Siesta Chamber proposes amendments to island zoning regulations to allow for 75-room boutique hotels as compromise to proposals for larger facilities

Request to be considered as part of September cycle for county’s Unified Development Code of zoning and land-use provisions

Image courtesy Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce

The Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce is proposing amendments to Sarasota County’s zoning regulations that would allow for 75-room boutique hotels on property slated for commercial use on the island.

In a May 25 letter that long-time Chamber leader Mark Smith, of Smith Architects, sent to county Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson, the Chamber asks that the County Commission consider the changes as part of the fourth cycle of amendments to the Unified Development Code (UDC), which will begin in September.

The UDC contains all of the county’s zoning and land-use regulations.

Chamber leaders told The Sarasota News Leader that the letter is a response to proposals for four hotels on the island, two of which would offer up to 170 rooms, while a third has been planned with 120 rooms; the fourth would include 100 rooms,

As the News Leader reported in early April, staff of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department — including the Zoning Division — review such privately initiated amendments and then make recommendations to the County Commission about whether those amendments should undergo further analysis for potential inclusion in the UDC.

The Siesta Chamber letter points out that “transient accommodations” — the phrase county documents use for hotel and motel rooms — are allowed by Special Exception in the Commercial General (CG) zoning districts within the Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD).

The letter asks for an amendment to Article 7, Section 124-102 of the UDC — which contains the SKOD — to allow boutique hotels with no more than 75 rooms, without kitchens and to allow a boutique hotel to have accessory uses such as a restaurant, bar “or shops for retail sale.”

Such hotels would be allowed on parcels zoned CG/SKOD only as a Special Exception use, the letter adds. The County Commission must approve any Special Exception petition after it conducts a public hearing. That event would follow a county Planning Commission hearing.

The proposal, the letter points out, is based on the UDC section that lays out the restrictions for the Boutique Resort Redevelopment/Planned Development District (BRR/PD).

The maximum height of a boutique hotel in the revised SKOD would be determined by the adjacent Commercial General and Residential Multi-Family (RMF) zoning districts, the letter continues. Next to RMF-1 and RMF-2 parcels, the letter says, the maximum height would be 35 feet above the base flood elevation required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

This graphic, shown to participants in the May 10 Neighborhood Workshop on the proposed redevelopment of Siesta Key Beach Resort and Suites, depicts the Residential Multi-Family zoning around the existing hotel’s property in Siesta Village. Image courtesy Port and Coastal Consultants

FEMA defines base flood elevation (BFE) as the “elevation of surface water resulting from a flood that has a 1% chance of equaling or exceeding that level in any given year.”

Those boutique hotels next to RMF-3 or Commercial General parcels would have a maximum height of 45 feet above the FEMA elevation. The prosed new language also says, “If multiple zoning districts are adjacent the more restrictive zoning district height is used.”

However, the proposed amendment adds, “A maximum of two levels of in-structure parking shall be permitted to count toward additional building height in excess of the maximum building height requirement” in regard to the zoning designations of the surrounding parcels.

The narrative for that amendment emphasizes, “The maximum height of a boutique hotel over parking is 57 feet above pre-development grade when adjacent to [RMF-1 and RMF-2 zoning in the SKOD] and 67 feet above pre-development grade when adjacent to RMF-3/SKOD and CG/SKOD.”

The teams working on two of the four hotel projects proposed on Siesta Key over the past year — the redevelopment of Siesta Key Beach Resort and Suites and the construction of a 100-room boutique hotel on the former Wells Fargo bank site at 5810 Midnight Pass Road — are seeking county Comprehensive Plan and UDC amendments to allow those structures to stand 35 feet above two levels of parking.

The Chamber amendment also calls for the maximum height of a boutique hotel to be “measured from the finished floor of the first habitable story,” when in-structure parking is used. It adds that “the maximum height of the two permitted levels of in-structure parking shall not exceed 22 feet measured from pre-development existing grade to the floor of the first habitable story.”

The letter includes a graphic to illustrate those facets of the proposal. It mirrors a graphic that the Siesta Key Beach Resort project team showed participants during a May 10 county-mandated Neighborhood Workshop.

This is the graphic provided in the Siesta Key Chamber letter. Image courtesy Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce

A ‘well thought-out’ compromise

During a May 26 telephone interview with the News Leader, Siesta Chamber Chair Steve Cavanaugh of Tropical Sands Accommodations said Chamber leaders had been working on the UDC amendments “for some time.” He acknowledged that a lot of Siesta residents had been wondering why the directors had been silent about the plans for the four hotel projects. That was because “a great team of people” was considering how best to approach the issue, he added.

“We’re all obviously volunteers,” he noted of the Chamber Board of Directors. Yet, the members have been committed to doing “what we think is best for the island,” Cavanaugh said.

Steve Cavanaugh. Photo from his LinkedIn account

“We’re not super happy,” with the hotel proposals as outlined in the applications that have been filed with county staff since May 2020, Cavanaugh added. The UDC amendments, he continued, are “great compromise,” which Chamber leaders believe would result in less of an increase in traffic on the Key. “We all know that’s out of hand,” he pointed out of vehicle congestion.

The Chamber’s goal, “first and foremost,” he continued, is to keep in place the elements of the island’s character that draw repeat visitors.

Year after year, he said, people return to Siesta for long stays. Cavanaugh added that the Chamber leaders believe that the hotels, if approved, would bring more visitors for long weekends only. That, he said, “ends up being a loss for the businesses on the island, and that’s the last thing we want.”

