking would provide details about the structural integrity of a building, Schleifer noted, and a report on the findings would be issued.

Later, Spiegel emphasized that the focus of the county amendments should be the reason for reconstruction: damage that poses a safety hazard.

Moreover, Schleifer continued, “Most condos on Siesta Key [were] built before 2000,” and all of them are within 3 miles of the coast, which was another facet of the state law calling for regular inspections.

Why would the county not require an engineering report, Schleifer asked, “so that you don’t open the floodgates that [Spiegel] was talking about, where it’s so tempting?”

Farrell explained that county staff initially called for an engineering study. However, when the commissioners discussed the details of staff’s proposal on Sept. 12, the commissioners’ guidance was to eliminate that criteria.

During the Sept. 12 discussion, Commissioner Mark Smith, a Siesta architect with decades of experience, stressed that full-time owners of condominiums that would be demolished and rebuilt would face having to be out of those units for probably at least two years. In addition, he said that day, people who rent their units would have no income from that business until the new building had been completed.

Smith emphasized to his colleagues that he did not believe owners of condos built to the Florida Building Code standards that existed prior to 2000 should be burdened with the expense of hiring an engineer, given the outdated construction standards for those buildings.

“Again, this is voluntary,” Smith emphasized of the Comprehensive Plan proposal. “This is not something willy-nilly that folks are going to do, to tear down your building and build new.”

“I do think it’s very limited in terms of who will be able to get away with this,” Commissioner Neil Rainford responded to smith’s remarks.

Nonetheless, Farrell suggested during the Nov. 20 workshop that Schleifer, too, bring up his concerns during public hearings on the proposed amendments.

The commission guidelines

This is the proposed amendment to the Comprehensive Plan. Image courtesy Sarasota County

At the start of the county-required Neighborhood Workshop, Farrell provided the timeline that had led to the Nov. 20 session.

Representing the Sea Club V complex on south Siesta, prior to his election to the County Commission, Mark Smith proposed the voluntary demolition/reconstruction changes in county policies and regulations to the commissioners seated on Jan. 11, 2022.

Then, in March 2022, the timeline showed, the commissioners formally directed staff to work on a report regarding the implementation of a publicly initiated UDC amendment to allow what Smith had discussed in January.

“Publicly initiated” means that either the commissioners or county staff has proposed an amendment to the Comprehensive Plan or the UDC, instead of a private individual or project team.

The Sept. 12 board discussion was the most recent step.

In the meantime, Farrell noted, staff has been meeting with Siesta Key stakeholders, such as representatives of the Siesta Key Condominium Council, which represents about 90 complexes on the island with approximately 7,000 households, and the Siesta Key Association (SKA).

Farrell stressed that the draft amendments would prevent condominium complex owners from adding more units than the original count; the numbers of new units by type — studios and one-bedroom condos, for examples — also would be the same in the reconstructed complex. Further, he said, no rebuilt structures could contain commercial or ancillary uses that were not residential in nature.

Moreover, he pointed out, no variances would be granted expect to allow a structure to comply with the location of the county’s Gulf Beach Setback Line (GBSL), which was established in 1979 to protect dunes and other beach habitat, which, in turn, protect landward structures from storm surge and other flooding events.

Other than the allowance for the same numbers of units and the same types of units, Farrell continued, all construction would have to comply with the current county land-use regulations, including setbacks and height.

In response to a question from Robert Luckner, treasurer of the Siesta Key Association, Farrell estimated that, after the Planning Division staff has fine-tuned the draft amendments, a Planning Commission hearing likely would be held in the next few months. That would be followed by what is called a “transmittal hearing” before the County Commission. If the drafts won initial approval during that hearing, Farrell explained, then the Comprehensive Plan amendment would be submitted to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) for review, which is required by state law. That review takes about 30 days, he said. Assuming the DEO staff expressed no significant concerns, Farrell continued, a final hearing would be scheduled before the County Commission.

He estimated that, from Nov. 20, it would take “maybe four to five months to get things sorted out.”

County short on ‘unit count police’

This is the proposed UDC amendment. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As the Nov. 20 workshop continued, Schleifer of the Condominium Council also expressed doubt that the residential density and intensity standards would remain the same with new units. He noted, for example, that if an original studio encompassed 600 square feet, and — based on County Commission guidance on Sept. 12 — the new studio could contain 2,000 or 3,000 square feet, it was likely that more people would occupy the unit at a given time, which also would mean more vehicles on the Key.

Moreover, Schleifer said, “The [new] building footprint is going to be larger.”

“I do believe you bring up a valid point here,” Farrell replied; he suggested that that be another issue raised during the public hearing process.

Yet, Tony Rateni, manager of Sea Club V, stressed, “We’re not trying to increase the density on the Key.” Sea Club V has 41 units, he said; that number would remain the same if changes in the county regulations and policies allowed the owners to demolish the complex and rebuild it.

Conversely, Rateni also emphasized, current zoning regulations would allow the owners to construct only 18 units, if they demolished the complex.

He also pointed out the other workshop participants, “These buildings are 70 years old.”

Another speaker, John Doherty — a resident of the Terrace East complex in Siesta Village — proposed that the amendments ensure that no reconstructed complex could have more square feet than the original one, “because that’s the equalizer here.”

Rita Miotti asked how the county staff would ensure that the replacement units would conform to the densities of the original condos. She, too, noted that more people could fit comfortably in a new, larger unit.

The County Commission guidance on Sept. 12 was to allow “what is essentially a modern style unit,” Farrell explained. However, he acknowledged, “We’re very short on ‘unit count police.’ ” Further, he told the workshop attendees, county staff has no legal authority to demand admittance to a condo to check the number of people living there.

Rateni of Sea Club V emphasized that the documents related to the establishment of a condominium association would serve as the basis for the maximum number of units that could be rebuilt.

Mark Spiegel. File photo

Earlier, Farrell had talked about the need for “a foolproof way to establish some sort of density count that’s actually reflected in historical documents.” He added that it likely would be up to the county zoning administrator to determine the best way to make certain county staff has all of the necessary details about the original units before reconstruction begins.

Rateni did ask about the height to which the new structure could be built.

Farrell said that the proposed UDC amendment calls for a maximum of 45 feet above one story of parking. However, Farrell added, “I do think that probably height is one of the issues that needs a little more work,” or direction from the commissioners.

Spiegel, the former Siesta Key Coalition president, pointed out that the fact that some older condominium towers were built with 11 or 12 stories was the primary reason that Siesta Key leaders decades ago sought the implementation of island zoning regulations — to control the height.

As of this time, Farrell said, the commissioners had discussed “no accommodation for extra height,” though future direction on that point could be provided.