Siesta residents voice multiple concerns about new plans for hotel on Calle Miramar

One resident cites fact that hundreds of new hotel rooms have been proposed on or near the Key, if County Commission approves latest projects

This is the proposed Binding Development Concept Plan for the new version of a hotel on Calle Miramar. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Jan. 9, during the second Sarasota County-required Neighborhood Workshop in two days on plans for new high-rise hotels on Siesta Key, resident John Doherty summed up the speakers’ remarks for both events.

“It should be evident to you today [as on Jan. 8] that almost universally, people are opposed to these hotel developments for a variety of reasons,” he told Kelley Klepper, vice president and senior planner with the Kimley-Horn consulting firm in Sarasota, and William Merrill III of the Icard Merrill law firm in Sarasota, who were hosting the Jan. 9 event.

“Why would you be moving against the interests of almost everybody on the Key?” Doherty added. “We’re being trampled on based on the interests of just the few.”

Doherty then asked a number of questions about the new proposal for a hotel on four parcels comprising about 0.96 acres between Beach Road and Calle Miramar. They focused on issues such as whether the 163-room, seven-story hotel would put too great a burden on the island’s sewage infrastructure, which delivers the solid waste to treatment plants on the mainland; the exacerbation of traffic on and off the Key because of the guests plus the staff; the small amount of public beach available to the guests, with private property owners over the past couple of years having deployed numerous “No Trespassing” signs; and whether the project team would be willing to disclose how much money the property owners have contributed to members of the County Commission and the county’s Planning Commission, both of which bodies are expected eventually to conduct public hearings on the application.

At the conclusion of Doherty’s remarks, Merrill responded, “Thank you.”

In kicking off the Neighborhood Workshop — which had a maximum of 72 attendees during the approximately 80 minutes it lasted, according to another Kimley-Horn staffer — Klepper explained that this revised version of plans for the Calle Miramar hotel calls for a structure that would stand up to 80 feet above what is called “Design Flood Elevation” — in compliance with federal regulations designed to prevent flood damage. It would have 163 rooms, instead of the 170 included in the 2021 plans; and it would have 4.5 habitable floors over 2.5 floors of parking.

(Later, Mike Holderness, one of the owners of the Siesta Key Beach Resort and Suites in Siesta Village, estimated the full height of the hotel at 92 feet, given the Federal Emergency Management Agency standards for elevation in high-hazard flood zones.)

This is the site proposed for the hotel; it has not changed since the prior application won approval of the County Commission. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The earlier design called for eight stories. That proposal, which won County Commission approval in October 2021 on a 3-2 vote, was rendered moot in the aftermath of two legal challenges filed in late 2021 by Siesta Key resident Lourdes Ramirez. Both a Florida administrative law judge — ruling in April 2023 — and a 12th Judicial Circuit Court judge — ruling in August 2023 — said that an amendment to the county’s Unified Development Code that the commissioners approved on Oct. 27, 2021 violated Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1 in the county’s Comprehensive Plan, which guides growth in the community.

The Unified Development Code (UDC) contains all of the county’s land-use and zoning regulations.

On Dec. 12, 2023, at the request of attorney Merrill, the county commissioners voted 3-1 to waive a county requirement so the new plans for the Calle Miramar hotel could be submitted to the county’s Planning and Development Services Department on an expedited timeline. Commissioner Mark Smith of Siesta Key cast the “No” vote. Commissioner Joe Neunder, who represents the southern portion of the barrier island, was absent from the meeting.

Technically, the Calle Miramar project team is seeking approval of Special Exceptions to exceed the maximum height of 35 feet for construction on property zoned Commercial General (CG) under the Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD) zoning regulations, plus approval to place “transient accommodations” — the county term for hotel and motel rooms — on a parcel zoned CG/SKOD.

On Nov. 28, the commissioners also authorized the Planning and Development Services staff to proceed, out of the normal cycle, in processing proposed Comprehensive Plan and UDC amendments that would make both the Calle Miramar hotel and an 85-foot-tall hotel planned by Benderson Development Co. possible on the Key. Benderson proposed all of the amendments.

What ‘injustice’?

The very first question during the Nov. 9 workshop came from Siesta Key Association President Catherine Luckner, regarding the waiver granted on Dec. 12 for the project team to proceed with its efforts.

Noting that she had offered testimony during that public hearing, Luckner told Merrill that she could not find his formal request for that waiver to have been “supported by any finding of facts by the [County Commission]. Your letter did not provide any facts,” she added, that explained the justification for seeking the waiver on the basis of preventing an injustice or to “assure protection of the public health, safety, and welfare,” which are among the chief reasons cited in the Unified Development Code for such a waiver to be granted.

“We did enter things into the records,” Merrill responded. “We just did it in writing.”

When Klepper of Kimley-Horn asked Merrill whether the Office of the County Attorney had reviewed the letter before allowing the County Commission to act on the request, Merrill replied that he believes that staff members of both the Office of the County Attorney and the Planning and Development Services Department had reviewed the letter.

“Can you be specific what [the findings of fact] were?” Luckner asked.

“I don’t have the letter with me,” Merrill replied.

However, he continued, the administrative law judge and the Circuit Court judge who ruled against the county, in favor of Key resident Ramirez, pointed out that the County Commission in October 2021 had not approved a Comprehensive Plan amendment that eliminated the counting of hotel and motel rooms for residential density purposes, as the October 2021 UDC amendment did. The judges agreed that the UDC amendment, therefore, was inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan.

Additionally, Merrill said, he indicated in his letter “that we believe there is a need for hotels on Siesta Key,” which has one of the United States’ No. 1 beaches. Merrill noted that Siesta Public Beach also is the county’s top draw for visitors.

