Throughout the holiday week, YourObserver.com will be counting down the top 12 stories of 2010 (one from each month) from our Longboat, East County and Sarasota Observers. Check back each day for a reprinting — and any relevant updates — of the biggest news items of the year.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: July 1, 2010
The Longboat Key Town Commission voted 6-1 Wednesday afternoon to approve the Longboat Key Club and Resort’s $400 million expansion-and-renovation plan.
At 1:55 p.m. in the hushed sanctuary of Temple Beth Israel, Commissioner Lynn Larson asked Mayor George Spoll to call the vote.
Commissioner Larson: “Yes”
Commissioner Brown: “Yes”
Commmissioner Brenner: “Yes”
Commissioner Siekmann: “No”
Commissioner Lenobel: “Yes”
Commissioner Younger: “Yes”
Mayor Spoll: “Yes”
With that, the pro-Key Club audience erupted in applause, with many in the room rising to their feet as they clapped.
Bob White, president of the opposition Islandside Property Owners Coalition, was not present.
The commission approved a final revised plan that includes much of what the Key Club proposed in the beginning: an 11-story, five-star hotel; a stand-alone meeting center; new wellness center and spa; and renovated Islandside golf clubhouse and golf course (with no driving range). Also approved, and among the most contentious pieces of the plan, were villas on both sides of Longboat Club Road and a seven-story condominium building on the south side of the road.
The commissioners took four hours alone Wednesday to bring themselves to vote. But that was only a sliver of the time it took to get there: five years from the time Key Club General Manager Michael Welly began his quest; more than $5 million in Key Club planning expenses; six revised plans presented to the town; more than 23 public hearings over eight months; more than $40,000 in town expenses; and more than an estimated $1 million in legal and other expenses for the opposition, the Islandside Property Owners Coalition.
And the decision came at the final hour — on the last day the Town Commission is permitted to render development decisions before its two-month summer hiatus, and on the self-imposed deadline of the Longboat Key Club’s investors. Based in England, they told Key Club officials they were prepared to walk away from the project if the commission postponed its final vote for the fall.
Longboat Key Club General Manager Michael Welly and Michael Brody, chief operating officer of the Key Club’s owner, Loeb Partners Realty, displayed smiles rarely seen on the Key Club’s side of the temple sanctuary.
“I’m delighted the Town Commission shares the same vision for both the town of Longboat Key and the Longboat Key Club and Resort,” Welly said. “The only thing massive about our project, it turns out, is the amount of supporters it attracted.”
Said Brody: “We are overjoyed with the result. The 6-1 vote showed there is overwhelming support from the commission for this project. It’s a good feeling.”
Learning of the vote from New York Wednesday afternoon, Loeb Partners Realty CEO Joseph Lesser said the following in a prepared statement:
“I am very appreciative and gratified by the vote of the Longboat Key Town Commission to approve the plan for the club’s Islandside redevelopment plan. We believe that the proposed redevelopment will be a great attribute to the town of Longboat Key and the club.
“I would like to thank in particular the tireless efforts and hard work by the town commissioners, the town attorney and town staff. Moreover, I would like to thank the countless supporters of the club and the residents of Longboat Key in consummating what we all hope will be a revitalization of Longboat to the benefit of the entire community.”
But the Islandside Property Owners Coalition (IPOC), which opposed the modified project, hinted that a challenge to the commission’s decision was forthcoming.
“We obviously don’t agree with the commission’s decision,” said IPOC attorney Michael Furen. “We still believe the project is inconsistent with the town’s land-development regulations and comprehensive plan.
Somebody besides this commission will decide if they (the commission) were right or wrong.”
Furen said IPOC will challenge the commission’s action in court within 30 days from the date the mayor signs the approved ordinance.
Commissioner Bob Siekmann alluded to IPOC’s looming challenge after the meeting.
“We made a big mistake today,” Siekmann said. “I firmly believe redevelopment this huge and the number of departures in their totality exceeds our authority.”
White, who was on his way to the temple from a doctor’s appointment when the vote was made, said he turned around and drove home when he was alerted to the news.
“I was certainly surprised and disappointed by the vote,” White said. “It could have gone either way. The people who reside in Islandside are going to be outraged that a vote that ignores the code, the impact of the neighborhood and the recommendations of the town planner was approved. I don’t believe this approval will survive a legal challenge.”
Wednesday’s vote did not come without intense debate — nearly four hours’ worth Wednesday morning.
That followed five-and-a-half hours of debate Monday night.
Shortly before 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, with Commissioners Siekmann and Hal Lenobel questioning the extent and legality of the 23 departures in the plan and the commission at an apparent impasse, Mayor Spoll called for an hour-long recess.
Afterward, Key Club attorney Brenda Patten explained why the club was requesting each of the departures.
When Lenobel asked town attorney David Persson if the commission would be violating its codes if it approved the project, Patten interrupted with her advice.
“The answer is clearly no because your code allows you the authority to approve departures,” Patten said.
Lenobel pressed the question further. He asked Persson if the commissioners adopted departures that ignore or violate the town’s codes, “Are we guilty of a misdemeanor? Are we as a legislative body violating the town trust of its citizens if we ignore or approve 23 changes in the town code? I would hate to ignore the trust of the people who voted me into office.”
Persson, who has stated repeatedly he believes the commission has the right to approve the project, replied by explaining the commission was acting as judges who were called upon to make the decision based on the totality of the evidence.
But the conversation didn’t assuage Siekmann, clearly the lone dissenting vote on the project.
“In its totality, we have shoehorned 14 buildings into spaces that aren’t big enough,” Siekmann said.
Commissioner David Brenner, however, said it was time to vote.
“The bottom line is you like this project or you don’t,” Brenner said. “Once this (project) is off the table, we will have to go back and look at our codes and Comprehensive Plan.”
Brenner told the commission the project was larger than he would like, but that “the alternative, deterioration, is unacceptable.”
Said Vice Mayor Jim Brown: “There is no other place on this island where this development would be appropriate, but it’s appropriate here. I think when it’s built, people will say, ‘Why did we complain?’”
As Brown walked down the sidewalk outside of the temple after the vote, he summed up the experience: “I now know what childbirth is like.”
Contact Kurt Schultheis at firstname.lastname@example.org
IPOC has since filed a code challenge and two legal challenges that will be debated in the spring of 2011.
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