Dozens of speakers warn of exacerbated traffic congestion and protest density of the project
At the end of a Nov. 15 hearing that lasted approximately five hours, the members of the Sarasota County Planning Commission voted 5-2 to recommend that the County Commission approve the proposed Siesta Promenade project, as planned, with a total of 479 dwelling units, 133,000 square feet of retail space and 7,000 square feet of office space.
Planning Commissioners Laura Benson and Robert Morris cast the “No” votes.
Planning Commissioners Andrew Stultz and Frank Strelec were absent from the meeting.
The development would stand on about 24 acres at the northwest corner of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road.
The County Commission hearing has been scheduled for Dec. 12, beginning at 9 a.m. in downtown Sarasota.
Fifty-eight people had signed up to address the Planning Commission at its hearing, Chair Kevin Cooper announced. However, by the Sarasota News Leader’s count, only 47 of them came to the podium on Nov. 15, as the hearing continued well into the night, following its 5:15 p.m. start.
Speaker after speaker pleaded with the Planning Commission to consider the traffic congestion that plagues the intersection, especially during the height of tourist season. Additionally, residents talked of the intensity of the project adjacent to the Pine Shores Estates neighborhood of single-family homes.
Todd Mathes, director of development for Benderson, explained that the company had modified plans for the project a number of times since it acquired the property in 2005, working with the surrounding residents to achieve a design that would lead to fewer additional cars on the road. He also cited county policies that had been implemented over the years to encourage “infill” — new development in existing commercial areas instead of expansion outside the urban core.
Steve Kirk, the county planner who has managed the Siesta Promenade application over the past several months, told the planning commissioners that the project is consistent with county policies.
And in response to concerns about traffic, Paula Wiggins, manager of the county’s Transportation Planning Division, explained that, because Benderson has sought a Critical Area Plan (CAP) designation for Siesta Promenade, staff is allowed to impose more conditions on the development than it would under a routine rezoning request. (See the related story in this issue.)
Still, Wiggins acknowledged, under state law, the county cannot require a developer to “correct … existing deficiencies.” Even so, she pointed out, “We cannot widen the road. Stickney Point is six lanes,” she added, and then it narrows to four. No extra right of way is available to add extra travel lanes, she said.
When she noted that staff recognizes “there is a congestion problem today,” laughter emanated from the people nearly filling the Commission Chambers at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota.
Planning Commissioner Joseph Neunder made the motion to recommend that the County Commission approve Siesta Promenade, and Planning Commissioner Colin Pember seconded it.
A mixed-use development like this one, Planning Commissioner Ron Cutsinger said, “is something that we’ve been trying to get to for years in this community.” He also cited the fact that Benderson will provide 25 affordable housing units out of the 414 planned.
“The Future Land Use map really governs what can go here,” he added, referring to the 2005 change of designation for the site as a Commercial Center, a fact Mathes of Benderson had noted in his remarks.
That change resulted from an evaluation required by the state, along with a related review and update of the county’s Comprehensive Plan, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester explained in response to a News Leaderquestion.
“Benderson could not be a better neighbor to have,” Planning Commissioner Teresa Mast said on Nov. 15. “I struggle when I hear a group of individuals demonize someone to the point that they forget the impact that Benderson has had on our community.”
She noted “the integrity of [the company’s] projects” and its numerous efforts in past years to “take a blighted project after a blighted project and [turn] it into something that I am super proud to be a part of, and I am very proud of my community.”
Cooper, the chair, talked of his focus on whether the project would be consistent with county policies. … “I have a hard time recommending denial.” Siesta Promenade, he added, “does hit those [policy] marks. … My personal preference is largely irrelevant.”
“Whether the policies are sound or not [is] not necessarily for us to decide at this point in time,” he added.
However, Morris talked of growing up on Siesta Key. “I love Siesta Key,” he said, but he acknowledged that traffic considerations — especially the fact that access is via two drawbridges, one on Stickney Point Road and the other on Siesta Drive — have been an issue for many years. “It was always a pain in the butt to live on Siesta Key. … A lot of people have decided that, as well.”
