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Longboat Key Monday, Oct. 4, 2021 3 months ago

Buttonwood Harbour referendum vote set for Nov. 2

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Brista Homes founder and President Mark Ursini is proposing developments for the Buttonwood Harbour neighborhood, but some residents want drainage issues addressed first.
by: Mark Bergin Staff Writer

Longboat Key voters are set to decide next month what the future of the Buttonwood Harbour neighborhood could look like.

Election day is Nov. 2 to vote on a proposed residential density change. Brista Homes founder and president Mark Ursini wants to build two homes at 597 Buttonwood Drive, which is zoned as office institutional. No voter approval would be required for such a plan.

But, because of a town law, voters islandwide must grant approval for changes in residential density, which a project such as the one Ursini is backing, would require.

The last day to register to vote in time to participate in the referendum was earlier this week. Also 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 23 is the last day to request a vote-by-mail ballot. There is no early voting.

Brista Homes founder and President Mark Ursini prefers to build two single-family homes on Buttonwood Drive. If the Nov. 2 referendum fails, he plans to develop an additional office building.

In September, Ursini started a political action committee called Better for Buttonwood, Best for Longboat Key.

“Basically, we wanted an avenue to get the word out on the project because oftentimes when people hear referendum, residential, they say ‘no’ before they know all the facts,” he said.

Buttonwood Harbour resident Tom Tucker prefers for the town to fix the neighborhood’s drainage issues before any development occurs.

“It’s not like we having anything against Mr. Ursini or that we’re anti-development,” Tucker said. “Our position is that, sure, we would love a couple of nice homes in the neighborhood. That would be just fine, except for the fact that we have now gotten to the place where the flooding is so pervasive, right? And that the system is in such poor condition that we just can’t absorb any more.”

Tucker is among 28 Buttonwood Harbour homeowners who sent a Sept. 23 letter to Town Manager Tom Harmer.

“It’s what I call it a fix-it-first approach, and that’s one of the things we say in there is that, ‘Please fix our stormwater infrastructure before you approve any more development because it’s making it worse for us,’” Tucker said.

Harmer said the town has the funding to conduct an assessment this fiscal year of flooding and drainage issues in both the Buttonwood Harbour neighborhood and Sleepy Lagoon.

“We haven’t set a definitive budget and say, ‘It’s going to be X amount of dollars’ because we haven’t finalized the scope yet,” Harmer said.

Harmer said the town is still negotiating with a contractor on the specifics.

However, Tucker wanted to know the scope of the town’s assessment, when it could result in a defined capital improvements program, when the results of the assessment would be available for the public to review and ultimately how soon a stormwater project could start for the Buttonwood neighborhood.

“You can see our neighborhood is being completely flooded by common rain events, and we have elderly people that couldn’t even get out of the neighborhood this summer for health care reasons, or people that are still working, they had to turn around,” Tucker said. “They couldn’t go to work.”

Ursini has said he prefers to build two residential homes on Buttonwood Drive. Without the residential option, he plans to build a commercial building. If Ursini gets approval to build two residential homes, he said they would each have an approximate value between $2 million and $2.5 million.

“What’s the logic opposing the referendum to have commercial office space versus two homes there?” Ursini said. “I just don’t understand it.”

Ursini said he believes building commercial office space on Buttonwood Drive would decrease the value of homes in the neighborhood, and have more traffic flow than two single-family homes would.

“I think some people just hoped it would stay woods,” Ursini said. “In fairness, when they moved in (along) Winslow (Place) and Buttonwood Drive, they knew the possibilities that someday, obviously, that would be developed. It’s not going to stay woods forever.”

Ursini says he wants to be part of the solution, stating he will help improve the drainage in the neighborhood, regardless of how he develops the Buttonwood Drive plot. He is working with Bradenton-based Shroyer Drapala engineer Jason Coates.

Longboat Key has a long history of failed referendums, which includes the proposal to put a 120-room Floridays hotel where the restaurant Whitney’s now stands.

Former Longboat Key Mayor George Spoll — whose professional background is as a builder of homes, condominiums and commercial rehabilitation projects — supports the referendum and is in favor of Ursini’s proposal.

“(I’d like) to urge the population to support a very logical change that is an accident in zoning that needs to be fixed,” Spoll said.

Planning, Zoning and Building Director Allen Parsons said the 597 Buttonwood Drive site has been zoned for non-residential use since “at least the 1960s.”

“There appears to have been a period where the property was rezoned from Commercial zoning district (C-1) to a Residential zoning district (RM-4), following a larger town-wide series of rezonings in 1984,” Parsons wrote in an email. “The owner of the property, during that time period, sought to have the property returned to a non-residential zoning district. And the property was subsequently rezoned to the current Office Institutional zoning district.”

Spoll said much of the zoning in the town is “an accident.” He said putting two residential houses at 597 Buttonwood Drive would improve the entrance to the neighborhood.

While it’s not part of the referendum, Ursini’s preliminary design also calls to build a 16,000-square-foot commercial plaza along Gulf of Mexico Drive.

“The commercial (part) would then be restricted to the northerly portion of that lot,” Spoll said. “It is completely logical, and it would be a distinct improvement.

Ursini hired Tampa-based Payne’s Environmental Services to perform tree removal along Gulf of Mexico Drive and the 597 Buttonwood Drive tract. However, the removal process is limited to invasive tree species, which include Brazilian pepper trees and Australian pine trees.

Parsons said the town would need to issue a tree removal permit to clear the remaining non-invasive trees. He said the town is not allowing any additional site work for clearing or grading until there’s an approved development plan for the property. It includes civil engineering plans depicting the management of stormwater.

If the referendum is approved, it would allow Ursini to seek changes to the property’s future land-use designation and zoning that could allow for the development of two single-family homes. Permission to build two residential homes in the neighborhood would also require Town Commission approval.

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Mark Bergin is the Longboat Key Town Hall reporter for the Observer. He has previously worked as a senior digital producer at WTSP, the CBS affiliate in St. Petersburg. Mark is a graduate of the University of Missouri and grew up in the Chicagoland area.

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