Proposal could enable construction of tall commercial buildings 2 feet from the sidewalk
In advance of a Jan. 30 public hearing on a proposed amendment to Siesta Key’s zoning regulations, both the Siesta Key Condominium Council (SKCC) and the Siesta Key Association (SKA) are urging members to, in turn, urge the County Commission to vote “No.”
Although a dozen residents turned out on Dec. 7 2017 to plead for the county’s Planning Commission to deny the privately initiated zoning text amendment, that board voted 8-1 to recommend the County Commission approve the change.
Malcom Lazin, a full-time Siesta resident, told The Sarasota News Leader in a Jan. 23 telephone interview that opponents are worried that the county commissioners will be swayed by development interests in the community as they consider the measure on next week. Nonetheless, Lazin added, “I haven’t found one person who is an owner [of a Siesta home] who supports this change.”
Lazin is no novice when it comes to this type of activism, he pointed out. As a real estate developer in Philadelphia and president of the Society Hill Civic Association, he helped lead the charge against an effort that would have led to “really upending the unique neighborhoods that make Philadelphia so charming.”
The association’s website points out that its mission since 1965 has been “to protect the historic character of a neighborhood that is the birthplace of our nation and continues to be part of our living history. From the beginning, there have been issues that threatened Society Hill and SHCA has been there to advocate for the neighborhood. In 1999, under the leadership of SHCA, Society Hill was designated a historic district by the Philadelphia Historical Commission.”
The members of the Society “joined arms,” he said, with a number of organizations to make their case. “And, fortunately, despite the odds … a lot of people turned out … and we were able to block that.”
The proposed Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD) amendment, Lazin told the News Leader, “is really an existential threat to Siesta Key.” If approved, he continued, the potential would exist for 85-foot-tall buildings to stand just 2 feet from the sidewalk in Siesta Village.
During the Jan. 23 meeting of the Siesta Key Condominium Association, Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck told the approximately 60 audience members, “This is the very first time, in the decades of engagement in land use issues,” he had seen an attempt at unraveling the island’s zoning regulations.
The undertaking, he said, “is a threat to Siesta Key.”
The county’s Comprehensive Plan, Lobeck continued, prohibits any increase in density or intensity of development on the island. Lobeck added, “I think, frankly, this would violate [the Comprehensive Plan],” were the County Commission to approve the proposed zoning text amendment. “Obviously, there are traffic congestion problems on Siesta Key. You’re over-capacity now.”
Lobeck strongly encouraged the Condominium Council members to attend the Jan. 30 public hearing, which is set to begin after 1:30 p.m. at the county’s Administration Center located at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota.
An evolving process
The SKOD issue formally dates to early 2017, when Charles D. Bailey III, an attorney with the Sarasota firm Williams Parker, sought a determination from county Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson about language in the Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD), the zoning regulations that govern the barrier island. Bailey was representing Dr. Gary Kompothecras, a chiropractor known for the 1-800-ASK-GARY advertising for his clinics.
In December 2016, during a county-mandated neighborhood workshop, Bailey and Robert “Bo” Medred of Genesis Planning & Development in Bradenton, explained to a group of residents that Kompothecras was interested in constructing a boutique hotel on one of the three areas of the island zoned Commercial General. No definitive project had been planned, Bailey assured the attendees; the initiative was in the early stages.
Moreover, Bailey stressed, no structure as tall as existing condominium towers on the Key was under consideration.
On April 5, Thompson provided a zoning determination that the SKOD rules call for any structure over 35 feet to have a minimum setback of 25 feet from the street. As the height increased, the setback would have to increase, she pointed out. Ultimately, if a building were to stand as high as 85 feet, it would have to be 42.5 feet from the street, she explained.
Bailey asserted that his reading of the regulations indicated 2 feet would be the setback in all three types of Commercial General zoning districts on the island.
That decision came in spite of testimony by Jim Ley, who was county administrator at the time the SKOD was implemented. Ley told the BZA members that the goal with the island zoning regulations was to provide a more pedestrian-friendly feel for visitors to commercial areas of Siesta Key. Thus, 2 feet was the street setback established for those zoning districts.
Thompson maintained her view that the SKOD setbacks were governed by other county zoning regulations.
On July 12 — less than a month after the BZA hearing — several Siesta Key business owners appeared before the County Commission to call for a change in the SKOD language to give the County Commission final say, through the special exception process, on the amount of setback a new commercial structure should have on the island.
“Unfortunately, in the [SKOD],” Siesta architect Mark Smith told the board, “it isn’t clear what happens when a building height is above 35 feet.” What should happen, Smith said, is that the County Commission should consider a special exception petition from an applicant seeking a smaller setback than the standards Thompson had outlined.
He would not want to see an 85-foot-tall commercial building standing 2 feet from the sidewalk, he added, but he also did not want to see “a building just over 35 feet need [a setback of] 25 feet … That wasn’t the intent of SKOD.”
And though the County Commission directed staff to work on a zoning text amendment, staff members responded with a memorandum saying they felt such action would best be pursued by a private individual.
In the meantime, another attorney representing Kompothecras — Robert Lincoln of Sarasota — has filed a complaint in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court to overturn the Board of Zoning Appeals decision. With agreement from both Kompothecras and the Office of the County Attorney, acting at the direction of the County Commission, that case has been held in abeyance as the zoning text amendment makes its way through the county’s path toward eventual approval or denial.
Ready to make their views known
“This is a zoning code that’s worked well over the past roughly 15 years,” Lazin said of the SKOD when he spoke with the News Leader on Jan. 23. “We really don’t understand … why we should change the ambiance and quality of life of Siesta Key.”
(The SKOD was adopted on Aug. 3, 2001, county Zoning Administrator Thompson told the Planning Commission in December 2017.)
Before the County Commission considers such an amendment, Lazin continued, it should call for planning studies to determine what types of impacts could result from the approval of it. The proposed changes to the SKOD could lead to the construction of taller buildings 2 feet from the sidewalk in the three areas zoned Commercial General on the island: approximately 16 acres in Siesta Village; about 2 acres where the Wells Fargo bank stands near the intersection of Beach Road and Midnight Pass Road; and about 12 acres on Old Stickney Point Road.
A number of island residents have voiced their belief over the past year that the Old Stickney Point Road site is the focus of Kompothecras’ hotel plans, as he owns both the site of the former Fandango Café and the parcel adjacent to it.
During the Jan. 4 Siesta Key Association meeting, directors recommended members send their views on the issue to the County Commission by writing to email@example.com. That way, Vice President Catherine Luckner pointed out, the correspondence would go to each board member.
In a Jan. 23 email blast, the Siesta Key Condominium Council urged its members to attend the Jan. 30 meeting. It represents 98 condo associations, Treasurer Ginger Spencer noted during a meeting that same day.
Both before and after his presentation on new laws relating to condominium associations, Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck answered questions during that meeting about the proposed zoning text amendment. (See the related story in this issue.)
The Condo Council email blast added, “Approval of this change opens the door for the construction of large hotels [emphasis in the email],” which the current regulations prohibit.
Finally, the council made this request [emphasis in the email]: “Managers and Presidents: Please post on your bulletin boards and ensure your Board of Directors receive a copy of this notice.”