With tweaks proposed by Commissioner Smith, county staff to draft revised policy and regulations for voluntary demolition and reconstruction of Siesta condo complexes built before 2000

Siesta Key Condominium Council and Siesta Key Association oppose amendments

This aerial map shows the location of Sea Club V on south Siesta Key. Image from Google Maps

With unanimous support from his colleagues, Sarasota County Commissioner Mark Smith has asked county Planning Division staff for further tweaks to a proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment and to a modification of the county’s land-use and zoning regulations to allow for the voluntary demolition and rebuilding of condominium complexes on Siesta Key.

Formally, the 5-0 vote on Sept. 12 authorized staff to move forward with drafting the proposed amendments, as directed during the discussion that day. The amendments would apply to buildings erected on Siesta Key prior to the year 2000. They are classified as “publicly initiated” amendments, meaning that they originated with the board members instead of a private individual.

Commissioner Michael Moran seconded Smith’s motion.

In an Oct. 4 email, responding to a Sarasota News Leader question, county Media Relations Officer Sara Nealeigh reported that county Planning and Development Services Department staff was not certain when the revised drafts would be ready for the board members’ review.

For close to two years, Smith has been seeking county regulatory and policy changes that would enable condominium associations with decades-old complexes to be able to tear them down and reconstruct them with the same residential density, but with adherence to modern building standards.

In January 2022, when Smith first appeared before the commissioners, on behalf of the owners of the Sea Club V complex on south Siesta Key, he had not entered the race for the District 2 County Commission seat. As a long-time architect on Siesta Key, he had worked with the Sea Club V owners on its proposal.

The initial request came months after the collapse of the Champlain Towers condominiums in Surfside, which reportedly had structural problems related to their age and proximity to the water.

This is Champlain Towers in Surfside, following the collapse. Image from the NIST website

During the Sept. 12 commission discussion, Planner Everett Farrell did report that staff had held multiple meetings with stakeholders — including representatives of organizations on Siesta Key — related to Smith’s suggestions about amending the Comprehensive Plan, which guides growth in the community, and the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC), which contains all of the land-use and zoning regulations.

The amendments would pertain just to the Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD), which governs development on the barrier island.

Among the concerns that stakeholders — including the Siesta Key Condominium Council and the Siesta Key Association — had raised, Farrell told the board members on Sept. 12, were the following:

  • Allowing what formally are called “nonconformities” to exist in perpetuity. The proposed amendments would enable complexes to rebuild with the same residential density, which likely would be higher than allowed in the SKOD as it exists.
  • Allowing the new structures to contain the same number of residential units they had prior to demolition.
  • The potential use of the new units for “transient accommodations,” which is the county term for hotel and motel rooms.
  • The insistence that any “commercial or ancillary uses that would not be residential in nature” would be prohibited.

Farrell noted that staff had recommended that the new construction would have to comply with the UDC standards regarding setbacks from streets, as well as height and lot coverage, and that no variances from those requirements would be allowed.

Additionally, he said, staff proposed that the units in the new structures retain the square footage of the comparable, original units; that the same number of units could be reconstructed; and that specific engineering criteria be met before demolition was permitted.

Following Farrell’s opening remarks, Smith pointed out that Sea Club V has structural problems, including “severe spalling” of its exterior walkways, meaning the concrete has become pitted, flaked or broken up.

He reminded his colleagues that every condominium complex constructed before the 2000 Florida Building Code went into effect “is vulnerable to severe damage in a storm event.”

All anyone needs to do to realize that, Smith added, was look at the damage resulting from recent hurricanes that had struck Florida’s southwest coast.

Countering several staff proposals

This is the Sept. 12 draft Comprehensive Plan amendment regarding the voluntary demolition and reconstruction of condominium units on Siesta Key. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Smith told the other board members that he disagreed with the staff recommendation that a structural engineer make a determination about the need to tear down a complex, even if the members of a condominium association had voted in support of constructing a new building that would comply with the latest state Building Code and all other, relevant regulations, including those of the federal and state governments.

Further, he pointed out, while aging condominium towers exist on the barrier island, “What we also have on Siesta Key are these little cottages [standing on grade] …” Owners of such buildings might want to replace them with a tower, he noted.

That would be in lieu of “raising each cottage up 10 to 15 feet in the air,” so it would comply with the modern building requirements for construction in flood zones, including regulations imposed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Additionally — as he has during previous discussions — Smith stressed that, contrary to the staff proposal, the new buildings should not have to be constructed in the footprints occupied by the original ones.

He has talked about the fact that many of the older complexes are seaward of the county’s Gulf Beach Setback Line (GBSL), which was established in 1979 to protect beach habitat and dunes, which, in turn, protect landward structures from storm surge and other flooding events.

This graphic shows how in-structure parking can be utilized for condominium construction in Residential Multi-Family zoning districts. Image courtesy Sarasota County

His view, Smith continued, is that the Comprehensive Plan and UDC amendments should require the new construction to comply with all of the latest setback requirements.

For example, he said, the new complexes are “going to have to have covered parking, [and a] parking garage can’t be put in the same footprint of a 1950s motel.”

