Nonprofit seeking planning process akin to late ’90s initiative that led to implementation of island zoning regulations
Leaders of the Siesta Key organization created last year in response to hotel project proposals for the island have asked the Sarasota County commissioners for “a seat at the table to help shape the decisions regarding these hotels and changes to the existing regulations.”
In the May 18 letter, Siesta Key Coalition President Mark Spiegel requested individual meetings with the commissioners.
He pointed out that the nonprofit’s leaders are concerned about the impacts the four hotels would have on Siesta Key’s character and residents’ quality of life; insufficient community involvement in analyses of the projects’ impact on the barrier island; “Inadequate Neighborhood Workshops”; and inconsistencies of county staff comments on the project applications filed with the county’s Planning and Development Services Department.
“The Community, as a whole, should be involved (as it was in 1999) before such significant modifications are made to our Overlay District, Comprehensive Plan language for barrier island protections, or UDC zoning,” Spiegel wrote with emphasis.
The UDC is the county’s Unified Development Code, which contains all of the county’s land-use and zoning regulations. Siesta Key has its own zoning regulations, which are included in the UDC as the Siesta Key Overlay District, or SKOD.
Having reviewed the applications, Spiegel continued, “[W]e ask that the County initiate its own study of the cumulative impact of multiple hotels and how precedents could set in motion undesired development by others to follow suit. … We are certain County Planning Staff will verify precedents set by decisions on these applications will impact 30+ acres of commercial land on the Key and an unidentified amount of land countywide,” Spiegel stressed. (See the related article in this issue about action taken by the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce.)
“In the late 1990s,” Spiegel pointed out, leading up to creation of the Siesta Key Community Plan, “Sarasota County Planning Services, the [county] Planning Commission and the Board of County Commissioners proactively sought input through systematic outreach meetings and workshops with the stakeholders of Siesta Key over a multi-year period,” he added, again with emphasis. “ALL the residents were surveyed,” Spiegel continued. “The foundational document leading to the SKOD and County [Future Land Use] policies had a key theme: development must be viewed as especially sensitive on the barrier islands and therefore ‘Density and Intensity should not exceed that of the existing zoning,’” he wrote with more emphasis.
If changes are to be made to Siesta Key, Spiegel added, the Coalition recommends that “they should be guided by the Community, not individual property owners. The process leading to the visionary 1999 Siesta Key Community Plan for Growth Management remains a ‘BEST PRACTICES’ model for community development.”
One critical need, Spiegel pointed out, is a “bridge to bridge traffic impact study,” including an analysis of pedestrian and biking conditions, that would take into account the cumulative effects of the four proposed hotels. Such a study should be undertaken by the county during peak tourist season, he noted, as the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has graded each road segment on which one of the hotels would sit as an E or F.
Such level-of-service grades are partly comparable to letter grades in school, with A being the best and F the worst, but “strictly from a traveler experience and perspective,” FDOT says in its 2020 Quality/Level of Service Handbook. “Essentially, [level of service] F either means travel demand exceeds capacity and the roadway is operating in oversaturated conditions, or another undesirable condition exists,” the handbook explains.
Spiegel explained that the “grass-roots coalition came together in June 2020 in response to the growing concern of Siesta Key residential associations and stakeholder organizations” in regard to the proposed hotels.
He added that the Coalition has grown to include 59 neighborhood and condominium associations representing more than 5,300 households. “The Siesta Key Association and the Siesta Key Condominium Council, with their combined 8,500 members, are also partners with officers on our Board and committees,” Spiegel added.
The ‘quasi-judicial’ concerns
County commissioners have pointed out on numerous occasions that, according to county regulations, they cannot meet with individuals on issues that are considered to be of a “quasi-judicial” nature.
Each hotel project team is seeking Special Exceptions to county policies to allow their plans to go forward. Public hearings on Special Exceptions are among those considered quasi-judicial. That means each commissioner must consider the evidence and testimony presented and determine whether the petition complies with county policies and regulations. Such hearings are akin to court cases; thus, the term “quasi-judicial.”
In his May 18 letter, Spiegel wrote, “We will abide by lawful conversation and exclude quasi-judicial matters.”
He added, “We wish to address broader legislative matters impacting smart growth management, hospitality and enhancing redevelopment.”
The Sarasota News Leader emailed each county commissioner this week to ask for comments on the letter, which it attached to the emails.
The same day — May 24 — Commissioner Ron Cutsinger of Englewood replied that although he would follow up with the county attorney, because of the quasi-judicial nature of the hotel proposals at the heart of the Coalition’s concerns, “I will have to pass on a meeting.”
However, Commissioner Nancy Detert told the News Leader during a May 25 telephone interview that she would be “happy to meet with [the Coalition leaders].” She did add that she would have to check first with county legal staff, to ensure that she could talk with the group.
Nonetheless, referring to the Coalition’s request in the letter, Detert said, “I think it’s a good idea. … I’m happy to hear their vision for Siesta Key and share my vision for Siesta Key.”
