New Sarasota County staff report requested on voluntary demolition and reconstruction of condominium complexes that do not meet current building code standards

Siesta Key architect provides range of recommendations to facilitate local efforts to prevent disasters similar to Champlain Towers South collapse in 2021

Commission Chair Alan Maio. File image

Expressing frustration with the first staff attempt, Sarasota County Commission Chair Alan Maio won his colleagues’ consensus this week to direct staff to prepare a revised report on allowing voluntary demolition of condominium complexes that do not comply with modern construction standards, with the proviso that they could be rebuilt with the same residential density.

Further, Maio said he wanted staff to provide information to the commissioners regarding an amendment to the county’s land-use and zoning regulations, which are contained in the Unified Development Code (UDC), to allow for such demolition and reconstruction. Those details, he continued, should explain how “the UDC amendment would progress …”

The modification to the UDC should be a publicly initiated one handled outside of the two cycles per year, during which staff accepts privately submitted proposals, and staff itself can suggest changes to the UDC, Maio stressed.

Moreover, Maio called for the new report to be ready for commission review on March 29, when the board will hold its next regular meeting.

Pointing out that he already had met with staff about the assignment, Maio said, “It’s not coming as a surprise.”

What spurred the first request for a staff report were public comments that Siesta Key architect Mark Smith offered to the commissioners on Jan. 11, on behalf of the homeowners association of Sea Club V, which stands at 6744 Sarasea Circle on south Siesta Key.

Smith noted that the owners had paid for a structural engineering report prepared by Sarasota architect C. Alan Anderson and Snell Engineering Consultants of Sarasota. The resulting document explained that “structural components are corroding,” he told the board members. “This deterioration became significant after 20 or 30 years.”

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

The original building at Sea Club V dates to 1957, according to Sarasota County Property Appraiser William Furst’s website. The Feb. 7 staff report, which the commissioners requested after Smith’s Jan. 11 remarks, said the original structure was a hotel. Additions resulted in the three buildings that stand on the property, the report noted. One, with three stories, has 15 units; a two-story structure has 11 units; and a second two-story building has 15 units.

The complex is a time-share property, Sea Club V’s website adds.

Referencing the 2021 Champlain Towers South collapse in Surfside, Smith also had pointed out to the commissioners on Jan. 11 that the county’s Post-Disaster Redevelopment Plan (PDRP), completed in 2015, provided for the rebuilding of condominium structures to the same height and density following a natural disaster, such as a hurricane. However, Smith urged the commissioners to consider allowing such reconstruction to prevent disasters, such as the one in Surfside. He did emphasize that the height of any new building — especially on a barrier island — would have to be adjusted from its original design because of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Florida Building Code standards related to flood zones.

This is a view of the remains of Champlain Towers South in June 2021. Image from Miami-Date Fire-Rescue, via Wikipedia

(The Florida Housing Finance Corp. explains that the 2000 Florida Legislature authorized implementation of the first edition of the Florida Building Code. The document is updated every three years “and may be amended annually to incorporate interpretations and clarifications,” a history of the code says.)

A series of suggestions

On March 8, Smith was back at the podium in the County Commission Chambers in downtown Sarasota.

However, before he offered his latest remarks, he handed out documents to each commissioner that included comments he had made on the Feb. 7 staff report. The materials also included notes he had provided on an updated version of the PDRP that the commissioners approved as part of their Consent Agenda of routine business matters during a regular meeting on Oct. 26 2021.

This is the cover of the county’s 2015 Post-Disaster Redevelopment Plan. Image courtesy Sarasota County

When Maio addressed his colleagues on March 8, he indicated uncertainty as to whether they recalled having adopted that new version of the PDRP. It is a streamlined document, containing 12 pages, compared to 116 pages in the original version.

(The official minutes of the Oct. 26, 2021 County Commission meeting note that Commissioner Christian Ziegler made the motion to approve the Consent Agenda that day, and Commissioner Nancy Detert seconded it; the motion passed unanimously.)

(As of this writing, The Sarasota News Leader found that the county website still offers links to the 2015 Post-Disaster Redevelopment Plan, but not the 2021 revision.)

When he read the Feb. 7 staff report that referenced his Jan. 11 comments, Smith told the commissioners on March 8, “I was shocked, quite frankly,” to learn of the new PDRP.

He added, “We have the opportunity to put in language that we need,” to prevent needless collapses of deteriorating condominium structures.

Smith further voiced frustration with the Feb. 7 staff report’s failure to fully address the height issue for reconstruction projects. Again, he emphasized, “We can’t build to the same height because of the FEMA regulations and also the Florida Building Code. … We need to stop talking about the same height, because that can’t be accomplished.”

This is the cover of the 2021 Post-Disaster Redevelopment Plan. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Then Smith turned to the four bullet points staff had included as recommendations for commission consideration. The first one, Smith noted, was a suggestion that the commissioners could allow redevelopment only in residential multi-family zoning districts within the Siesta Key Overlay District regulations.

“I’m not sure that’s the thing to do,” Smith continued. “What about the nonconforming condos on Manasota Key? There may be some on Casey Key” and on the mainland. “This is a countywide situation,” he told the commissioners.

The second bullet point in the Feb. 7 staff report said the commissioners could consider “demolition/reconstruction … within the same footprint of the existing building …”

“That’s not the thing to do,” Smith added. “I don’t think you want to try to build in a 1950s footprint.”

Moreover, he noted, the Sea Club V complex is seaward of the county’s Gulf Beach Setback Line. The homeowners want to construct new buildings landward of that line, he indicated.

The Gulf Beach Setback Line was established in 1979 to protect dunes and native beach vegetation, which, in turn, protect landward structures from storms and other flood events.

The third bullet point, Smith pointed out, asked the commissioners to consider “requiring an Engineer Certification demonstrating that the building requires substantial repair to remain structurally safe, or the building is flawed and the stability of the building is questionable …”

Every building constructed prior to 2000, especially, does not meet the current construction codes, Smith stressed. Therefore, he added, all of them are subject “to severe damage from a major storm event.”

Smith told the commissioners, “If someone wants to pursue voluntary demolition of a nonconforming condominium building, and the individual or association has “the means to do so, I suggest we allow them to do that.”

This is a section of architect Mark Smith’s comments in response to the Feb. 7 staff report. Image courtesy of Mark Smith

Making the case for another board report

During his remarks near the end of the March 8 meeting, Maio emphasized that each of his colleagues had received the materials from Smith.

The issue, Maio continued, is “about voluntarily demolishing, not a natural disaster [scenario].”

He added that, in approving the revised PDRP in October 2021, “Perhaps unwittingly … we might have made [the process] a little more difficult.”

These are part of Mark Smith’s comments on the 2021 Post-Disaster Response Plan. Images courtesy of Mark Smith

He also stressed that the Sea Club V homeowners association “paid for an engineering study,” which showed that the complex has problems. “They’re going to tear it down under their own expense,” Maio continued. “It’s just that we need to adjust some of our rules.”

He further emphasized the fact that the owners should not be required to construct a new building in the same footprint as the original one, reprising some of Smith’s remarks that morning. Among them, Maio noted the FEMA flood zone construction rules. “You’d be surprised how high the first finished floor elevation is [in some parts of the county],” Maio said.

Referring to Smith, Commissioner Nancy Detert responded, “He makes some really good points.” She voiced her support for Maio’s proposal for the new staff report “with some better language.”

With no comments from any other commissioner, Maio told County Administrator Jonathan Lewis that Lewis had board consensus for the assignment.