Coalition fighting big hotel proposals putting focus on 1999 Siesta Key Community Plan; county Planning Division manager explains review process for land-use applications; SKA members get update on mini reef pilot program; Sgt. Smith provides November crime stats; and the Breeze has passengers aplenty
Members of the Siesta Key Coalition, who are fighting proposals for two high-rise hotels on the island, have put their focus on a document created in 1999 that laid the groundwork for the Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD) zoning regulations, the Coalition spokesman has told Siesta Key Association (SKA) members.
The Siesta Key Community Plan resulted from numerous public workshops held in 1997 and 1998, Mark Spiegel explained to about 40 SKA members during a virtual meeting conducted on Dec. 9. “This is a very visionary document,” he pointed out. It also influenced the county’s Future Land Use policies for Siesta Key and the other barrier islands in the unincorporated areas of the county, Spiegel added.
“I would say, in reading it a couple of times,” he continued, “it’s more relevant today than it was in 1999.”
For one example, Spiegel noted, the Community Plan said the barrier islands are a “unique land use category [and] development is of special concern … to underscore these special considerations. … Density and intensity of future development may not exceed that allowed by existing zoning.”
Yet, Spiegel continued, two proposed hotels that would stand more than 80 feet tall — one with 120 rooms; the other, with 170 — are what he would call “the exact poster children” for defying the concepts laid out in the Community Plan.
A team representing Dr. Gary Kompothecras, the chiropractor known for his 1-800-ASK-GARY legal and medical referral service, has filed applications with the county for a hotel and parking garage project on the southern part of the Key. An attorney representing a New York City resident who owns property in Siesta Village and its immediate environs filed a preliminary application with the county in May, seeking to build the 170-room hotel on four parcels between Beach Road and Calle Miramar.
Although both projects would be located on property zoned for commercial uses, Spiegel pointed out to the SKA members on Dec. 9, the zoning regulations for the sites do not allow construction taller than 35 feet above base flood elevation, and the zoning does not allow transient accommodations, which is how hotels and motels are referred to in county zoning matters. (Base flood elevation is a term used in regard to Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] rules for building in flood zones.)
A person can apply for a Special Exception from the County Commission to exceed the 35-foot height restriction.
“I’m a commercial developer of 30 years,” Spiegel explained, “so I’m a little out of my element to be opposing development.”
However, he noted, “In our industry, when you buy a piece of commercial land, you have certain rights.”
Spiegel also read a couple of passages from the Siesta Key Community Plan that dealt with transportation on the island:
- “Anyone who has driven on Siesta Key knows that it can be slow going, especially during the winter season. And it is not going to get much better — several road segments on Siesta Key function at Level of Service [grades] of E or F.” (As with grades a student earns in school, “E” and “F” are at the lowest end of the Florida Department of Transportation scale in terms of how a driver perceives traffic flow.)
- “Siesta Key has more pedestrian crosswalks per square mile than any other area of the county, in recognition of the heavy pedestrian traffic of the Village, the South Bridge area, and the beaches.”
If transportation issues on the Key were a concern in 1999, he said, it would seem they would be of equal concern today as Sarasota County planning staff assesses proposals for new development on the island.
“There has never been a comprehensive traffic or pedestrian study” undertaken for the entire Key, Spiegel emphasized.
Yet another issue that has become more significant in recent years, Spiegel noted, is the rise in tourism, given the popularity of Siesta Key Public Beach after “Dr. Beach” — Stephen Leatherman, a professor at Florida International University — named it No. 1 in 2011 and again in 2017. However, according to state law, Spiegel pointed out, only the “wet beach,” from the Mean High Water Line to the Gulf of Mexico, is considered public property. Therefore, management personnel at more of the condominium complexes on the Key could begin roping off the private beach areas, leaving less of the shoreline available for visitors.
If one anticipates two people per room at each of the new high-rise hotel projects, plus visitors from the 130-room hotel planned at Siesta Promenade, Spiegel said, it would not be unrealistic to expect that, in the future, tourists might have very little space in which to spread out on Siesta’s beach.
(Siesta Promenade is the mixed-use development that the County Commission approved in December 2018 for an approximately 25-acre site in the northwest quadrant of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road.)
Moreover, Spiegel reminded the SKA members, the proposal for the 170-room hotel includes an application to amend county zoning regulations to eliminate any density consideration for hotels on all county barrier islands. The current SKOD rules call for each hotel room without a kitchen to be counted as half-a-dwelling unit.
