Siesta Key organization fighting proposed amendment to county land-use and zoning regulations to allow combinations or re-combinations of ‘nonconforming’ lots on barrier islands

County Commission public hearing scheduled for July 9

The Robert L. Anderson Administration Center, marked by the red balloon on this aerial map, stands at 4000 S. Tamiami Trail in Venice. Image from Google Maps

During their regular meeting on July 9, at the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice, the Sarasota County Commission will decide whether to take a step that some Siesta Key residents are criticizing, saying it will lead to higher residential density on the island.

Formally, a public hearing will be conducted on a proposal put forth by a Sarasota attorney that would “allow nonconforming lots of record in the Residential Single-Family Districts (RSF) on the Barrier Islands” to be treated the same as nonconforming Residential Estate lots, as a county staff memo explains it.

A county staff memo in the July 9 agenda packet points out that Article 15 of the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC) “addresses ‘nonconformities’ within the County related to land uses, structures, lots of records, residential density, and characteristics of use. It is the intent of this article that, as development occurs, the nonconformity nature will be eliminated, while not having a negative impact on property rights.”

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

These are the ‘General Provisions’ of the UDC, as shown in the Sarasota County Municipal Code. Image courtesy Sarasota County

A separate memo in the July 9 agenda packet, written by county Comprehensive Planning Manager Laura Wilson, explains, “The Comprehensive Plan defines a ‘Nonconforming Lot of Record’ as a lot that was lawfully created and met the zoning regulations, if any, at the time the lot was created and that does not meet the current

regulations for the district, and is (1) part of a subdivision recorded in the office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Sarasota County, or (2) described by metes and bounds. The description of a lot of record shall

have been recorded on or before November 11, 1975. A portion of a nonconforming lot of record does not have any development rights.”

The proposed amendment to the UDC, the other county staff memo continues, would permit the combinations or re-combinations of nonconforming barrier island lots under one of two conditions:

  • If the resulting lot would comply with the minimum area, width and density standards.
  • If the lot would be within a Residential Single-Family (RSF) or Residential Estate (RE) zoning district and the action would “reduce the number of dwelling units that may be constructed.”

Attorney Stephen Rees Jr., with the Icard Merrill firm in Sarasota, had submitted the proposed amendment to the county’s Planning and Development Services staff for consideration for inclusion in what was designated as Cycle 7 of the UDC. County staff typically provides for two “cycles” a year, when both county staff and members of the public can propose modifications of the UDC.

On Feb. 21, the County Commission unanimously authorized the Planning and Development staff to process Rees’ proposed amendment.

Following a May 2 public hearing on the proposed ordinance, the July 9 county staff memo notes, the county’s Planning Commission members tied in their vote on the proposed ordinance. That meant that that advisory board did not recommend that the County Commission approve the UDC amendment.

The July 9 public hearing is listed on the agenda as a Presentation Upon Request. If no commissioner wants to hear comments from either attorney Rees or a county Planning and Development staff member, no presentation will be provided. However, public comments will be accepted.

Reasoning behind the request for the amendment

Stephen D. Rees Jr. Image from the Icard Merrill website

In an Oct. 13, 2023 letter to the Planning and Development staff, Rees wrote, “The existing [county] regulations allow for the division, subdivision, re-subdivision, or assemblage of nonconforming lots so long as the resulting lot complies with the zoning district minimum lot area and width standards provided there is not an increase in the number of dwelling units compared to the existing buildable lots. However, on Barrier Islands, the combination or recombination of nonconforming lots is allowed only where the combination or recombination either: a) Complies with the zone district minimum lot area, lot width, and density standards; or b) Is within a Residential Estate (RE) district and reduces the number of dwelling units that may be constructed.”

He added, “Combinations or re-combinations achieved under this Section [of the County Code] shall be memorialized in unity of title instruments. We seek an amendment to the UDC to permit the combination or recombination of nonconforming lots within the Residential Single Family (RSF) district similar to the existing RE standard.”
Rees asked the county staff to consider the following facts:

  • Four adjacent and abutting, nonconforming lots of record.
  • All designated Residential Single-Family-1 (RSF-1).
  • None meets the RSF-1 district development standards.

“Under the above example,” Rees continued, each of the four existing, nonconforming lots could be developed with a single family residence “and accessory uses allowed in the district. Alternatively, the four lots could be combined with a resulting acreage in excess of the RSF-1 standards,” with a single residence and accessory uses constructed on the combined lot.

