Sarasota County planners question multiple facets of Benderson Development’s proposed policies to allow for high-rise hotel development on Siesta Key

Development Review Coordination team recommends variety of changes during review of preliminary application

This is the proposed Binding Development Concept Plan for the Siesta hotel, as shown in documents provided to county staff in regard to the Jan. 8 workshop. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Even before the required Neighborhood Workshop was conducted on Jan. 8 on Benderson Development Co.’s proposal to implement new Sarasota County policies that would allow high-rise hotel construction on Siesta Key, county staff members had provided comments indicating that revisions to the proposed policies were necessary, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

For example, county Planner Ana Messina wrote the following about Benderson’s proposed changes to Future Land Use (FLU) Policy 2.9.1, which was the basis for two legal challenges that Siesta Key resident Lourdes Ramirez won in fighting County Commission action in October 2021 that figuratively opened the door to what Ramirez refers to as “mega-hotels” on the barrier island: “Based on the applicant’s proposal to redevelop areas zoned for just commercial use within the Barrier Island FLU and to disassociate Transient Accommodation use from residential density, the corresponding Comprehensive Plan text amendments should also be specific to address just the ‘intensity’ portion of FLU Policy 2.9.1.”

This is the proposed language for the amended Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1, in Benderson’s preliminary application, which was submitted to county Planning Division staff last fall. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“Transient Accommodation” is the county term for hotel and motel rooms.

Messina then explained, “To this end FLU Policy 2.9.1 should simply indicate an additional exception to an ‘intensity increase’ only if a Transient Accommodation use is proposed within Commercial zoned parcels in the Siesta Key Overlay District [SKOD] that demonstrate consistency with Coastal Policy 1.2.2 and new FLU Policy 2.9.4.” Additionally,” she wrote, “consider leaving this policy intact and create a new policy that incorporates the suggested amendments instead.”

Further, Messina called on the company to provide “the necessary data and analysis to support the change.”

Those comments came during a Dec. 21 2023 county Development Review Coordination (DRC) review of the proposed amendments to the county’s Comprehensive Plan, which guides growth in the community.

As the News Leader has reported, Benderson not only wants to see the County Commission amend the Comprehensive Plan to eliminate the counting of hotel and motel rooms for residential purposes in most areas of the county, but it also wants to rid the plan of policies that encourage hotel construction away from the high-hazard coastal flood zones of the barrier islands.

The DRC comprises staff members who handle the various aspects of land-use regulations. They work to ensure that any application submitted to the county complies with all the necessary guidelines and regulations prior to the holding of public hearings before the Planning Commission and County Commission.

In regard to the company’s requested modifications to Coastal Policy 1.2.2, Messina wrote, “The proposed change seeks to limit applicability of this policy from all land use policy and map amendments to just Future Land Use map changes. There is no need to modify Coastal Policy 1.2.2 since this should be used as the basis to allow a use amendment as proposed by the Applicant. The policy opens the door for consideration of amendments that change density or intensity so long as these demonstrate that they do not adversely impact hurricane evacuation times. Emergency Services and Planning staff are of the opinion that no change should be made to this policy.”

Coastal Policy 1.2.2 says, “Proposed land use amendments in Evacuation Zones A and B hurricane vulnerability zone (storm surge areas) may be considered if such increases in density and intensity do not adversely impact hurricane evacuation times and are consistent with Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1 and Appendix A, Article 4, Section 4.6, Residential District Intent Statement Code of Ordinances of Sarasota County, Florida.”

The Benderson modification would change the first sentence to say “Proposed future land use map amendments …”

One aspect of the proposed amendments that County Commissioner Michael Moran touted to his colleagues during their Nov. 28, 2023 meeting was that Benderson has called for no more than 15% of the property zoned for commercial purposes on Siesta Key could be used for hotel and motel construction. He cited that in making a motion to allow county Planning Division staff to process the proposed amendments out of the normal cycle for such privately initiated measures. (Only Commissioner Mark Smith voted “No,” while Commissioner Joe Neunder was absent from that meeting.)

