On Sept. 1, county Planning Commission to hold public hearing on third Siesta Key hotel project

Developer Balot says that if he wins County Commission approval, he will await resolution of lawsuits over other two hotels before proceeding with construction

On Sept. 1, the Sarasota County Planning Commission is scheduled to conduct a public hearing on a third hotel project proposed for Siesta Key. This one would be constructed on about 2.15 acres located at 5810 Midnight Pass Road, where a Wells Fargo bank stood for years.

The Planning Commission meetings begin at 5 p.m. in the County Commission Chambers in the County Administration Center standing at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota.

The agenda was not available prior to the publication of this issue of The Sarasota News Leader. It should be viewable on the county website by Aug. 25.

In November 2021, after the County Commission approved two high-rise Siesta hotel projects, island residents filed lawsuits to contest that action. Both cases are scheduled for non-jury trials in the first half of 2023. (See the related article in this issue.)

Subsequently, county staff members indicated the need to put on hold related proposals — including a request by the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce for an amendment to the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC) that would allow boutique hotels on the Key with up to 75 rooms.

The UDC contains all of the county’s land-use and zoning regulations.

One primary focus of the lawsuits is the fact that the County Commission last year approved a UDC amendment that eliminated the counting of residential dwelling units in regard to planning for hotels and motels countywide. Previously, on sites zoned Commercial General (CG), “transient accommodations,” which is the county staff term for hotel rooms, were limited to 26 rooms per acre, if most of them did not have kitchens. The hotel on the 5810 Midnight Pass Road property, which is zoned CG, would have about 112 rooms.

The county’s Comprehensive Plan — the document that guides growth in the community — includes Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1, which limits residential density on the county’s barrier islands to the number of units as of March 13, 1989. That is also a factor in the two lawsuits, as one of the hotels — planned on four parcels between Calle Miramar and Beach Road — would have 170 rooms; and the other hotel — at the intersection of Old Stickney Point Road and Peacock Road — would have 120 rooms.

Further, a developer needs approval of a Special Exception from the County Commission to exceed the 35-foot height limit for construction on CG parcels. The 5810 Midnight Pass Road hotel would stand a maximum of 59 feet in height, the revised, June application says. The rooms would be included on four floors built atop two levels of parking, the application notes.

A question-and-answer document that the property owner and developer, Dave Balot, prepared in advance of the second Neighborhood Workshop he conducted on his plans — which was held June 14 — references the fact that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requires any new construction in a flood zone to be elevated to a specific height above the ground, to try to prevent damage from hurricanes and other weather events. In the case of his hotel, Balot noted, the height of the building above ground level would be approximately 64 feet.

Why proceed with hearings while litigation is underway?

When the News Leader asked county staff why the Midnight Pass Road proposal is moving forward at this point, Michele Norton, assistant director of the Planning and Development Services Department, responded in an Aug. 15 email: “The applicant is fully aware of the existing legal challenges and desires to move forward with their petition for consideration based upon the approved change to the UDC, and assuming any risk if Sarasota County does not prevail in litigation.”

Balot, the principal of the limited liability company that owns the parcel at 5810 Midnight Pass Road — ABC SUB2 LLC — explained his thinking to the News Leader in an Aug. 15 email, as well.

If the County Commission does end up approving his application, Balot wrote, he plans to await the resolution of the lawsuits, which will determine whether he will have to submit a proposed amendment to the county Comprehensive Plan to make his project possible. If so, he added, he would resubmit the amendment that his team drafted before filing his original application, in the spring of 2021.

That 2021 Comprehensive Plan amendment called for the doubling of the residential density standard existing at that time for hotel and motel rooms on property zoned Commercial General in the Siesta Key Overlay District zoning regulations, Balot pointed out.