As for maintaining the same residential density: “That’s fine,” Smith said, adding that he would suggest that the same number of one-bedroom and two-bedroom units be allowed in the new structures — “whatever the original condominium had.”

However, he added, “That’s ridiculous” to require the same square footage of each new unit to be the same as that of the original. The square footage of every unit should be determined by the allowable size of the building, Smith said, based on the size of the lot. County regulations stipulate that a structure planned on a parcel zoned Residential Multi-Family (RMF) can take up no more than 50% of the lot, he said.

The height, he noted would be determined by the county’s zoning code. For example, Smith continued, a new building on property zoned Residential Multi-Family-2 can stand 35 feet high above a parking level; in the Residential Multi-Family 3 zoning district, the maximum height of a new building would be 45 feet above parking.

In regard to stakeholders’ concerns about residential nonconformity being allowed with the new structures, Smith pointed out that county regulations already allow reconstruction of condominium complexes destroyed by storms, with the same number of units they had beforehand.

As for stakeholders’ concerns about the use of the new units for “transient accommodations,” Smith emphasized, “Every single condominium on Siesta Key” has its own rules about the rentals of units. Some condos can be rented for less than a week, he continued, while others cannot be rented more often than once a month. “I don’t think the county should be getting involved in that.”

Questions about the proposed tweaks

Commissioner Joe Neunder did ask about Smith’s suggestion that no structural engineer needed to be involved in determining whether a pre-2000 building should be voluntarily demolished.

Smith replied that he did not believe owners of such condos should be burdened with the expense of hiring an engineer, given the outdated construction standards for those buildings.

Then Smith explained that if a complex was built later than 2000, and faulty construction was suspected, FEMA’s 50% Rule would apply. That means that if the cost of making repairs is 50% higher than the market value of the building, the structure has to be modified to come into full compliance with modern FEMA floodplain construction regulations. “It would cost [the owners] more to repair than knock it down and build new,” Smith summed up such a situation.

“Again, this is voluntary,” Smith emphasized of the proposal. “This is not something willy-nilly that folks are going to do, to tear down your building and build new. If you have a rental program,” he continued, “you’re not going to make any money for at least two years, and people are going to be out of their condominiums for two years, at least, during construction.”

“I do think it’s very limited in terms of who will be able to get away with this,” Commissioner Neil Rainford responded to that statement.

Neunder agreed with Smith about the square footage issue, saying, “That seems like a no-brainer to me.” Condo units were smaller in the past, Neunder added.

These are the Residential Multi-Family density restrictions  in the Unified Development Code. The ‘Gross Density’ is a value per acre. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Chair Ron Cutsinger did voice concern about the potential for unintended consequences, if the board members directed staff to move forward with the revisions of the proposed Comprehensive Plan and UDC amendments.

Planner Farrell told Cutsinger that staff would put more time into investigating the issues related both to allowing structures to remain nonconforming in perpetuity and the use of rebuilt units for transient accommodations, as staff worked on the revisions.

Commissioner Moran sought assurances from County Attorney Joshua Moye that the proposed new Comprehensive Plan and UDC amendments would have to be considered during public hearings before both the county’s Planning Commission and the County Commission before they could go into effect, allowing plenty more opportunity for public comments.

“Yes,” Moye replied, adding that the board members ultimately could vote down the proposed amendments.

Moran noted that the hearings also would give the board members the opportunity to offer further tweaks to the amendments.

Stakeholder correspondence

The agenda packet for the Sept. 12 meeting included correspondence from the Siesta Key Condominium Council, opposing the changes. The Council noted in its letter that it represents 90 associations with more than 7,000 Siesta households.

The Council added that its board was requesting that the commissioners withdraw the Comprehensive Plan amendment from consideration “and, instead, begin a more serious dialogue on this item with the stakeholder community.”

That amendment, the Council added, “could have far-reaching unintended consequences” for residents of Siesta Key regarding density, intensity and safety on the barrier island.

An email from the Siesta Key Association (SKA), signed by President Catherine Luckner, expressed support for the Condominium Council’s request.

Luckner further noted that the SKA worked with other residents’ associations on the county’s barrier islands when county staff years ago was crafting the Post Disaster Redevelopment Plan, which does allow for condominium complexes destroyed by storms “to be rebuilt to grandfathered footprint, height, etc.” Such construction, Luckner added, would require the rebuilt structures “to meet current regulations even if they are more restrictive [than] the existing use. … That remains good policy. To waive that invites unintended consequences and will likely encourage condos that skirt transient use regulations and density/intensity regulations of [the Siesta Key Overlay District].”

The only correspondence in support of the proposed changes came from Sea Club V. An email sent to Planner Farrell from Sea Club V Resort Manager Tony Rateni made a number of points that Commissioner Smith voiced during his remarks to his colleagues. Among them, the Sea Club V email said, with emphasis, “ALL structures built before the 2000 [Florida Building Code was implemented] will be substantially damaged in a major storm event. They are not designed to withstand hurricane force winds and storm surge.”