Board declines to amend the county’s zoning ordinance to make the project possible
A month made no difference.
On Dec. 14, 2016, the Sarasota County Commission held a public hearing on a petition to amend the county’s zoning ordinance to allow self-storage buildings by special exception in the county’s Office, Professional and Institutional (OPI) districts. A related proposal called specifically for a three-story, 82,200-square-foot, climate-controlled self-storage facility on Fruitville Road on land zoned OPI.
At that time, two Sarasota County commissioners said they opposed the structure’s location in an OPI district. A question from a third made it clear the county already allows such facilities in three other zoning districts.
Then-Chair Alan Maio told his colleagues, “I’m not inclined to support [the project].”
“I would agree with the chair,” Commissioner Nancy Detert said. “It sets a bad precedent.”
As County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh explained, state law required a second public hearing on the proposed zoning ordinance amendment. Therefore, the board voted to continue the public hearing until Jan. 10.
This week, the County Commission unanimously voted to deny the petition for the zoning amendment and the associated request for a special exception for the Fruitville Road project.
In explaining her reasons for making the motion, Detert told Brian Lichterman of Vision Planning & Design, the agent for the developer, “Oddly enough, you kept bragging about your new design [in December]. So many of these [facilities] have sprung up lately, I have taken notice of them, especially when there’s three in one block on U.S. 41.”
She continued, “They seem so massive, and it’s not what we’re used to seeing with a storage unit … I’m just used to them having a bigger setback and not being so obtrusive. These just seem really in your face.”
If she lived in the Oak Court neighborhood just east of the site, Detert said, she would prefer an office complex, which the OPI zoning already allows.
Commissioner Mike Moran seconded her motion, saying, “Boy, this is a very difficult one for me.” Normally, he added, he would approve such a facility. “I think it’s a beautiful project.” However, Moran continued, “I just simply can’t get comfortable with this due to some of the comments Commissioner Detert mentioned. It is just so visibly aggressive to me.”
Still, Moran said, he felt that the applicant was “acting in good faith, coming before us.”
A county staff report explained that the property was rezoned from Residential Single-Family — allowing 4.5 units per acre — to OPI in October 2004. A proposal at that time called for the site to be developed with approximately 59,000 square feet of office buildings.
The property comprises about 2.91 acres. To the east and south of it are developed lots in the Oak Court residential community, a map showed. The Julie Rohr Academy, a private school for children from age 2 through kindergarten, stands adjacent to the property on the west.
The staff report also pointed out that the new plan called for an additional non-climate-controlled storage structure, encompassing 6,400 square feet. The buildings were to be set back 122.75 feet from Tree Road on the western border, while the three-story structure would have been erected 80 feet from the eastern property line.
The applicant proposed 20-foot-wide landscape buffers on the eastern and southern sides of the site, according to the staff report.
The access to the property would be via a driveway along Tree Road, across from the school, the report points out. The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) would not allow an access to be provided directly from Fruitville Road, Lichterman explained.
On Sept. 15, 2016, the county’s Planning Commission voted 8-1 to recommend the County Commission deny the special exception petition to allow the project on the Fruitville Road site. On a second vote — 5-4 — the Planning Commission recommended the County Commission deny the proposed zoning ordinance amendment.
Making their cases
During the Jan. 10 public hearing, four speakers representing the Oak Court community urged the board not to approve the project. They cited concerns about traffic — especially given the proximity of Julie Rohr Academy; noise and lighting intrusion, particularly at night; and the fear that such a commercial project would lead to a reduction in their property values.
“We’ve included windows on our building to make it look like an office building,” Lichterman told the board, “and we’re proposing a significant buffer.”
In his rebuttal, Lichterman added that no Tree Road residents opposed the project live on Tree Road. They had offered their support of the facility, he said, during his discussions with them.
He stressed the stipulations for greater setbacks than required by the County Code, “to ensure that this will be a compatible neighbor.” If the self-storage business were not allowed on the site, he added, a medical or general office building most likely would be constructed there, with the same height and footprint as the storage facility. Such a use would have greater impacts on traffic and stormwater, Lichterman said.
Two speakers during the public hearing supported that view.
One of them, Gail Bowden, a commercial real estate broker who identified herself as a representative of the property owner, told the board that if the zoning code amendment were not approved, her client would look for a buyer who would build a medical office complex on the site. “We have several people interested.”
Additionally, whereas the storage facility would be expected to generate 40 trips per day, she said, a medical complex would be anticipated to generate 186.
Bowden added that she tried to make a left turn from Fruitville Road into the Julie Rohr property about 3:30 p.m. one recent weekday and “sat there for 20 minutes” without seeing a break in traffic. She gave up, she said. “We all feel that [the storage facility] is the best use for everyone.”
Representatives of the storage business would be able to advise lessees to avoid the peak morning and afternoon traffic periods associated with the school, Lichterman noted.
The county’s State Road 776 Corridor Plan allows storage facilities within the OPI district, Lichterman also pointed out, so it seemed appropriate to allow them in the OPI district along other county corridors, such as Fruitville Road.
Ownership of the site
The applicant for the project was Baldwin-Howell Properties LLC, with J.B. Baldwin of Sarasota and Eric Howell of Bradenton listed as the principals of that firm.
Lichterman told the board in December that Baldwin’s family has been in the self-storage business since 1975. Moreover, J.B. Baldwin and Howell already have built more than seven self-storage structures since they established their partnership, he said, and they were constructing another five, all with facades that made the facilities resemble office buildings.
The application submitted to the county included an email from Jon B. Baldwin to Lichterman — dated Sept. 14, 2016 — which said that Midway Holdings Inc. was under contract to purchase the Fruitville property. “Eric Howell is the 100% owner of Midway Holdings,” Baldwin added.
The owner of the site — which includes parcels at 4480, 4481 and 4486 Fruitville Road — is Biel Reo LLC of Boston, according to Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office records. The firm bought the land in December 2011 for $1,410,000, the records show. David Stiepleman of Fort Worth, Texas, is listed on the application as the vice president of Biel Reo.
In a Dec. 14, 2016 memo to the County Commission, Deputy County Attorney Alan Roddy explained that, based on a letter from Sarasota attorney Charles D. Bailey III — acting on behalf of the property owner — the application “does not break down the current owner of the property, [Biel Reo], into individuals and percentages,” which was a violation of the County Charter. Roddy added, “Biel’s position is that it is a complex private entity owned through various entities by ‘thousands of investors around the world’ and cannot practicably provide the breakdown required by the Charter. It provides names of some of the component entities, but not of the individuals who own these entities and their respective percentages.”
Mark Wilson, president of the Oak Court Association, told the commissioners on Jan. 10 that the project was designed to benefit one property owner through spot zoning.