Members question whether the four-story structure — standing 57 feet tall — will be compatible in the community of mostly single and two-story buildings
On a 5-3 vote, the Sarasota County Planning Commission has approved a plan for a 103-room, four-story hotel on the Dutchman Hospitality Group property in Sarasota’s Pinecraft community. However, the action came after multiple questions about the proposed 57-foot height of the structure, which one board member pointed out is double the number of stories of most buildings in the Amish and Mennonite area.
After making their concerns clear, planning Commissioners Laura Benson, Jack Bispham and Philip Kellogg voted against the special exception that would allow the hotel to exceed the 35-foot height restriction allowed by the current zoning.
Chair John Ask had expressed some worries, too, but he told his colleagues, “I’m going to support [the motion] … I think [the hotel is] good for the community.”
Commissioner Andrew Stultz made the motion, which was seconded by Commissioner Ron Cutsinger.
The board members unanimously approved a related petition seeking the rezoning of parcels where the hotel will be constructed.
County spokesman Jason Bartolone told The Sarasota News Leader that the County Commission tentatively is scheduled to hold its public hearing on the project on Sept. 7.
The decision was made to design a four-story hotel because “there are some nice trees on the site,” Joel Freedman of Freedman Consulting & Development in Sarasota explained to the Planning Commission. He addressed the board on behalf of Dutchman Hospitality Group. Building a taller, more compact structure enables the preservation of more of those trees, he added.
During his presentation to the Planning Commission, Joe Medred of the county’s Planning Services staff explained that the site of the project is 13.4 acres just south of Phillippi Creek and north of Bahia Vista Street.
With some staff concerns having been raised about traffic on the site — given the popularity of the Der Dutchman restaurant there — Medred noted, the current drop-off/pick-up access to the dining establishment will be eliminated. The primary entry/exit points will be Love Avenue — which intersects with Bahia Vista — and Birky Street — which intersects with Beneva Road, he said. Both Love and Birky are private roads, Medred pointed out. Additionally, a stipulation for the site plan that county staff recommended calls for the existing easternmost access to Bahia Vista Street from the restaurant property be restricted to right-in/right-out turning movements.
Freedman pointed out that the plans for the hotel originated in 2007. However, it was not until last year that the project finally entered the formal development phase. That followed the sale of the property to Dutchman Hospitality Group, he noted. The latter company’s representatives “came down and said, ‘Let’s fire this thing up and see what we can do.’”
Along with the construction of the hotel, he continued, the plan calls for the creation of “a wonderful path/trail, if you will, for the guests of the hotel and people coming [to the site] to visit the restaurant.” The park-like area will result from the addition of a stormwater pond to the north of the new structure and the preservation of oaks.
Freedman added that a determination will be made later on whether the facility will be a “flag” property for a hotel chain.
Slightly more than 300 parking spaces exist on the property, he said; 114 will be added to meet county code. Dutchman Hospitality Group also will include space where three buses can be parked, he pointed out, as many of the guests will travel to the area by that means of transportation, he noted.
When Chair Ask opened the public hearing, only two people addressed the board.
Rocky Miller, who said he grew up in Pinecraft, said there was “no doubt that we need lodging and housing” in that area, especially during the height of the tourist season. He praised the Dutchman Hospitality Group, saying it “represents the values of the Amish and Mennonite community in a very positive way. … They operate with integrity. You can trust them.”
The other speaker, John Morris, voiced concerns about the difficulty of finding a parking space at the restaurant, particularly during high season. “I don’t think they’re adding enough parking for the hotel.” Morris also said he did not understand why Dutchman Hospitality had not been required to undertake a traffic study.
Freedman explained that county staff had not called for such a study because data indicated an insufficient traffic count in the area to warrant one. Freedman reminded the Planning Commission that many residents of Pinecraft walk or use bicycles to reach their destinations in the community. Most likely, he continued, employees of the hotel will walk or ride to work.
After looking at an aerial view of the property, Commissioner Kevin Cooper pointed out, “The ratio of asphalt to usable space on that property is almost nauseating. … It’s amazing we can fit anything else on the property other than parking.”