This is the Dec. 1 letter from attorney William Merrill III to the County Commission. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“The [Circuit Court] judge did not commit an injustice, correct?” Luckner asked.

“I would never speak against one of our judges,” Merrill told her.

Later, Neal Schleifer, vice president of the Siesta Key Condominium Council, told Merrill he did not find the need to abide with the normal county timeline for reapplying for the Special Exception an injustice “because you and the developer bet on an improper UDC amendment …” The Siesta Key Association, the Condominium Association and an organization called the Siesta Key Coalition, which was organized in 2021 to oppose the high-rise hotel proposals, “warned you [the UDC amendment] was invalid, so the judges delivered justice, right?” Schleifer asked.

The county commissioners in December found the information he had submitted in requesting the waiver to be sufficient, Merrill responded.

“We think they made a mistake,” Schleifer said.

Then Schleifer asked about the fact that the Calle Miramar project team was pursuing the new Special Exception process without Benderson’s proposed Comprehensive Plan and UDC amendments having been approved to make the new hotel plans viable.

“Do you have some secret knowledge and are privy to some information unavailable to the public [in regard to the likelihood that those amendments will win final approval]?” Schleifer asked. “How can you be so confident?”

“We have the right to apply,” Merrill told him, “and that’s all we’re doing right now. … Nothing has been presumed, and nothing is a done deal. … We are staying within the rules of the county. … It’s a rather lengthy and detailed process.”

Merrill was referring to the procedure that entails a formal county Planning staff review of the Special Exceptions application and then the necessary Planning Commission and County Commission hearings.

When Schleifer asked Merrill what will happen if the Benderson amendments do not go into effect, Merrill replied that the Special Exceptions application would not be able to move forward through the process.

A traffic study, the beach capacity and Siesta Village ‘quaintness’

Robert Luckner, acting treasurer of the Siesta Key Association and Catherine Luckner’s husband, asked whether the traffic study that the project team will have to conduct would use the methodology proposed by a Tampa transportation consultant, William Oliver, who created it in collaboration with south Siesta resident James P. Wallace III.

Robert Luckner noted that Commissioner Smith has advocated for use of that methodology in conjunction with any proposed new development on Siesta Key. “It’s a very robust model,” Luckner added.

The project team will conduct its study in accord with the direction provided by county Transportation Planning Manager Paula Wiggins and the Public Works Department staff, Klepper of Kimley-Horn responded.

Robert Luckner also inquired as to whether any of the owners of the property where the Calle Miramar hotel would stand are from countries other than the United States.

“There are no foreign owners,” Merrill told him.

Klepper then pointed out that county regulations mandate full disclosure of owners of property in any application for County Commission approval of new developments. Having worked for many years in the Southeastern United States, Klepper added, “This is one of the few places that requires that level of detail.”

Merrill noted that three of the four owners are county residents “who have been here for some time.”

This document in the 2020 application for the Calle Miramar hotel shows details about the property owners. Image courtesy Sarasota County
This document included in the 2020 application provides details about the developers. Image courtesy Sarasota County

When Holderness of Siesta Key Beach Resort and Suites took his turn in asking questions, he told Merrill and Klepper that the county owns only about 10% of the “white sand” beach on the island. “Alarms should be going off already,” Holderness said, given the additional public demand for access to the beach that the hotel guests would represent.

“Where is the white sand located that the [Calle Miramar hotel] guests want to use?” Holderness asked.

The guests will go the same place as Holderness’ guests, Klepper responded.

Lourdes Ramirez brought up concerns about hurricane evacuations. Referring to the number of guests that both the Calle Miramar and Benderson hotels would be able to house, she asked, “Do you really believe that that’s not going to impede the residents … evacuating during an emergency?” Ramirez contended that the guests will be “getting in the way of residents …”

Klepper offered an anecdote to indicate that the hotels would cancel guests’ reservations if a hurricane were approaching, to make evacuations easier for island residents. That was what happened to him a number of years ago, he said, when he was planning to stay at a “major brand” hotel in a destination that a storm was predicted to strike.

Yet, Ramirez countered, given the nationally documented propensity of hurricanes to intensify rapidly in recent years, just before they reach land, staff at the hotels on Siesta might not have sufficient time to ensure that guests are not driving alongside island residents during an evacuation.

Patricia Nazzaro raised the issue of the compatibility of the Calle Miramar and Benderson hotels with the surrounding neighborhood. “It would be preferable to have this [Calle Miramar] hotel lowered to about half the height, so it’s consistent with the style and quaintness of our Village,” she said.

Noting that she has been paying property taxes on Siesta Key for 49 years, she added, “I don’t want [the Village] to look like Miami Beach. We all love Siesta Key Village the way it is.”

Moreover, Nazzaro pointed to the fact that the Calle Miramar hotel’s 163 rooms would join the 147 planned in the Benderson hotel, along with the 130 rooms that Benderson has said it will construct as part of its Siesta Promenade mixed-use project, in the northwest quadrant of the intersection of Stickney Point Road and U.S. 41. Siesta Promenade also has been designed with 414 apartments/condominiums, Nazzaro noted.

“I always regretted the moment ‘Dr. Beach’ made Siesta Key the No. 1 Beach [in the United States],” she told Merrill and Klepper, referring to the Florida International University professor Stephen Leatherman, who annually presents his Top 10 U.S. Beaches list just before Memorial Day. Siesta Key Beach has won the No. 1 title twice; the first time was in 2011.

Nazzaro said she felt that the distinction for Siesta Beach “would be our downfall, and that appears to be happening.”