Siesta residents maintain that water body south of Kompothecras’ proposed hotel site on Old Stickney Point Road is wetlands, but state, county classifications differ

Status of Sabal Lake raised as Kompothecras’ construction plans progress

This is a graphic on the Sarasota County Water Atlas showing Sabal Lake. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In updated application materials submitted to Sarasota County staff, the team working on Dr. Gary Kompothecras’ proposed hotel and parking garage just south of Stickney Point Road on Siesta Key responded at length to questions participants raised in county-mandated Neighborhood Workshops about a water body adjacent to the hotel site.

In a May 4 letter to Todd G. Dary, manager of the county’s Planning Services Division, Robert “Bo” Medred of Genesis Planning and Development in Bradenton, an agent for Kompothecras, maintained that the water body is part of a stormwater system.

The status of Sabal Lake is one of the issues opponents of the hotel project have focused on in their efforts ultimately to persuade the County Commission to deny Kompothecras’ petitions for construction of the hotel and parking garage. A Planning Commission hearing on the proposals has been scheduled for Sept. 2. (See the related article in this issue.)

As The Sarasota News Leader reported in early January, when Kompothecras’ project team held the county-required Neighborhood Workshop on his plans, a couple of island residents asked about the fact that the original application to county staff said the hotel site had no wetlands.

Robert Luckner, a director of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), pointed out that the rear of parcel slated for the hotel appears to extend into the area of Sabal Lake. The Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) has an inventory of all the natural wetlands in its territory, Luckner added, and Sabal Lake is included in that as a “non-tidal” wetland.

An aerial map shows Sabal Lake to the south of the proposed hotel site on south Siesta Key. Image from Google Maps

Medred responded, “It’s been confirmed that Sabal Lake is actually a retention area,” adding that that information was noted on the Development Concept Plan for the proposed hotel.

Later, Dr. Neal Schleifer, president of the Paradise Cove Association, whose residents live near the hotel site, told the project team that the Paradise Cove residents have had to preserve the existing mangroves on the lake.

“I do believe you are required to do an environmental study,” Schleifer told Medred and Charles D. Bailey III of the Williams Parker firm in Sarasota, who is Kompothecras’ land-use attorney. The area around Sabal Lake, Schleifer added, is “actually an entire stormwater management system for our area,” including Peacock Road, Old Stickney Point Road and Sabal Drive. The system has “many swales and retention ponds,” he pointed out, “and there’s a connection to the Intracoastal Waterway.” It is “there to prevent flooding. It’s quite a serious system.”

During its research, the News Leader found that Sabal Lake is listed as wetlands on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wetlands Inventory. The Sarasota County Water Atlas calls the water body a 2-acre private lake.

In searching through records of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the News Leader learned that the District classifies Sabal Lake as a reservoir.

This is documentation about Sabal Lake from the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s records. Image courtesy of the District

In response to a News Leader question about the District’s different designation for the water body, Susanna Martinez Tarokh, the District’s public information officer, acknowledged in a June 29 email that the National Wetlands Inventory classifies Sabal Lake as wetlands. However, she continued, “This information is not maintained or managed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District (District). The District does not rely on this information, [although] District staff use this information as a tool to help assist with the identification and location of potential wetlands. The District’s Environmental Resource Permitting (ERP) program would be responsible for formally establishing the limits of jurisdictional wetlands and surface waters should an application be submitted for the construction of a hotel in this location.”

The May 4, updated application materials that Medred submitted to county staff say, “As discussed previously with the Zoning Administrator, most recently on December 17, 2020, Sabal Lake is a stormwater pond or lake, and therefore, does not result in a waterfront yard setback under [the provisions of the county’s Unified Development Code, which contains all the land-use and zoning regulations].”

Medred added, “This has been previously confirmed with [the Southwest Florida Water Management District] SWFWMD that Sabal Lake is a stormwater [body].”

He attached several documents to clarify his stance. The News Leader was able to locate others on the SWFWMD website.

