Planning Commission members unanimously oppose proposed new county policy regarding voluntary demolition and rebuilding of condo complexes on Siesta Key, citing likelihood of ‘unintended consequences’

County Commissioner Mark Smith began seeking Comprehensive Plan amendment before his election to board

This is Champlain Towers in Surfside, following its collapse in June 2021. Image from the NIST website

With a unanimous vote at the end of an approximately 45-minute-long public hearing on the night of June 20, the members of the Sarasota County Planning Commission recommended that the County Commission deny a proposed new policy in the county’s Comprehensive Plan to allow for the voluntary demolition and reconstruction of condominium complexes on Siesta Key.

The measure would apply to buildings constructed prior to January 2000.

Although County Commissioner Mark Smith, a long-time Siesta Key architect and resident, had been seeking the new policy since January 2022 — prior to his November election to the board that year — the phrase that planning commissioners and speakers used a number of times during the June 20 hearing was “unintended consequences.”

“I think there’s so many open-ended questions and loopholes in this that it’s really too hard to say, ‘Yes,’ ” Planning Commissioner Donna Carter told her colleagues.

Even Planning Commissioner Jack LaCivita, who had voiced support for the initiative prior to the public comments and the board discussion, backed away from it later.

Having lived on the Key “for a short time” in a 1950s-era house, he said, he understood concerns about hurricanes and flooding, along with the need for residential housing to conform to state and county building code requirements in reconstruction.

“If [this proposal] were redone, where it was like for like, footprint for footprint, height for height,” with the necessity of complying with modern construction standards, LaCivita continued, “I think it’d be a great solution” and motivator for people to tear down decades-old structures and erect new ones.

However, he indicated that one of his primary concerns is that even a seven-story condominium tower could be torn down and replaced with a new seven-story building over two levels of parking.

Planner Everett Farrell addresses the board on June 20. News Leader image

The county allows a maximum height of 45 feet over two levels of parking for a building with residential multi-family housing, County Planner Everett Farrell had reported during the hearing. Farrell confirmed that LaCivita’s scenario would be realistic if the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment — and a companion amendment to the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC), which the board also was considering that night — were to win final approval from the County Commission. (The Comprehensive Plan guides growth in the community. The UDC contains all of the land-use and zoning regulations.)

LaCivita pointed out that if the advertisement for the public hearing had made that height detail clear, “We’d still be here tomorrow morning.”
He was referring to Siesta residents’ activism in recent years in opposition to high-rise hotel construction on the island.

Planning Commissioner Andrew Stultz had referenced the fight against the hotels in one of his remarks during the discussion: “I have a great concern after we’ve just gone through a lot of scar tissue with different projects out on Siesta Key.”

Yet another issue that the board members discussed had been raised by speakers during the public hearing that night: Developers might see the approval of the amendments as affording them the opportunity to purchase multiple units — or all of the units — in condominium towers. Then, after the existing buildings were torn down and rebuilt, the developers could use the units on a year-round basis as short-term vacation rental housing.

Planner Everett had pointed out, “That is a possibility” in response to a question posed by Planning Commissioner Colin Pember. Earlier, Everett had explained that Siesta Key is the only area of the county where the county’s vacation rental ordinance allows rentals less often than once every 30 days. That is possible only on property zoned Residential Multi-Family.

Farrell also told Pember, “We don’t get into who owns what unit,” referring to county staff members.

Pember, in fact, was the first to express a view similar to LaCivita’s later in the discussion — the need for more work on the proposed amendments before they might be able to win approval.

“I thought some of the ideas behind this are great,” Pember said. Yet, he continued, “It’s not up to this board to give guidance [on the language in proposed Comprehensive Plan and UDC amendments].”

In response to a Sarasota News Leader inquiry on June 25, Sarasota County Planning Division staff said that “no date has not been assigned at this time” for the necessary County Commission public hearing on the proposed amendments.

The county commissioners will begin their traditional four-week summer recess starting July 21; the break is scheduled to end on Aug. 17.

The years-long process prior to the hearing

During his presentation that night, Planner Everett provided the board members a timeline regarding the development of the proposals.

During the Open to the Public comment period of the Jan. 11, 2022 County Commission meeting, Siesta architect Smith said he was representing the owners of the Sea Club V condominium complex, which stands at 6744 Sarasea Circle, on the southern part of the island. His issue, he continued, was related to all older condominium projects — those constructed in the 1950s and 1970s — that might be contending with structural damage linked to their age and their location in a coastal environment.

This is an engineering drawing that architect Mark Smith provided to the county commissioners in January 2022, showing details about the reconstruction issues for Sea Club V, based on current zoning regulations. Image courtesy of Mark Smith

Smith’s appearance before the commission came just months after the June 24, 2021 collapse of the 12-story beachfront Champlain Towers South building in Surfside, near Miami. That resulted in the deaths of 98 people. Reports said that that tower had had significant maintenance issues that had not been addressed. The building was completed in 1981, Wikipedia notes.

The county’s Post Disaster Redevelopment Plan (PDRF), which was completed in 2014, says, “Current zoning regulations allow any residential structure or structures in any residential zoning district to be rebuilt after destruction to the same height and density of units per acre regardless of the percentage of destruction, except when the destruction has occurred by the voluntary act of the owner,” Smith read to the commissioners seated in January 2022.

“That’s physically impossible on the coast,” he stressed of redevelopment after a disaster. “You have to build higher to begin with, to get out of the flood zone,” in accord with the requirements of the Florida Building Code and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), Smith added.