(As county staff members were reviewing his original Special Exception petitions, they realized that a Grand Tree was on the parcel. Because of that situation, Balot’s project team had to redesign the hotel, to allow sufficient room for the tree to remain in place. The county’s ordinances require the preservation of Grand Trees whenever they are found on sites planned for development. Thus, the room count rose from about 100, which was cited in the initial plans, and the height was raised from 35 feet over two levels of parking to accommodate the revised layout.)

During the second, county-required Neighborhood Workshop on the project — held at St. Boniface Episcopal Church on the Key — one attendee asked whether his hotel would be financially feasible if he ended up being limited to 26 rooms per acre. The answer was “No.”

Further, Balot told the News Leader on Aug. 15 that people have asked him why he is not willing to wait until after the election of two new county commissioners during the November General Election before proceeding with public hearings on the project. In fact, he added, some members of the public have asked that he put his plans on hold until after the election.

Both the County Commission races this year involve Siesta Key voters, as the two seats — District 2 and District 4 — represent the north and south parts of the barrier island, respectively.

“Personally I don’t see why the current commission should not hear my Special Exception request,” Balot wrote. “Just because there is an upcoming election, are the current, elected Officials no longer County Commissioners?” he added in his Aug. 15 email.

“I believe what I am asking for in terms of hotel use (transient accommodations) and height of 59′ (above NAVD), which is less than what the neighboring properties may build by right, are reasonable requests, regardless if I ask the current commission or the future [commission] with two new Commissioners,” Balot continued.

NAVD refers to the height of construction above base flood elevation.

Balot also pointed out, “I don’t feel I should be forced to wait beyond my turn to provide the opposition (what they may believe is) a better chance at stopping hotels on Siesta Key simply because they do not agree with some of the current elected officials. As stated by me and stated by some of the Planning and County Commissioners during the other two hotel hearings, Siesta Key could benefit from some new hotels. The real question of whether a comprehensive plan is needed for the proposed hotels (and ultimately mine if approved) will be decided in the courts early next year.”

He also noted, in a separate email to the News Leader, that “most of the interested parties that I have met and spoken to” have not opposed a hotel with a restaurant at the Midnight Pass Road location. Generally, he added, people have expressed concern only about the number of rooms. However, Balot wrote, “I’ve always felt my proposed hotel was a lower density option, compared to the other two hotels that have been approved.”

Other facets of the proposal

Many details of the Balot hotel plans remain as shown in the original engineering diagrams submitted to county staff last year.

The design features rooms built around a courtyard, which would have a “large pool and pool deck,” as the application points out.

Further, the structure would include up to 7,000 square feet of space for a restaurant, “a pool-side food and beverage bar, a coffee and bagel shop (in the lobby) and a ballroom for local events, such as weddings, birthdays,” celebrations of first Communions, and bar and bat mitzvahs, among other celebrations, the application notes.

The parking levels would encompass a total of six spaces for handicapped drivers, plus 289 standard parking spots and 41 motorcycle and golf cart/low-speed vehicle parking spaces, the application continues. Forty-five of the regular spots would serve beachgoers who are not hotel guests, the application indicates.

One of the primary traffic problems on Siesta, the application points out, is drivers who make constant loops of the public beach park parking lot, looking for open spaces. Therefore, the addition of the beach parking spots at the hotel should reduce traffic congestion in the affected area, the application notes.

The project architect is Mark Sultana of DSDG Architects in Sarasota, the application says. Balot’s agent for the project is Weiqi Lin of Port & Coastal Consultants in Sarasota. Lin was a county employee for many years, dealing largely with environmental permitting issues.

The revised application notes that the parcel is about 1.25 miles from Siesta Village and approximately 1.02 miles to the South Bridge Area, the commercial district south of the Stickney Point Road/Midnight Pass Road intersection.

“It is anticipated that most of the hotel guests will walk to the Siesta Key Public Beach,” which is north of the property, or use hotel-provided bicycles, golf carts/low-speed vehicles, and other transport — or free rides available on the island, the application says.

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