Kompothecras’ has his own proposal. It calls for doubling the density regulation for just the “South Bridge Area” of Stickney Point Road and Old Stickney Point Road.
A third hotel project for which a preliminary application has been submitted to county staff calls for the redevelopment of the Siesta Key Beach Resort Hotel and Suites in Siesta Village from 55 rooms to 170. However, that proposal says the new hotel would not exceed the 35-foot height allowed in Siesta’s Commercial General and Commercial Intensive zoning districts.
“I’m calling for the Board of Commissioners to really, maybe step back … and consider an integrated, comprehensive assessment” of all three hotel proposals, Spiegel added, instead of considering them independently.
“We strongly favor economic growth on Siesta Key,” Spiegel stressed, “but not at the cost of so many adverse consequences. … We very much don’t want to kill the golden goose.”
He noted that the Coalition has about 17 homeowner associations as members, representing about 8,500 households. The organization is working with the SKA and the Siesta Key Condominium Council, as well.
The Siesta Key Community Plan, he said, recognized the views of the thousands of people “that love Siesta Key and call it their home.” The county commissioners need to listen to the residents now, he added, just as the commissioners did in the late 1990s.
The Coalition members are seeking suggestions about how best to make their case to the County Commission, Spiegel said. The county commissioners are focused on economic growth, he continued. “That’s going to be on their mind.” The Coalition members cannot be “those emotional [people in] red shirts,” sitting in the Commission Chambers at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota, he emphasized, when the hotel applications are the focus of public hearings. “We have to be objective and unemotional.”
People who are well educated about the various facets of the proposed hotel projects will need to make it clear that they are talking about all Siesta Key homeowners, Spiegel said. “We’ve got to speak as one voice …”
Anyone with ideas to propose may contact the Coalition at SKCoalition@gmail.com or the SKA at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Explaining the county’s review process for the hotels
Last week, in an email exchange with a Siesta resident, Sarasota County’s Planning Division manager, Todd Dary, explained how staff will review the island hotel proposals in light of the precautions that must be taken because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are working with applicants to ensure they have the most impactful neighborhood workshop given the current environment and continue to learn and improve,” Dary began. Second, he noted, no formal review of an application will begin until after county staff has received the minutes and recordings of the Neighborhood Workshops conducted in accord with county regulations.
As of the deadline for this issue of The Sarasota News Leader, only the Gary Kompothecras hotel and parking garage applications had been submitted to the Planning and Development Services Department.
The petitions in those applications “are under sufficiency review … for completeness,” Dary continued in his Dec. 9 email. “Formal review will occur after all information required or requested is received,” he added.
Typically, the News Leader has found over the years, county staff members representing each department or division involved in land-development issues will ask for details that are missing and must be conveyed before they will sign off on an application.
Specific concerns or any critique a person would like to offer about a project “should be provided to Planner@scgov.net and will be made part of the correspondence to be provided to the Planning Commission and the County Commission,” Dary pointed out in the email.
Update provided on the SKA’s mini reefs pilot program
Another topic during the Dec. 9 Siesta Key Association meeting was the status of the Grand Canal Regeneration Project, which was unveiled during the SKA’s November session.
Phil Chiocchio, a member of the Sarasota Bay Fisheries Forum, and SKA Director Jean Cannon reported that 21 people had signed up for the pilot program the SKA board approved in November.
The goal was 10 homeowners.
The residents/volunteers live in the Siesta Key Circle and Tropical Circle neighborhoods, Cannon noted as she referenced a slide she showed the members.
On Dec. 18, Cannon continued, the first mini reefs would be installed under docks at the persons’ homes.
As Chiocchio has explained to SKA members during past presentations, the mini reefs are devices produced by a nonprofit organization called Ocean Reefs Inc. The mini reefs attract sea creatures such as oysters and crabs, which clean the surrounding water, leading to a higher level of oxygen in the canal. As the water quality improves, he has pointed out, fish and manatees are attracted to the area.
Cannon also showed the members a video featuring an island resident named Lorraine Stanford, who lives on the 9-mile-long Grand Canal. About two years ago, Stanford explained, she bought a mini reef, which a farther-and-son team then installed under her dock. As the water quality has improved around her dock, she added, she and her family members have been seeing a lot more fish.
“All of our neighbors have docks,” Stanford noted. If all of them installed mini reefs, she said, the water quality would become even better.