Through a public records request, the News Leader obtained a copy of an email that Siesta architect Smith sent on May 17 to Matt Osterhoudt, director of the Planning and Development Services Department, about the Chamber’s efforts in regard to the hotel proposals.

Smith wrote, “Understanding that CG/SKOD property owners are going to develop their property to be as profitable as possible, the thought is to allow these boutique hotels with a reasonable number of rooms and allow a restaurant, bar, and small amount of retail sales as we now see in resort hotels. Boutique hotels have a higher daily room rate and cater to a higher level of clientele, both positives for Siesta Key,” Smith pointed out.

“The alternative use in CG/SKOD with the highest return on investment,” Smith continued, “is restaurant/bar. In the case of the four properties that are proposing hotels, all of them could build a 150 to 200 seat restaurant & bar over parking by right without needing a special exception. The vehicle traffic generated by restaurants this size is at least triple that of a max 75 room boutique hotel. The boutique hotel is a much less intensive use.”

Mark Smith. File photo

Smith added, “We believe the boutique hotel use would fill the need of visitors wanting to just stay the weekend or less than a week on Siesta Key and support existing Siesta Key restaurants, retail and visitor related businesses.”

“There is a need for transient rentals” on the island, Attorney Eric Fleming, a past Chamber chair, told the News Leader on May 27. The Chamber proposal, he said, “is a very fair compromise.” If they read it thoroughly, he said, he believes business owners, residents and even developers seeking to build hotels “will come on board with it.”

Like Cavanaugh, Fleming talked of the effort that went into the UDC proposals. “When the time was right,” he said, “we wanted to present something that was well thought out. … We wanted to address everybody’s issues.”

Again, like Cavanaugh, Fleming pointed out that the major goal is to keep the island from becoming overdeveloped. Residents have made it clear, he said, that they do not want “mega hotels.”

As both a Siesta resident and business owner, Fleming said, he also wants to preserve the character of the island. “It still has that quaint feel to it.

“Hopefully,” Cavanaugh told the News Leader, the UDC initiative “gets some traction with the County Commission.”

If the county commissioners would be willing to implement the Chamber’s amendments, Fleming said, “That would be fantastic.”

Eric Fleming. Image courtesy Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce

In response to a News Leader question about county staff’s handling of the Chamber’s proposed amendments — and whether the County Commission perhaps could ask for a hold on the hotel applications in the meantime — the Planning and Development Services Department provided this statement via email on May 27: “Once privately-initiated applications have been deemed sufficient, they move on in the process to the public hearings. If an applicant wishes to voluntarily pause their privately-initiated application for timing purposes, to coordinate with others, etc., that is their determination to make.”

The News Leader also provided a copy of the Siesta Chamber proposal to the Siesta Key Coalition, which was organized last year to fight hotel projects that need Special Exception approval for designs that exceed the island’s commercial zoning standards.

In a March 27 statement, Coalition President Mark Spiegel wrote the following: As it relates to the specifics of [the Chamber’s proposed amendments], I wish to reserve specific comment until we have had a chance to study [them] further, and more importantly, to discuss [them] with … Chamber representatives. We have a positive relationship with and great respect for the SK Chamber leadership team.”

Spiegel added, “In general, it is always a positive for any stakeholder organization to engage in the public process and the community dialogue and to offer ideas or alternative approaches for consideration. But more important than the specifics of [the Chamber’s] proposal, the takeaway for our County representatives should be that this is yet another example of the community residents and business owners wanting to have real input and involvement. When we are talking about material changes to our longstanding protective policies and multiple precedent-setting amendments, the process should start with the County engaging the broader impacted community, not allowing one-off, developer-initiated applications to shape how increased density and intensity of transient accommodations impact the barrier island. These protective policies and codes were put in place following a lot of comprehensive study and input from the [Siesta Key] community in the late 1990s (the Siesta Key Community Plan for Growth Management), and should not be undone by a developer-initiated process.”

(See the related article in this issue.)

A new UDC section on Siesta parking garages

The Chamber letter also calls for a UDC amendment designed to limit the height of parking garages on the island.

That proposal seeks a maximum of three levels of structure parking that would not exceed 22 feet “measured from pre-development existing grade to the roof of the parking structure,” with the exit staircase and elevators not to exceed 35 feet in height, as measured from the FEMA base flood elevation.

The letter makes it clear that the three levels of parking would encompass the ground floor, the second floor and the roof.

By limiting the size of parking garages the size of the development is limited,” the letter emphasizes.

One of the four hotel applications that county staff is processing calls for a five-story parking garage between Stickney Point Road and Old Stickney Point Road. It has been designed to serve guests of the 120-room hotel planned by Siesta businessman and property owner Gary Kompothecras.

This is an engineering drawing included in the November 2020 formal application regarding Gary Kompothecras’ proposed parking garage on south Siesta Key. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As of this week, Planning and Development staff listed the status of the applications for the garage and the hotel as “Formal Review in Progress.” After checking with the department staff at the News Leader’s request, county Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant reported in an email that those formal reviews can take up to 30 days once they are underway.

Finally, the Siesta Chamber proposes an amendment to the section of the SKOD regarding minimum off-street parking requirements: “CG/SKOD Boutique Hotels: 1 parking space per sleeping room, plus 1 additional parking space per 10 sleeping rooms, plus the parking requirements for the retail space and restaurant and bar patron areas.”