Morris also questioned whether the new facility would be a hotel or a boarding house. Freedman explained that the hotel rooms would have microwave ovens, refrigerators and sinks — amenities other accommodations provide. “They won’t have a cooktop.”
The height question
Following the public comments, board members began questioning Medred and Freedman about the height of the structure. Freedman pointed out that some three-story buildings do exist in the area. He also explained that the ground floor — with the lobby and meeting rooms — would have a ceiling of 17 feet. “We don’t think a four-story building’s out of character in that area,” Freedman added. “Neither did the county [staff].” Moreover, he said, the issue was discussed at the two neighborhood meetings the project team hosted.
“I can tell you that 35 feet kills the project,” Freedman pointed out, referring to the height limitation under the current zoning.
“It’s double the height of anything else in that neighborhood,” Commissioner Kellogg told Freedman.
Reducing the number of stories, Freedman reiterated, would mean removing more trees. “There are significant trees on this property.”
“That’s a very, very tall building,” Kellogg told him.
When Ask suggested that four stories typically would top out at 45 feet, Freedman replied, “Not in today’s world,” referencing the Florida Building Code.
Bispham said he drives Bahia Vista Street two or three times a week. “I don’t see anything tall but oak trees.”
“There’s large oak trees behind this property that kind of frame that area,” Peter J. Hayes, president and founder of Tandem Construction — which has been hired for the project — told the commissioners.
“We’ve really tried to bring the building down to its lowest point,” Hayes added.
Then Phil Smith, a landscape architect with David W. Johnston Associates of Sarasota — another member of the project team — explained that he had met on the property with the county’s urban forester, Mark McClintock. “We really tried to work the site plan around the significant trees,” Smith said. Generally, the oaks on the property are between 45 and 55 feet tall, he added. Furthermore, Smith pointed out, “The proposed building is set quite a bit back from the road.”
“I would go for a bigger footprint myself [and make the structure three stories]” Bispham said, “but that’s just my opinion.”
McClintock told the project team he would much prefer to see trees preserved than to lower the height of the building, Freedman replied.
In response to questioning from Cooper, Medred explained that the hotel site plan would be acceptable in the overlay district that community leaders have proposed to the county. Although the County Commission has accepted that preliminary concept, Tate Taylor, the county’s planning services manager, added, county staff is continuing to work on the final provisions of the overlay district, which the County Commission must approve. Taylor later pointed out that the community concept included a statement from Dutchman Hospitality Group about adding a hotel at some point. “The Pinecraft Board and the community support Der Dutchman’s plans and see them as an asset to the community,” Taylor read from the document. However, nothing specific was included about proposed height of a hotel, Taylor said.
“I think scale is vital,” Commissioner Benson told her colleagues. She considered the hotel “a beautiful building,” she added, as depicted in a rendering Freedman showed the board. Nonetheless, she continued, “I’m really struggling with a 57-foot building in its isolation, surrounded by residential development,” with the exception of nearby medical offices and a church.
Referring to the rendering, Commissioner Mark Hawkins also voiced appreciation for the design. “They kind of made it look homey, and it’s nice in the woods.”
(Freedman told The Sarasota News Leader on Aug. 2 that the design is being refined. He said he would provide the newspaper a copy of the final rendering prior to the County Commission’s public hearing.)
Ask pointed out that other than the two people who made public comments, no members of the community were present. “I’m very respectful of what the neighborhood thinks, and the neighborhood is not saying anything.”
Kellogg said that while he was supportive of the hotel project, 57 feet “is very tall. … It doesn’t pass the smell test in compatibility.”
“My gut tells me that if there were a significant concern about this … I think we’d have heard about it,” Cooper responded.
Stultz said he was not as concerned about the height, because no one had come to the meeting to protest it.
When Benson asked whether residents of the area surrounding Pinecraft participated in the planning of the overlay district, Taylor replied that those sessions were open to anyone who wanted to attend them. The meetings were advertised in the community, he added.
In response to another question from Benson, Taylor explained that county staff was required to send a notice about the Planning Commission public hearing to any property owner or resident within 750 feet of the proposed hotel site.
“If there had been some opposition, we would have heard about it,” Commissioner Cutsinger said.