Commissioner Detert argues for need for board to adhere to its policies and regulations for construction in flood zones
Editor’s note: This story was updated in late morning of June 18 to make it clear that the proposed new structure would be a single-family residence.
Just as she has in the past, in regard to construction on barrier islands, Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert voiced concerns on June 9 about a proposal for a Siesta Key house designed to extend seaward of the county’s figurative line in the sand to protect property from storm surge and other flooding events.
“Isn’t it our job to protect the land [but] the house only if [the house is] in danger of falling into the Gulf?” Detert asked her colleagues.
She noted that she has voted to approve Coastal Setback Variances petitions submitted by property owners in danger of losing houses.
Yet, “I intend to vote ‘No’ on this,” she announced at the outset of the June 9 public hearing on a petition from the owner of the property at 669 Beach Road. The proposed new residence, she pointed out, is “in an area historically subject to flooding.”
As it turned out, she was the only commissioner to do oppose the variance.
In this situation, the owner of two structures standing at 669 Beach Road wanted to demolish them and then build a three-story-over-parking, single-family residence that would conform to modern Building Code and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) criteria, according to materials provided in the agenda packet for the meeting.
As noted in those documents, the single-family home would be a maximum of 46.4 feet seaward of the Gulf Beach Setback Line (GBSL). Established in 1978, that line was designed to preserve dune vegetation and other coastal habitat, and, therefore, provide protection to landward structures.
The owner of the property at 669 Beach Road is Siesta 1 Investment Holding LLC. The registered agent and manager for that company is Balazs Szabo, the Florida Division of Corporations says. The address for Szabo is 1640 Bay Harbor Lane in Sarasota. That address is on the mainland, just east of the southern portion of the Key.
The limited liability company dates to April 16, 2014, the Division of Corporations records note.
Sarasota County Property Appraiser Office records show that Siesta 1 Investment Holding bought the property at 669 Beach Road for $1,175,000 in June 2019. In 2020, the market value of the site was $831,000, the Property Appraiser’s Office records say.
The land is zoned Residential Multi-Family 1.
The Coastal Setback Variance petition was listed on the June 9 agenda as “Presentation Upon Request.” Detert told her colleagues she did not want a full presentation, but she had questions for staff.
Referencing the materials staff had included in the agenda packet, Detert stressed that the proposed new house would comprise 5,446 square feet of habitable space, compared to the 2,586 square feet of such space in the two houses that would be demolished.
The staff memo in the board packet also explained that the design would represent “a 170% increase in habitable area seaward of the GBSL.” Detert characterized the new structure as “a huge house.”
The staff memo noted that the ground floor would have a garage/parking area, an elevator and a staircase. “The three living levels atop the ground floor garage will have eight bedrooms, eight bathrooms, two half bathrooms, and two roof-top suites,” the memo added.
Along with the residence, the owner plans a swimming pool and spa on the landward side of the new house, “a paver and crushed shell driveway on the seaward side of the residence, and a breakaway privacy wall along the north, east and south property boundaries,” the memo said.
One of the slab-on-grade structures that would be replaced was built in 1949, the staff memo pointed out; it totals 1,435 square feet. The second building, completed in 1953, has 1,151 square feet, the memo noted.
Both have been used for vacation rentals, a staff document said.
‘The minimum variance’
“According to our own rule,” Detert told her colleagues, “this property does not meet the criteria of a minimum variance necessary to permit reasonable use of the property.” She was referring to language in county regulations regarding the granting of Coastal Setback Variances.
Detert asked county Environmental Specialist Staci Tippins whether Tippins believed the criteria the board had to consider weighed against approval of the variance.
“It’s a very complex question with a very complex answer,” Tippins responded.
On that portion of Siesta Key, Tippins continued, the GBSL “is located much farther landward than it is on some other keys.” The line’s positioning, she added, was based on the 100-year storm surge elevation in 1978.
“Because of these low elevations,” Tippins continued, “[the parcel] is considered [to be] in a Coastal High Hazard area.”
The county staff memo said, “The elevations on the subject site [as determined through a survey] range from 4.06 to 4.9 feet (NAVD).” The latter acronym refers to ground elevation in a flood zone.
According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) guidelines, Tippins added, the property may experience up to or over 9 feet of storm surge in a Category 3 hurricane.
Then Tippins reminded Detert that a table staff had included in the agenda packet cited how the new construction would or would not be compatible with applicable county policies and regulations.
“The habitable area is most certainly increasing,” Tippins added, but the new structure would be on pilings, “as opposed to slab-on-grade, as an offset [to the greater amount of habitable space].”
“We are supposed to do the minimum variance,” Detert pointed out. “We constantly are breaking our own rule, in my opinion, because we’re doing beyond the minimum.”
Noting again the square footage of the new residence, Detert added, “That is nobody’s definition of the minimum variance.”
After she concluded her remarks, Chair Alan Maio asked Deputy County Attorney Joshua Moye whether it would be proper to allow for rebuttal, even though staff did not provide a full presentation.
“So he’s just rebutting my personal opinion?” Detert interrupted, directing her question to Maio.
She was referring to Brian Keisacker, an attorney with Ulrich, Scarlett, Wickman & Dean of Sarasota, who was representing the property owner.
Moye told Maio that rebuttal should be allowed.
Then Keisacker told Detert, “It’s not the minimum variance necessary; it’s the minimum variance reasonably necessary,” on which the board members should be deciding.
The total value of the two houses on the site, Keisacker pointed out, is $17,200. “If you put a good coat of paint and an air conditioner on those two buildings,” he continued, “you’re going to exceed 50% of that value …”
He was referring to what is known as the “FEMA 50% Rule.” That calls for a structure in a flood zone to be elevated if improvements to it will exceed 50% of its value.
The owner wants a new structure that is fully FEMA-compliant, Keisacker told the commissioners.
He also noted the habitable area of the houses next to his client’s property, as well as the size of the residences on the seaward size of Beach Road, in the same area. Most of those he pointed to had more than 5,000 square feet of habitable space.
The owner’s plans, he added, are “reasonable based on the surrounding properties …”
Further, Keisacker emphasized that the property at 669 Beach Road is landward of the road, and the pilings will protect the new residence from flooding.
After Chair Maio closed the hearing, Commissioner Michael Moran made the motion to approve the Coastal Setback Variance, and Commissioner Christian Ziegler seconded it. Neither offered comments.
When Maio called the question, Detert cast her “No” vote.