“However,” Rees pointed out, “under the current regulations, the four lots could not be combined into two lots (assuming the combined lots did not meet the zoning district standards) each with a single family residence and accessory uses.”

He added, “In summary, the UDC would permit the continued use for four [dwelling] units, [with each] on a nonconforming lot of record,” or a single residence could be built on the combined four lots.

The combination resulting in two lots is impermissible in the RSF district, he noted, but it would be permitted in the RE zoning district.

Then Rees referenced Future Land Use (FLU) Policies 2.9.1 and 2.9.2 in the county’s Comprehensive Plan, which guides growth in the community.

Those policies limit an increase in residential density on the barrier islands, he wrote.

Yet, Rees continued, “The reduction in density, such as in the aforementioned example from four units to two units, should be encouraged and would be consistent with and in furtherance of FLU Policies 2.9.1 and 2.9.2.”

‘Here we go again …’

The leaders of a relatively new organization called Protect Siesta Key have made their opposition to the proposed UDC amendment clear in their July newsletter.

Lourdes Ramirez. Contributed image

Distributed by Protect Siesta Key President Lourdes Ramirez, the newsletter says, “Before the adoption of the 1975 [county] zoning regulations, several areas on the barrier islands were platted with small residential lots, some with a width of only 25 feet! These lots are called ‘nonconforming lots of record,’ as they do not conform to the minimum lot sizes required by our zoning codes since 1975.”

The newsletter then notes, “In 1989, Sarasota County adopted laws acknowledging that some homes on existing nonconforming lots of records can continue to exist. To protect property rights, a property owner can rebuild on those tiny lots as platted but can’t change the lot lines. The goal of our zoning regulations since 1975 is to have these small lots to cease to exist. According to our [Comprehensive] Plan, all lots created since 1975 must meet minimum lot size requirements for their district.”

In a letter to the county commissioners, Ramirez referred to the two legal challenges she won in 2023 in her fight to stop the construction of high-rise hotels on Siesta Key. “Two separate courts ruled that all changes to the UDC must be in compliance with the Comprehensive Plan, and that code changes that encourage additional development on Barrier Islands violate the Plan,” she wrote.

“I recognize that [combinations or re-combinations of nonconforming lots was allowed] for the Residential Estate properties in 2015,” Ramirez continued, “but that action was not challenged to show that it was it was in violation with the Comprehensive Plan. That action cannot act as precedent for, or support a second Code amendment that violates the Comprehensive Plan.”

Ramirez included in her letter a hypothetical example of a 1.2-acre parcel zoned Residential Single-Family-1 that legally could have three homes on it, even though it contains 10 nonconforming lots of record that were platted in 1912. (She noted that the RSF-1 zoning allows for a maximum of 2.5 residential units per acre.)

The parcel she chose is located on Higel Avenue, she noted. It has one home standing on it.

Ramirez then pointed out that the owner of the parcel could demolish the existing home and build 10 or 14 “tiny units” within the existing plat, using county standards such as the one regarding the setback from the street, as provided in the zoning regulations in existence in 1989. That could happen even though the nonconforming lots as recorded are only 25 feet wide, she stressed.

However, Ramirez pointed out, “If the property owner were to ‘erase’ these 10 to 14 existing nonconforming lot lines to create new nonconforming properties above the three units allowed, the result would be an impermissible increase in the density on that land.”

She added that similar small lots exist “throughout the Barrier Islands.”

Ramirez included “an old map of one section of Siesta Key with multiple small nonconforming lots of record.”

Image courtesy Protect Siesta Key

Below the map, Ramirez wrote, with emphasis, “Allowing property owners to create new nonconforming lots using the number of existing plats above the total amount allowed under the district maximum limits is an increase in density.”

Plantation attorney Richard Grosso, who represented Ramirez in her legal challenges regarding the County Commission’s 2021 approval of a UDC amendment that would have permitted high-rise hotels on Siesta Key, also sent a letter to the County Commission in advance of the July 9 hearing.

Writing on behalf of Protect Siesta Key, Grosso affirmed Ramirez’s stance in opposition to the new UDC amendment regarding the nonconforming lots.

County staff, however, found the proposed UDC amendment to be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan. The memo from Wilson, the county’s comprehensive planning manager, confirms that.

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