Public hearing continued to April 11
The majority of the Sarasota County commissioners made it clear on Jan. 30 that they were uncomfortable with the language of a proposed zoning text amendment regarding commercial building setbacks on Siesta Key. As a result, they voted unanimously to continue a public hearing on the issue until April 11.
“Put very simply,” Commissioner Paul Caragiulo said, “there’s just a lot of question marks here. … I’d just like to have our staff dive a little more into the planning piece of this.”
Caragiulo continued, “There’s a finite number of commercial properties [to which the zoning setback would be applied, but] I want to be more comfortable that we have done our due diligence to mitigate any unintended consequences. … You need to have some parameters so that you know where the fail safe is; you know what you can’t ask for.”
Thirty years from now, he indicated, he did not want to see unwelcome changes on Siesta Key and reflect on the Jan. 30 hearing with the realization, “That’s kind of what did it, right there.”
Many of the 19 Siesta residents opposed to the project who addressed the board during an almost three-hour-long public hearing focused on similar concerns.
“One of the primary worries … is the fact that one chip away at [the Siesta zoning regulations] is going to open Pandora’s box,” Catherine Luckner, vice president of the Siesta Key Association, told the board. “It’s not unrealistic to be afraid of this.”
In the meantime, the commissioners suggested Charles D. Bailey III, the attorney for Clayton and Diane Thompson — owners of Clayton’s Siesta Grille on Old Stickney Point Road — work with their Planning and Development Services Department staff on a more detailed version of the amendment’s language. Bailey had filed the petition for the zoning modification on the Thompsons’ behalf.
After a 4-1 vote on reopening the public hearing at one point, so Bailey could come back to the podium, Commissioner Alan Maio asked whether Bailey would like the board to continue the hearing, “so that you can work with staff.”
“Yes, sir,” Bailey replied.
(Chair Nancy Detert had opposed reopening the hearing, stressing her view that staff, not an attorney working for paying clients, should be charged with writing any proposal for amended language in the Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD) zoning regulations.)
During the hearing, both Caragiulo and Commissioner Charles Hines focused on the lack of clarity in the amendment Bailey had provided, even though the county’s Planning Commission approved it on an 8-1 vote on Dec. 7, 2017.
Hines noted that the language called for the County Commission to have final say on any commercial setback, through a special exception process. “The burden’s got to be shifted … to the petitioner,” Hines said, “and it’s got to be some pretty extensive criteria,” so the majority of the residents of Siesta Key would feel comfortable with the process.
“I’m not voting for a 50-foot-plus building 2 feet from the front setback,” Maio told Bailey.
Although he does not live on Siesta Key, Maio acknowledged, it is in his district. “It’s not like I’m immune to what Siesta is. I spend more time with you [residents] than any other group,” he told the audience members filling the Commission Chambers in downtown Sarasota.
Even though the island’s residents represent only about 3% of the total population in the county, Maio told the hearing attendees, “You are the engine that drives our visitors,” with Key accommodations annually accounting for about a third of the county’s “bed tax” revenue.
“None of us … none of us — are here to damage that,” Maio added.
A months-long saga
In early 2017, Bailey worked on behalf of Siesta Acquisitions LLC, whose principal is Dr. Gary Kompothecras of Siesta Key, to gain a determination from county Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson that a 2-foot street setback was allowed for any commercial building in the SKOD. (Kompothecras is known for his 1-800-ASK-GARY advertising for his chiropractic clinics.)
In response to Bailey’s 2017 request, Thompson issued the opinion that the zoning regulations call for a minimum street setback of 25 feet for any building over 35 feet in height, up to a distance equal to half the height of the structure. Because 85 feet is the maximum height allowed for any structure on the barrier islands, the maximum setback would be 42.5 feet, based on Thompson’s written determination.
When Bailey appealed Thompson’s assertion to the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals in June 2017, that board voted to uphold Thompson’s position.
Bailey has stressed since late 2016 that Kompothecras has not submitted any application to the county for a specific project. Nonetheless, Bailey acknowledged during the Jan. 30 public hearing, “There would be the desire to bring a quality boutique hotel [to the island that] would need to be taller than 35 feet and could not be built with a 25-foot setback.”
On behalf of Siesta Acquisitions, Bailey said, he and Robert “Bo” Medred of Genesis Planning & Development in Bradenton initially pursued a Comprehensive Plan change in regard to new transient accommodations on Siesta Key. The focus of the hotel plan, he continued, is Old Stickney Point Road, “which has some blighted old empty buildings.”
Through limited liability companies, Kompothecras owns the Old Stickney Point Road parcel where the former Fandango Café stands, as well as the adjacent site of a self-storage business.
Medred explained to the board on Jan. 30 that only about 27 acres of property on Siesta Key is zoned for commercial uses. The majority of that — about 16 acres — is in Siesta Village, while the second largest segment is along Old Stickney Point Road, Medred noted. The total amount of property zoned Commercial General, he said, represents about 1% of all the land on the Key.