Yet, in addressing that proposed Comprehensive Plan Policy 2.9.4, Planner Messina wrote in the DRC report, “Please provide justification for the proposed 15% area limit … Please keep in mind that when specifying a percentage of area for a certain zone district only the parcel areas will count and not any [right of way] covered per the zone.”

This is the proposed FLU Policy 2.9.4 that Benderson submitted to county staff. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Further, she called for Benderson to “[e]xplain if the 15% incudes existing transient accommodations or just new ones. Consider adding a date to establish a baseline from which to calculate. Clarify if the 15% includes the entirety of the parcel on which [a hotel is] built, just the building footprint, etc. Provide data and analysis to support the request.”

Moreover, in regard to FLU 2.9.4, Messina pointed out, “Additional language to prohibit development along beaches included in [this] new [policy] is not needed if the policy will be specific to the existing CG [Commercial General] or CI [Commercial Intensive] zoned areas within SKOD [the Siesta Key Overlay District zoning regulations] as neither of these districts [is] located along the beaches nor are rezonings to commercial districts allowed on Barrier Islands.”

The hurricane evacuations issue

Moving on to proposed FLU Policy 1.2.6, Messina explained that it “is not consistent with the Coastal Disaster Management Chapter intent to plan for the protection of all human life. Since FLU Policy 1.2.6 is only ‘discouraging’ [residential] intensification [in the Coastal High-Hazard Area … to direct population concentrations away from this area],” she wrote, “this does not in [and] of itself prohibit intensification, so no amendment is required for this policy. Provide data and analysis for this request. Demonstrate how this does not affect hurricane evacuation.”

In regard to the proposed revision of Coastal Objective 1.3 in the Comprehensive Plan, Messina wrote about an issue that residents raised during the Jan. 8 Neighborhood Workshop on the Benderson proposals.

Both Lourdes Ramirez and Joyce Kouba, who is vice president of the Siesta Key Association, questioned the workshop hosts about the amended language.

This is Benderson’s proposal for amending Coastal Objective 1.3. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“How much do [Benderson company officials] think our lives are worth?” Ramirez asked Philip DiMaria, a planner with the Kimley-Horn consulting firm in Sarasota and William Merrill III of the Sarasota law firm Icard Merrill.

Ramirez also questioned the fact that the modified policy specifies residents. Kouba further pointed out that many people who do not live on the Key work on the island or are there on a routine basis because they operate businesses there.

“We are not proposing to not evacuate visitors,” Merrill told Ramirez.

In terms of monetary mitigation, he added, “We’re proposing for mitigation through either an assisted evacuation or providing shelter.” He emphasized that the proposed changes to that section of the Comprehensive Plan are consistent with language in state law.

Messina noted in her DRC comments that she saw no need for the revision Benderson had proposed, since that Comprehensive Plan chapter “does not intend to qualify only certain types of population for evacuation times. Proposed language for mitigation requirements may perhaps be incorporated within the new FLU policy proposed for transient accommodation development within CG/SKOD & CI/SKOD zoned areas, as part of the requirements to be deemed suitable for development in SKOD.”

Messina added, “Since County emergency evacuation standards and plans will not be under the control of the property owner, Emergency Services advises removing language that refers to evacuation procedures. Emergency Services can consider discussing the creation of a fund allowance that proposed development can contribute for future shelter construction if this can be used to show consistency with the Coastal Policy 1.2.2.”

Then Messina pointed out, “Incidentally, the proposed changes to this objective appear to read as not being applicable to Transient Accommodation projects. Please clarify if that is not the intent. Provide data and analysis to justify this proposed change. Demonstrate how the proposed changes would be consistent with the evacuation times listed in Coastal Policies 1.3.2 and 1.3.3.”