He also told his colleagues that just because Benderson was requesting a Critical Area Plan (CAP) designation, to allow it to build up to 25 dwelling units per acre, “doesn’t necessarily mean it is something that we should do.”
Morris added, “What is definitely unique about this application is that bridge [on Stickney Point Road].”
One resident showed the board members a video with traffic backed up through the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road on a day during high tourist season. The video included images of an electronic signboard urging motorists not to block the intersection, noting that the fine for a gridlock violation is $166.
Testimony during the hearing made it clear that the U.S. Coast Guard regulates the openings and closings of the drawbridges; those bridges open twice an hour, if boat traffic warrants that action. The county and the Florida Department of Transportation have no control over that situation, staff explained.
“I think because it’s a CAP application,” Morris continued, “you have to take the traffic into consideration. … I’ve got a real problem with exacerbating that problem.”
Benson cited the benefits of the project, as proposed, especially the fact that it is an example of urban redevelopment. Still, she said, “I wish for the wisdom of Solomon, where somebody could find a way to take these two competing interests and develop a solution.” She was referring to both the testimony of opponents and the project design.
Such an infill development, she said, is “impactful to people that are nearby. … “I don’t think that much density makes sense in that location.”
She also concurred with part of Morris’ concern about the drawbridge. Benson said she did not believe any project “should bear the brunt of what’s happening at that bridge.”
Sura Kochman, a leader of the Pine Shores Neighborhood Alliance, which has opposed the project as planned, offered an alternative to the Planning Commission on Nov. 15.
Her group is very much aware of property rights issues, Kochman stressed. “We’re not suggesting that just a park be placed [on the site],” an option for which some opponents have called.
Instead, Kochman told the board, if Benderson pursued a rezoning of the site to Commercial General (CG), without the CAP, it could build up to 13 dwelling units per acre. That would mean 309 residential units, Kochman pointed out. The firm could construct 179 condos/apartments and a 130-room hotel, she suggested, citing testimony that night of county Planner Kathy Eastley. However, Kochman urged the commissioners, “Do not give the entire parcel a CG rezone.”
Kochman proposed that Benderson be required to expand the residential multifamily zoning that exists on part of the site, which allows 6 units per acre, and make that applicable to the area immediately adjacent to Pine Shores Estates. Then the project could transition to 13 units per acre in the interior, with building height rising from 25 to 35 feet. The hotel could be four or five stories, she added — perhaps 55 or 60 feet tall — next to U.S. 41. “That’s it. No retail. Retail is what causes the increase in the daily trips,” she noted, referring to the expected climb in the number of vehicles in the immediate area as a result of the project’s completion, which is expected in 2024.
A staff report completed in September said Siesta Promenade would generate 8,379 more vehicle trips per day. Yet, Kochman pointed out, that did not include the trips that had been associated with the mobile home park that formerly stood there. Altogether, she said, with Siesta Promenade built as proposed, the daily number of trips through the U.S. 41/Stickney Point Road intersection would be about 12,406.
Kochman’s remarks drew a round of applause from the audience, and an admonishment from Chair Cooper about the need for decorum during the hearing.
A question of procedure
Remarks from the very first speaker during the hearing — attorney Morgan Bentley of Sarasota, who represents the Best Western Plus Siesta Key Gateway Hotel, located at 6600 S. Tamiami Trail — prompted Cooper to ask for help from Deputy Attorney Alan Roddy.
As he had in letters to Roddy in prior weeks, Bentley argued that county staff was not following the county process provided for in regard to Critical Area Plan applications. For example, no boundary ever was set for the Siesta Promenade property, Bentley pointed out.
During a County Commission hearing in January 2017, Roddy replied, that board agreed to let the process go forward without a boundary. “The applicant runs the risk that the board might not like the boundary that [Benderson Development] chose,” Roddy added.
When the County Commission considers the petitions on Dec. 12, Roddy continued, it will or will not approve the proposed CAP.
However, he said, if the majority of the Planning Commission members felt that the boundary was not appropriate, they could cite that as a reason to recommend the County Commission deny Benderson’s petitions. “This is the CAP you have in front of you.”
To paraphrase that, Cooper responded, “the validity of the hearing is sound, in your opinion?”