Before Chair Detert began calling up members of the public who had signed up to speak, she asked Bailey, “Are your clients here,” referring to the Thompsons. “I don’t see them, and there’s hundreds of people here.”
“Would you like me to call them and have them appear before you?” Bailey replied.
“I just find it unusual,” Detert said, eliciting a round of applause, which prompted her to chastise the audience.
If the board has a policy calling for clients to be present, Bailey then told Detert, he would make certain, going forward, that he would have his clients with him.
Later, as part of his 5-minute rebuttal, Bailey said, “My clients … are really, really, really good folks. … They run Clayton’s Siesta Grille. … It’s season.”
Bailey added, “In my opinion, they didn’t need to be here. Please do not hold it against them that they are not present today. They did file this application [for the zoning text amendment].”
Bailey also pointed out that a number of other Siesta business owners support the amendment, including Dave Stewart, whose family owns Captain Curt’s Crab & Oyster Bar; the owners of the Daiquiri Deck restaurants; and Chris Brown, owner of the Beach Club, The Hub Baja Grill and numerous other properties in Siesta Village. “[The Thompsons] are not in this alone,” Bailey told the board.
Debating a course of action
After listening to the testimony during the hearing, Detert pointed out to her colleagues that because Bailey had made it clear that there is “no particular project … there’s no emergency going on here.”
She added, “We have great paid staff. … Let’s turn down this project. Let’s let our staff work on [the amendment and hopefully come up with something rather than … compromise at [the dais] …”
She told Bailey, “It is not our charge to write code … so your client can put 20 pounds of mud in a 10-pound bag. It doesn’t fit.”
“You can’t argue that what you’re proposing leaves a lot of speculation,” Commissioner Caragiulo told Bailey. “Speculation in this town’s a dangerous thing.”
Both Commissioners Michael Moran and Maio pointed out, however, that the special exception process entails a thorough vetting of a project, including a neighborhood workshop for people in the area surrounding the proposed site. A project “might be very, very different” at the end of that process, Moran said, compared to what it was at the beginning.
Hines also noted that when he was in law school he learned “that every piece of property is unique. … I’m always in favor of some flexibility.”
On the other hand, Hines continued, “Siesta Key is unique. It’s a village; it’s not a downtown.” Therefore, if the potential opens up for commercial buildings to be constructed much taller than two stories close to the sidewalk, he added, “you lose that village feel.”
An abundance of opposition
The very first person who addressed the board during the public testimony was Paul Nicholson, who lives in a condominium on Midnight Pass Road. Identifying himself as a professional developer, he told the board, “Zoning is there to protect communities.” On Siesta Key, a one- or two-story building next to the sidewalk is fine, he added. “An 8- or 10-story building by the sidewalk is ridiculous.”
Lourdes Ramirez, president of the Siesta Key Community, told the commissioners that if they approved the proposed language, they would be addressing proposals “all the time” for 8-story commercial buildings on the island.
Moreover, the two primary Siesta roads on which commercial zoning districts are located are narrow, she added. An 85-foot structure 2 feet from the sidewalk is “going to overwhelm Ocean Boulevard and Old Stickney Point Road.”
John Huber of Midnight Pass Road said of the island, “This is a wonderful place to live and to have fun. … Don’t take that away from us, please.”
Among the two supporters of the proposal who testified, Mark Smith, told the board he has been an architect on Siesta Key for almost 30 years and he is the immediate past chair of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber board took a vote in October 2017, lending its support to language that would allow more flexible setbacks for commercial buildings, Smith said. If zoning regulations were modified, he continued, a building 38 or 40 feet tall “wouldn’t automatically be 25 feet back from the … property line.”
The special exception process entails protection, he noted. It is one “in which you have to prove to the community, prove to the neighborhood, that you are doing no harm, that you are being compatible.” In fact, he said, his office in Siesta Village was approved through a special exception petition.
The only other supporter was Robert Waechter, who explained that, for more than 40 years, he has lived “within an arrow shot of the property [on Old Stickney Point Road] that is the subject of the discussion.” He participated in “the dozens and dozens of meetings” over two years that produced the SKOD, he added. Differing opinions were evident, he continued. “Words and punctuation were fought over.”
The result, Waechter said, was the emphasis on making the commercial areas appealing to pedestrians by “encouraging new commercial buildings to build to the sidewalk instead of requiring a street yard setback,” quoting from the SKOD. “How could that be clearer?” he asked.
On the other side of the issue, Robert Sax, who lives in the Marina Del Sol condominium complex on Old Stickney Point Road, told the board that Kompothecras wants a “financial windfall from developing his Trump Tower, and the only way he can get it is for you to water down the existing [regulations].”