These are the county Coastal Policies 1.3.2 and 1.3.3. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Later in her comments, Messina wrote, “Upon formal application submittal the applicant will need to provide documentation in the form of a study, analysis or report that shows intensity changes proposed and the effect that this will have on current emergency evacuation times. The applicant needs to demonstrate that the current level of service standards (as confirmed by Emergency Services) will remain the same and/or will not become deficient. Analysis will need to consider all potential Transient Development that may occur within the CG/SKOD and CI/SKOD zoned areas of the County.”

Economics and transient accommodations

Next, Messina turned to new Economic Policy 7.1.4, recommending that it “should not focus on the need for tourism on Siesta Key and the potential economic benefits that this may have for the county, while balancing this with public safety. Initial statements about Siesta Key and lack of transient accommodations are not appropriate and the language that refers to the maximum percentage of land that can be utilized for Transient Accommodation development should rather be left just in the new FLU policy proposed for this use in CG/SKOD and CI/SKOD.”

This is Benderson’s proposed Economic Policy 7.1.4. Image courtesy Sarasota County

She also addressed the company’s proposed modification of the definition of “Residential Uses.” The Benderson amendment would add to that policy the following: “Transient accommodations shall

not be considered to be nor interpreted as residential uses and shall not be subject to or limited by maximum densities described within this Comprehensive Plan or any implementing regulations (except as may be expressly required in the BRR/PD [Boutique Resort Redevelopment/Planned Development] District or the Nokomis Center Revitalization Plan U.S. 41 Corridor).”

Messina explained, “Since the proposed amendments will clarify that Transient Accommodations are not commercial uses, there is no need to amend the residential definition. … Instead, consider making this point clear with a proposed Transient Accommodations policy in addition to the Transient Accommodations definition.”

The latter new definition, as Benderson has recommended, would read, “Transient accommodations shall include hotels, motels, inns, extended-stay facilities, bed and breakfasts, boatels or other similar uses. Transient accommodations are considered non-residential, commercial uses for all purposes. Transient accommodations shall not be considered to be nor interpreted as residential uses and shall not be subject to or limited by maximum densities described within this Comprehensive Plan or any implementing regulations. Transient accommodations include rooms which include sleeping accommodations and other optional amenities, and which are rented, leased or sub leased for less than monthly periods or which are subject to time sharing pursuant to general law for less than monthly time share periods. ‘Monthly’ shall mean either a calendar month or 30 days, whichever is less. Transient Accommodations are allowed only in those zoning districts which list such uses as a permitted use or a special exception use.”

In one other section of the DRC comments, county Planner Keaton Osborn touched on another issue that several people remarked on during the Jan. 8 Neighborhood Workshop.

Osborn wrote, “Please include language with the Project Narrative that speaks to how compatibility between the proposed [hotel on Ocean Boulevard, in Siesta Village] up to 85 [feet in height] and the existing neighboring low profile structures will be met.”

Further, Osborn requested that the Binding Development Concept Plan in the application that will be submitted to the county Planning Division has “a hatch or different colors to differentiate between building outline and setbacks. As currently shown, it is difficult to visualize which are the actual edges of the building. Since there are several complexities for setback requirements dependent on the height proposals, please also provide a conceptual Elevation of the proposed structure.”

3 thoughts on “Sarasota County planners question multiple facets of Benderson Development’s proposed policies to allow for high-rise hotel development on Siesta Key”

  1. Thanks to the News Leader for such detailed attention to this radical and transformative Benderson proposal. With two court judgments against the county for violating its own rules, the planners are now showing proper rigor in the face of Mr. Moran’s loosey-goosey approach to anything Benderson does. And Mr. Moran’s approach tends to carry the votes of Messrs. Cutsinger, Neunder, and Rainford.

  2. Benderson does not adequately address public beach access and already congested public beach areas, further congestion and evacuation of even more persons jammed on SK will place evan more individuals at risk.
    SC should retain the 26 unit per acre density that currently exists.

  3. It’s refreshing to see that the Planning department is not just going along with a developer’s request for changes. Hope Messina is not pushed out of her job!

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