“My vision for Siesta Key,” she pointed out, “is to have it look like Sanibel [Island] and not Miami Beach.”
Sanibel residents, she noted, “have managed to hold onto their identity, and I think we can, too, [on Siesta].”
Detert added, “I will look forward to my meeting with the Siesta Key folks.”
Nonetheless, the following day, Detert’s assistant, Robin Bayus, sent an email to the News Leader on Detert’s behalf, explaining, that, “on the advice of the County Attorney’s office,” the commissioner would not be able to meet with the Siesta Key Coalition group.
Bayus referenced Deputy County Attorney Joshua B. Moye, and she forwarded an exchange of emails between Commission Chair Alan Maio and his assistant, Kathleen Hall, with Moye.
On May 18, Maio had asked Hall to send Moye the letter Maio had received from the Coalition, requesting the meetings.
In a May 25 email to Hall, on which he copied the assistants to the other commissioners, Moye wrote, “There are several petitions that have been submitted to the County regarding hotels on Siesta Key that include a quasi-judicial special exception.
“As set forth in Section 19(d)(2)(ii) of the Board’s Rules of Procedure, the County Attorney suggests that Commissioners refrain from participating in ex-parte communication whenever possible regarding a quasi-judicial matter to avoid the creation of a presumption of prejudice,” Moye continued.
“These petitions overlap so it may be difficult to separate the legislative items from the quasi-judicial items,” he added.
In response to those comments, Coalition President Spiegel provided a statement to the News Leader on May 27. “We anticipated their hesitancy about discussing quasi-judicial matters,” he wrote. “Therefore, as we also stated in the Letter to the [commissioners], we do not intend on discussing quasi-judicial matters at these meetings. To alleviate and honor that concern, we now intend to provide them a very specific list of agenda topics in advance that are … related to broader policy text amendment concerns, as well as our ideas on productive growth management and enhancing redevelopment on the Key. We hope that this approach will provide for a productive and appropriate opportunity to meet.”
Later on May 27, Spiegel told the News Leader by phone that the Coalition leaders understand the caution advised by the Office of the County Attorney.
As of that morning, he added, the Coalition leaders had not received any communication indicating that the commissioners would not meet with them.
Thus, he said, the Coalition was in the process of contacting the commissioners’ assistants, to provide them a list of specific topics the nonprofit group would like to discuss, which would not violate the quasi-judicial proceedings regulations.
“I’m hoping that when we clarify that,” he said of the list, “[the commissioners] will reconsider.”
The hotel plans in the context of the SKOD
In his May 18 letter, Spiegel also pointed out with emphasis, “None of the Hotel Applicants is planning a development within the existing codes that apply to our barrier island and the SKOD.” He added, “How is a single voice more impactful than all the community it impacts?”
The applications for the four hotel projects were submitted to county staff over the past year, beginning in May 2020.
One, with 170 rooms and more than 80 feet of height, is planned on four parcels between Calle Miramar and Beach Road, just on the edge of Siesta Village. The property ownership group is based in New York City; the developer is a long-time lessee of the parcels, RE/MAX Realtor Robert Anderson, who is based on Siesta Key.
The second, proposed by Siesta businessman and chiropractor Gary Kompothecras, would contain 120 rooms in a seven-story structure on Old Stickney Point Road.
The third project entails redevelopment of the Siesta Key Beach Resort and Suites, which fronts on Ocean Boulevard and Calle Miramar. It calls for expansion of the accommodations from 55 rooms to about 170.
The final project, whose application was turned into county staff earlier this year, calls for a 100-room boutique hotel on the former Wells Fargo bank site at 5810 Midnight Pass Road. The owner of that property is ABC SUB2 LLC, whose principal is Dave Balot, another owner of Siesta Key Beach Resort.
Both the new Siesta Key Beach Resort and the hotel on the former Wells Fargo parcel would stand 35 feet tall over two levels of parking, which the SKOD does not allow on commercial parcels. The maximum height on Commercial General and Commercial Intensive property is 35 feet.
All of the project teams also are seeking Comprehensive Plan and UDC amendments that would allow them to exceed the residential capacity the county allows for “transient accommodations” — what county staff calls hotel and motel rooms.
The proposals, Spiegel pointed out in his letter, “will reshape the very characteristics which made Siesta Key and our beaches an invaluable asset for our county and especially for all who live and work here. Our barrier island has been an economic driver for vacation tourism without losing our ‘neighborhood feeling’ and accessibility, unique in all of Florida,” Spiegel stressed.
As for the county-mandated Neighborhood Workshops on the proposals: Three already have been conducted, Spiegel noted. However, he wrote, “We have not had professional and meaningful opportunity to address these applications as a community. Plans, in all cases, were primarily conceptual.
“No one could answer basic questions such as locations for garbage pickup, whether balconies would be on [a] building, if there would be a bar or restaurant and if it would be open to the public, etc.”
He did acknowledge, with emphasis, “We are aware that [county] Staff has requested more information and more consistency in the applications. To date, no comments from the public are included in the workshop materials. There has been no attempt to follow up on requests or questions by participants.”