Majority of public speakers oppose the initiative, saying a Siesta chiropractor has pursued it so he can build a new hotel
Eight of nine Sarasota County Planning Commission members have agreed that developers should have the flexibility to construct buildings taller than 35 feet as close as 2 feet to the sidewalk in three commercial zoning districts on Siesta Key.
The lone “No” vote at the conclusion of a Dec. 7 public hearing was cast by Commissioner Laura Benson. It is her belief, Benson said, that the intent of the Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD) zoning regulations is for commercial buildings on the island “to remain on a lower scale,” to keep that “beach-y feel.”
The other eight Planning Commission members sided with Sarasota attorney Charles D. Bailey III of the Williams Parker firm and Robert “Bo” Medred of Genesis Planning & Development in Bradenton, who submitted a privately initiated zoning text amendment on behalf of Clayton A. Thompson and Diane Heiden Thompson, owners of Clayton’s Siesta Grille on Old Stickney Point Road.
In the spring, Bailey sought a letter of determination from county Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson about the SKOD street setback requirements. She provided a document detailing her assertion that any structure taller than 35 feet built in a Commercial General (CG), Commercial Intensive (CI) or Office, Professional and Institutional (OPI) district under the SKOD zoning regulations would have to be at least 25 feet from the street, up to a distance half the height of the structure — whichever was greater. The maximum height allowed on the barrier islands is 85 feet, Thompson pointed out, so that meant an 85-foot-tall structure would need to be 42.5 feet from the street.
On Jan. 30, the County Commission tentatively is set to hold its hearing on the proposed change in the SKOD regulations. If approved, the amendment would enable the County Commission to grant a special exception to a developer, stipulating how much street setback would be required for a new building exceeding 35 feet in the three Siesta commercial zoning districts.
“This is not increasing Siesta Key residents by two-fold,” Commissioner Jack Bispham pointed out on Dec. 7, referring to the proposed SKOD change.
Bailey reiterated several times that no new structure has been proposed in conjunction with the amendment. “There’s no project before you; there’s no development application before you.”
However, several speakers referred to an effort initiated late last year by Dr. Gary Kompothecras, a Siesta Key chiropractor known for the 1-800-ASK-GARY advertising for his clinics, regarding a new hotel on the island.
One Siesta resident, Janet Emanuel, pointed out that a county demolition permit has been sought for the old Fandango Café at 1266 Old Stickney Point Road. (The Sarasota News Leader confirmed that through county permitting records this week.) A limited liability company for which Kompothecras is the principal — Stickney Storage — has owned that property since August 2016, county records show. Through another company — 1260 Inc. — Kompothecras also owns the adjacent parcel at 1260 Stickney Point Road, according to Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office records.
If the SKOD amendment would enable Kompothecras to build a hotel, Bispham said, that would be good for Siesta Key.
Commissioner Joseph Neunder agreed, citing public comments by Frederick Piccolo, president and CEO of Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. One critical element that has hampered the airport in inking agreements with “long-haul carriers,” Piccolo told the commission, has been the lack of diversity among accommodations on Siesta Key, in spite of its No. 1 U.S. beach ranking this year.
“This is a very stringent process,” Commissioner Robert Morris explained of any request for a special exception. “If it’s a bad application, it’s not going to get through,” especially if the structure is designed to be 85 feet high.
“Anybody would have to have a lot of courage to seek a special exception to 85 feet, period,” Bailey told the board. “You’re not going to see Charlie Bailey standing before you, asking for that. I like living and breathing.”
County Zoning Administrator Thompson also noted that a super-majority of the County Commission — four of five members — would have to approve a petition for a special exception for it to be granted.
Getting to Dec. 7
Thompson and Bailey both provided background to the Planning Commission in their remarks during the hearing, which lasted about two hours and 10 minutes.
Bailey explained that he disagreed with Donna Thompson’s determination about the SKOD setback requirements, so he appealed her decision to the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) on behalf of Siesta Acquisitions LLC; Kompothecras is the principal of that company, as well.
The BZA ruled 3-2 on June 12 that Thompson was correct.
On July 12, a number of Siesta Key business owners — including Clayton Thompson; Mark Smith of Smith Architects, who also serves as chair of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce; and Kompothecras — appeared before the County Commission to seek a county-initiated zoning text amendment to comply with what they argued was the intent of the SKOD: to encourage a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere in Siesta commercial districts by ensuring buildings are close to the sidewalk.