“Correct,” Roddy told him. “They have a lot of discretion in their legislative acts,” he said of the county commissioners.
Plans and protests
At the opening of the hearing, county Planners Steve Kirk and Kathy Eastley explained facets of the Benderson proposal and a number of stipulations to which the firm would have to adhere if the project were approved.
Kirk pointed to county Future Land Use (FLU) Policy 1.2.15, which allows residential dwelling unit density as high as 25 units per acre in a project with a CAP designation. Benderson was seeking density of approximately 20 units per acre, he noted.
Additionally, building heights above 35 feet are permitted in a CAP, he said.
With the exception of two single-family lots west of Glencoe Avenue, he added, the rest of the homes in Pine Shores Estates would be separated from Siesta Promenade by public streets.
A 20-foot wide landscape buffer would be required along all adjacent streets and properties, Kirk said.
The heights of the buildings, Kirk explained, would rise in a transition away from the neighborhood. Along Glencoe and Crestwood avenues, structures would be 40 feet. The tallest building would be the hotel, projected to stand 80 feet, he said.
When it was his turn at the podium, Mathes of Benderson explained of the site, “It was originally a turpentine encampment.” By the 1950s, it was the site of 300 mobile home units, he added, and Pine Shores Estates began filling in around it.
The county could have chosen low or moderate density for the property, when staff and the County Commission were looking at potential changes of the Future Land Use Map in 2005, Mathes said. Yet, the decision was made to designate the area a Commercial Center. A project such as Siesta Promenade, he said, “was a desired outcome for this property …”
Benderson’s original proposal for the development, completed in 2005, Mathes continued, called for 575 residential units and 250,000 square feet of commercial space, plus a 220-room hotel. After working with the nearby residents, he said, the company ended up with the proposal before the commission that evening.
When Chair Cooper called for speakers to begin addressing the board, he asked fist for representatives of homeowner and other organizations.
Dan Lundy, a director of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), said that nonprofit’s main concern about the project is the traffic that it will generate.
Living on Midnight Pass Road, he told the commissioners, he has seen traffic backups that look “like a slow-motion funeral.” He added that if Siesta Promenade is built, “it’s going to be a funeral as far as the prosperity of the island is concerned. It’s going to hurt it a great deal.”
A number of his friends have sold homes on the Key and moved away because of the difficulty of getting to appointments with their doctors — and even work — on time during season, given the traffic congestion, Lundy pointed out.
Frank Jurenka, president of the Siesta Key Condominium Council, pointed out, “Traffic reached critical overload” during the height of tourist season in 2017. Significant delays were documented on both the north and south bridge accesses, he said.
The Condominium Council represents about 100 associations on the island, with approximately 7,000 owners and units. Its members’ concerns, Jurenka stressed, are safety and quality of life. If Siesta Promenade were built as planned, Jurenka said, “Traffic can only increase dramatically.”
Melanie Goddard, president of the Gulf Gate Community Association, representing 1,550 homes, and vice president of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA), urged the commissioners to “support smart and cohesive and compatible development.” Over the past several years, Goddard said, developers have been pushing the county to authorize rezoning of property to allow maximum density.
Referring to Gulf Gate residents, she said, “My community is gravelyconcerned about the traffic.”
Already, she pointed out, drivers speed through the neighborhood to avoid the congestion in the vicinity of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road.
The job of the Planning Commission and the County Commission, Goddard stressed, “is to consider what’s best for everybodyin Sarasota County.”
Rhana Bazzini of Sarasota pointed to the increasing intensity of hurricanes in recent years, the rising sea level and the red tide bloom that has covered a wider area of the Gulf than in the past and has lasted since October 2017. Scientists have talked of the need to curtain development in vulnerable areas, she said, to reduce the flow of nitrogen to the Gulf and thereby cut the food supply for the red tide algae.
Siesta Promenade, she continued, is “a really nice project, but not in that location.”
Bazzini also cited a comment made by “the late, venerable” Florida Sen. Claude Pepper, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1937 to 1951: “‘If more politicians in the country were thinking of the next generation instead of the next election, it might be better for the United States and the whole world.’ This is also applicable to local and state politicians,” Bazzini told the commission.