Ocean Habitats’ website notes, “Each Mini Reef can support hundreds of fish, crabs and shrimp each year and will start to develop a complete ecosystem … as soon as it enters the water. … A Mini Reef will filter on average 30,0000 gallons of water per day once fully developed.”
Each device is about 3 feet by 2 feet by 2 feet, the website points out. “It floats so the filter feeders attached to the unit will always be where 90% of their food source is found,” which is within 24 inches of the surface of the water.
A mini reef costs $300, including installation, Cannon said on Dec. 9. The SKA is seeking donations to facilitate the pilot program, she added, noting that people can send emails for more information to SiestaKeyAssociation1947@gmail.com.
Mini reefs make a great holiday gift, Cannon said.
Chiocchio also explained that baseline measurements will be taken at each location where a mini reef is installed for the project. John M. Ryan, interim senior manager of Sarasota County’s Stormwater Environmental Utility has donated “a whole bagful of Secchi disks,” which are used to test for levels of dissolved oxygen, pH, temperature, salinity and nitrogen and phosphorus, Chiocchio added.
If homeowners in the pilot program wish to undertake their own water sampling, Chiocchio said, the SKA can provide them with disks.
“We will be doing sampling all the way through this,” Cannon noted.
Chiocchio’s goal is to see vast improvement in the Grand Canal by the time it marks its 100th birthday, which will be in 2025. Moreover, he said, the nonprofit Suncoast Waterkeeper organization “wants to use this [pilot program] as a test …”
Sarasota County has 100 miles of dead-end canals, he pointed out, though the Grand Canal is “one of the nastiest areas.”
“Spread the word to your neighbors,” Cannon continued. “This is a neighbor-to-neighbor project.”
November crime stats reported
During the Dec. 9 Siesta Key Association meeting, Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation on the island, reported that about 345 calls for service were recorded in November. Of all those investigated, he continued, 9% were considered “Part 1” crimes under the FBI definition applied to more serious incidents, such as burglaries and thefts.
Most of those November incidents, Smith said, occurred the weekend of Nov. 13-15. “We were able to develop suspects,” he added. The majority of the culprits were from Manatee County, he noted, and several have been arrested.
Another big case, Smith said, involved multiple juvenile offenders who came over to the Key one night “and stole a bunch of golf carts.”
Some of those individuals drove golf carts on the beach, he pointed out, while a couple headed off the island in the vehicles.
Charges were expected soon in connection with those incidents, Smith said.
Additionally, all but one of the vehicle break-ins reported in November involved vehicles that were not locked. In the other case, he noted, “The alarm sounded” when someone tried to get into the vehicle, so the perpetrator was unable to gain entry.
“Please lock your cars; hide your valuables,” Smith emphasized, as he has during past SKA meetings. “I can’t stress that enough, how important that is,” he said, to lock vehicles “wherever you go.”
One SKA member told Smith that, a few days prior to the meeting, a young man — whom she described as well-dressed — appeared at her door with “a box full of candy bars.” The young man asked her and her husband if they would like to buy some of the candy.
The couple never had had anyone show up like that in the past, the woman continued. They considered that the person legitimately might have been working on sales, the woman told Smith, but their next-door neighbor later warned them that people will “case” a house through the ruse of trying to sell items to the homeowners.
“Getting to our house is not exactly easy,” the woman pointed out to Smith, “so someone really made an effort to find our front door.”
During tourist season, especially, Smith told the couple, scam artists appear in this community; for that matter, he said, they show up statewide.
While many people may legitimately be trying to sell goods, Smith continued, “You have to be aware and be vigilant in protecting yourself.”
Distraction burglaries also are not uncommon, he explained. In those situations, one person will try to keep the homeowner occupied at the front door while a second person tries to get into the residence from the back door.
If any homeowner becomes concerned about persons showing up at a house for any reason, Smith said, the resident should feel free to call the Sheriff’s Office. A deputy can ask the person to leave, he added, if the person is on private property and the homeowner does not want the person there.
The non-emergency number for the Sheriff’s Office is 941-316-1201.
Still plenty of riders
In response to a News Leader request this week, Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) provided ridership figures for the Siesta Key Breeze trolley for this year through November.
Although pandemic protocols remain in place, ridership has grown since the summer, the chart shows.
In October, the passengers numbered 13,326. In November, the figure was 11,047.
For those same months in 2019, the respective numbers were 20,435 and 25,440.
Early this year, before the COVID-19 pandemic led to changes in county services, the trolley carried 39,280 passengers in January and 49,849 in March.
The Breeze was kept out of operation in April and May.