All of the Sea Club V units were constructed on the ground, he pointed out.

Yet, no owners of condominiums in Sarasota County could voluntarily demolish their buildings, out of concern about structural degradation over decades, and rebuild them without complying with all of the current county land-development regulations, Smith told the commissioners.

Then-board Chair Alan Maio won the support of his colleagues that day to direct county staff to work on an assignment entailing how the county could proceed with responding to the concerns Smith had raised.

After Smith won election to the County Commission, he continued to pursue the issue. Most recently, Planner Farrell told the Planning Commission members on June 20, he had received specific direction from the county commissioners following a Sept. 12, 2023 presentation about staff’s proposal for the Comprehensive Plan and UDC amendments as of that time.

Among them — as Farrell noted during the June 20 public hearing — was the elimination of a staff-suggested requirement that the owners of units in a condominium complex where voluntary demolition and rebuilding were being considered should hire a structural engineer to undertake a comprehensive analysis of the building and produce a report detailing the findings.

During the Sept. 12, 2023 County Commission discussion, Smith stressed to his colleagues that he did not believe owners of condos built to the Florida Building Code standards that existed prior to 2000 should be burdened with the expense of hiring an engineer, given the outdated construction standards for those buildings.

“Again, this is voluntary,” Smith emphasized of the Comprehensive Plan proposal. “This is not something willy-nilly that folks are going to do, to tear down your building and build new.”

He also pointed out that day that the owners would face having to be out of their units for probably at least two years. In addition, Smith said, people who rent their units would have no income from that business until the new building had been completed.

During the Planning Commission hearing, Farrell explained that the proposed new Comprehensive Plan policy, 1.3.3, would read as follows:

Image courtesy Sarasota County

Staff also proposed that No. 5 in the list include the stipulation that no Special Exceptions could be granted either. Although Commissioner Smith had asked for staff to omit such language, Farrell said, the Planning Division staff felt it should be included.

Moreover, Farrell noted, leaders of the nonprofit Siesta Key Association (SKA) had requested that it be part of the amendment language. The no Special Exceptions provision, Farrell indicated, would be added to the assertion that no variances would be allowed in regard to setbacks that the county’s 1979 Gulf Beach Setback Line (GBSL) requires for coastal construction, in an effort to preserve dunes and native habitat, which, in turn, help to prevent storm damage to landward structures.

The SKA, he noted, was one of the stakeholders with which county staff had met to discuss the proposed amendments.

The Office of the County Attorney, Farrell said, had no objection to the inclusion of the Special Exception language.

Then he explained that the proposed companion UDC amendment “goes into a lot more detail.”

Image courtesy Sarasota County

Three speakers in opposition to the amendments

Only three people ended up speaking during the June 20 hearing, including Robert Luckner, acting treasurer of the Siesta Key Association, and Neal Schleifer, vice president of the Siesta Key Condominium Council.

Schleifer pointed out that his organization represents 100 complexes on the barrier island, with about 7,000 households.

The third person was Cape Coral attorney Ralf Brookes, who was representing south Siesta resident James P. Wallace III. Since 2018, Wallace has fought new development on the Key and in close proximity to the island, contending, in part, that the existing traffic congestion poses dangers to people who suffer medical emergencies and need to reach the mainland as fast as possible for critical care.

Among his points, Schleifer said that the Condo Council had pressed for county staff to undertake a study involving comparable coastal communities, to determine how they were contending with concerns about aging condominium complexes. Yet, he added, such an analysis was not pursued.

He further noted that, if the amendments went into effect, “You could go from 400 to 600 square feet [in condos] to 3,000 to 4,000 square feet,” which would result in a significant increase in the density and intensity of residential development on Siesta Key.

Neal Schleifer addresses the county commissioners on July 13, 2021 on behalf of the Siesta Key Condominium Council. File image

Schleifer also emphasized that developers in other coastal areas already are trying to tear down old complexes and replacing them with “transient accommodations,” which is the county term for hotel and motel rooms, though it also can be used to refer to short-term vacation rentals.

Attorney Brookes confirmed the statement. “Two-story condos in Naples are being torn down and replaced with eight-story condos with more density, more intensity and more height,” Brookes said.

Moreover, Brookes emphasized that, in two legal cases that Siesta resident Lourdes Ramirez pursued after the County Commission approved two high-rise hotels on Siesta — following hearings in the fall of 2021 — the judges found that the projects violated the county’s Comprehensive Plan Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1, which limits residential density and intensity on Siesta Key to that in place as of March 13, 1989.

(As part of the voluntary condo demolition and rebuilding process, Planner Everett explained, that policy would have to be amended, too.)

Brookes read from a section of the April 2023 ruling in Ramirez’s favor in the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) case. It said that the county’s 1981 Comprehensive Plan “specifically discusses the Barrier Islands as an area of special concern, acknowledging the ‘problems associated with development on the barrier islands,’ including ‘the detrimental effect of building along the active beach areas’ and ‘difficulties of evacuating large numbers of people from the Keys in time of emergency.”

Additionally, Brookes referenced Administrative Law Judge Suzanne Van Wyk’s finding that the 1981 county Comprehensive Plan described Siesta Key as “ ‘highly developed’ and ‘contain[ing] some of the County’s most intensive residential development.’ ” That plan “then states that it ‘recognizes the existing development represents the maximum levels of development on the Keys[.]’ (Van Wyk’s emphasis added).”

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