The county commissioners asked staff to work on an amendment to achieve the modifications Bailey had sought. However, on Aug. 29, the majority agreed that the zoning text amendment should be the focus of a private initiative, instead of a staff undertaking, based on a report from Donna Thompson and Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department. Osterhoudt and Thompson wrote in a report to the board that “the issue appears to focus on a specific project …”
Additionally, they noted, they had not had a bevy of complaints about the SKOD language that Bailey had targeted.
In the meantime, Bailey explained to the Planning Commission, Siesta Acquisitions filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari on July 13 in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court, seeking to overturn the BZA decision. The attorney who handled that on behalf of Kompothecras, Bailey continued, has worked with the Office of the County Attorney to keep the litigation in abeyance, pending a resolution of the initiative to amend the SKOD.
The intent of the regulations
Commissioner Benson sought clarification early on during the Planning Commission hearing that even if a new building on Siesta Key were 36 feet, it would have to be set back 25 feet from the street, under the current regulations.
“That’s correct,” Thompson replied.
“There’s nowhere else [in the county zoning regulations] where it’s this drastic of a difference,” Commissioner Kevin Cooper told Thompson. “What was the thought there [for] such a weird variance?”
Thompson replied that she was not aware of the historical context of the discussions.
“This is supposed to be designed for walkability and for pedestrian-friendly use,” Commissioner Ron Cutsinger said of the intent of the SKOD regulations, as noted in the ordinance.
“Correct, but the standard is for buildings up to 35 feet,” Thompson told him. “The issue comes when you go over 35 feet.”
During her public comments to the board, Lourdes Ramirez, president of Siesta Key Community, pointed out that she was involved in the development of the SKOD regulations. The intent, she explained, was to make the smaller-scale buildings in Siesta Village more easily visible, since parking is allowed in front of them. “But we never wanted a tall building,” Ramirez stressed. Since the first zoning regulations were implemented for the Key in 1953, she said, residents have fought increased density. “We want more open space.”
Bob Waechter, who said he has lived on Siesta for 40 years, countered Ramirez’s comments, telling the board, “I believe I’m the only person in the room tonight who actually sat through the whole process.” Ramirez joined the discussions in the final months, he added.
(Thompson told the board that the SKOD was adopted on Aug. 3, 2001.)
Waechter emphasized that the intent of the SKOD was to have commercial buildings only 2 feet from the street.
Moreover, Waechter said, “It’s interesting to hear a line of folks who live in 70-foot-tall buildings come up and plead for you to keep Siesta Key small.” He was referring to most of the other speakers, who identified themselves as residents of condominium complexes on the island.
Among the opponents was Frank Jurenka, president of the Siesta Key Condominium Council. He pointed out that the nonprofit organization represents about 90 of the 97 condominium complexes on Siesta Key, which have about 7,100 doors, as he put it. The council’s members represent about 6,800 of those doors, he said.
All of the 48 respondents to a survey the nonprofit sent to its members regarding a potential hotel on the island opposed the possibility of increased density and intensity, Jurenka added.
Altogether, 15 people addressed the board, with only Dave Stewart, owner of Captain Curt’s Crab & Oyster Bar on Old Stickney Point Road, joining Waechter and Piccolo in endorsing the amendment.
Medred of Genesis Planning & Development pointed out to the Planning Commission that Siesta Key comprises only about 2,200 acres, and only 29 of those acres are zoned for commercial development, or just slightly more than 1% of the total. Siesta Village has about 16 of those acres, Medred said, while another 11 acres is available south of the Stickney Point Road bridge. The remainder is the site of a Wells Fargo bank near the intersection of Beach Road and Midnight Pass Road, he noted.
“There are very little, teeny tiny pockets of [Commercial General zoning districts] … and even teenier tiny commercial properties [on Siesta Key],” Bailey told the board. “You don’t see any one big honking piece of property on which you can do redevelopment.”
Medred said that most of the new development has been in the form of bars. “You’re seeing a proliferation of them.”
When Commissioner Benson asked Bailey and Medred what they view as the barriers to economic viability of new development on the island, Bailey said he believes bars and restaurants are “more profitable”; property owners have no desire to demolish and rebuild structures because of the necessity of having to comply with state and local building codes as well as Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) coastal flood zone guidelines. “Ain’t nothing more expensive per square foot” than new construction on a barrier island, Bailey added.
However, Ramirez pointed to the redevelopment of the building that once housed Napoli’s Restaurant on Ocean Boulevard: It is home to Gidget’s Coastal Provisions. The structure that housed the Jo-To Japanese Restaurant for years also is being turned into a new business, she added.
Commissioner Bispham finally made the motion to recommend the County Commission approve the zoning text amendment, and Commissioner Colin Pember seconded it.
“I think that this is fixing an issue that was an unintended consequence,” Commissioner Morris said.