Trimming of mangroves approved

The updated application materials included a copy of an Oct. 10, 2018 letter from Michele L. Steinbaum, president of Steinbaum and Associates in Sarasota, to Clifford J. Ondercin, environmental manager in the Environmental Resource Permit Bureau of the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD). She was requesting verification that no District permit would be needed for the planned removal of mangroves at a site on the western side of Peacock Road, south of Old Stickney Point Road. She referenced the area as being “along bank/slope of adjacent pond,” meaning Sabal Lake.

Steinbaum noted that, on Feb. 15, 2018, Dennis Medved of the SWFWMD staff, Steve Rentz of Genmark Property Group LLC and she herself visited the site of the “pond and vicinity of the pond …”

This is part of the documentation from a February 2017 site visit of a Southwest Florida Water Management District representative, who came to Siesta Key to look at the mangroves in the area of Sabal Lake. Image courtesy of the District

The following day, she continued, Medved sent an email saying, “According to our results of our site visit, Lake Sabal was created to function as a stormwater pond. As such, the removal of the vegetation along the banks of the property referenced … would qualify as an exempt activity pursuant to Chapter 62-330.020(1)(a) [of the Florida Administrative Code].” That section of the code says, “A permit under this chapter is not required for activities that qualify for: (a) Operation and routine custodial maintenance of projects legally in existence under chapter 403 or part IV of chapter 373, [Florida Statutes], provided the terms and conditions of the permit, exemption, or other authorization for such projects continue to be met, and provided the activity is conducted in a manner that does not cause violations of state water quality standards. However, this exemption shall not apply to any project that is altered, modified, expanded, abandoned, or removed …”

In her October 2018 letter, Steinbaum added that, during a site visit on March 17, 2017, SWFWMD staff “observed mangroves on the slope of the pond mixed in with Brazilian pepper. After reviewing historic aerials and following the pond outfall to two locations [where] water can flow, staff determined that the pond was constructed to be a stormwater management system before October of 1984, which concludes that any maintenance work in the pond ([including] mangrove removal) would be considered exempt …”

Then the letter explained, “The property owner is planning on flush-cutting and herbicide treating stumps of mangroves and Brazilian pepper along the bank of the pond.”

A SWFWMD memorandum dated Nov. 13, 2018, written by Senior Environmental Scientist Tasha Dailey, said that SWFWMD had reviewed the project information that it had received and had determined “that an Environmental Resource Permit (ERP) will not be required for the proposed vegetative maintenance of Lake Sabal …” Emphasis was in the document.

This memo from Tasha Dailey of SWFWMD confirms that no permit is needed for the mangrove trimming. Image courtesy of the District

Then, on April 23, 2019, Howard Berna, manager of the county’s Environmental Permitting Division, emailed Steinbaum in response to a note she had sent him regarding the Sabal Lake project.

Berna wrote that he had “concluded that the work can proceed to remove only the mangroves and non-natives such as Brazilian Pepper, Australian Pine, Carrotwood, Melaleuca, and Chinese Tallow that may be on the property. This remains consistent with our prior findings that the mangrove alteration is exempt from the need for a County Mangrove Trimming and Alteration Permit, pursuant to the project being permitted by SWFWMD …”

Berna added that he had shared his comments “with other County Environmental Permitting staff in the event that they receive calls regarding the ongoing work at this property.”

In response to a News Leader question this week about that position, Environmental Permitting staff wrote of the mangroves issue, “Essentially, there are overlapping jurisdictions in this situation, and the regulations are directed by the state statute.”

The staff included in its response a copy of a state regulation with wording similar to the section of the Florida Administrative Code that Medved of SWFWMD had provided Steinbaum in February 2018.

The site of the former Fandango Cafe on Siesta Key is clear on May 31, 2019, following the demolition of the building. This is part of the property proposed for Dr. Gary Kompothecras’ hotel. News Leader image

In 2018, Kompothecras was working on plans to demolish the former Fandango Café, which occupied the parcel at 1266 Old Stickney Point Road. That land is part of the property where he plans to build the hotel.

In May 2019, a crew finally completed that demolition. Sabal Lake is situated to the south of that site.

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