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Longboat Key Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017 4 years ago

Top Story - July: Colony developer unveils new plan for the shuttered Longboat resort property

Catch up on the top news items of 2017 with the Observer's Digital Year in Review.

After the March rejection of his plans through a referendum by Longboat Key voters, the developer of the former Colony Beach & Tennis Resort on Longboat Key filed an updated proposal July 24. The revised plan for the 18-acre site included a five-star 166-room hotel, operated by St. Regis, and 102 residential condominiums, for a combined total of 268 units.

It represented another major step in the ongoing back and forth between the developer of the former Colony property and the Longboat Key government. At the end of 2017, the project was still being worked on, and an effort to appear before the town Planning and Zoning Board before the start of 2018 was delayed until a zoning code amendment could be heard.

This summer, Colony developer Chuck Whitall was optimistic his latest plan would finally come to fruition after trying to get a replacement for the Colony approved since 2014.

“We’re extremely excited,” Whittall told the Observer in July. “It’s going to be beautiful.”

St. Regis is a five-star luxury brand of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which is part of Marriott International Inc. — the world’s largest hotel brand. There are 60 St. Regis hotels worldwide, including 11 in the United States. There is one St. Regis location in Florida — the St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort in Miami.

Another subsidiary of Marriott International is Ritz-Carlton, which operates a location in Sarasota. Because of this, Whittall said he thought the management of St. Regis would be able to approach the project with a firm understanding of the local community. 

Whittall and his company, Unicorp, signed an agreement with the hotel company and began negotiating a management agreement.

“St. Regis was just a really good fit,” Whittall said.

The existing property, once a renowned resort and tennis facility, continues to deteriorate.

The proposal also includes two restaurants, a 15,700-square-foot spa and a 10,000-square-foot ballroom. Whittall had previously proposed a ballroom of 20,000 square feet for the property.

Like the ballroom, many details of the proposal are scaled down from Whittall’s original proposal, which failed in the March referendum by 87% of the vote. The previous plan included a total of 417 units and a maximum building height of 12 stories.

The new plan’s maximum building height is five stories, reaching no higher than 65 feet over flood elevation, which is the maximum allowable height for new construction on the Key.

Also included in the proposal are 6,700 square feet of meeting rooms, 2,750 square feet of board rooms and a “meandering saltwater lagoon.”

Then-Planning, Zoning and Building Director Alaina Ray noted earlier this year that any development including more than 103 units is considered nonconforming for the property’s zoning district.

With that information, Unicorp was faced with two regulatory paths to make the proposal a reality, each of which would require a zoning code amendment to allow the property’s existing units to be used for either tourism or residential purposes.

One path required the use of the 165 remaining units in the town’s tourism-unit pool. Zota Beach Resort, which opened in June, used 85 of the 250 total units in the pool. Voters decided to create the pool in 2008 to allow for flexibility in development of tourism on the Key.

The second path would have required 31 units from the tourism pool, then using a zoning code amendment to convert the property’s 237 grandfathered units to either tourism or residential use.

Whitall went with taking the 165 tourism units. That path, as does the plan as a whole, still requires approval from the town commission.

Despite a long list of delays, Unicorp is still hopeful it can create a world-class facility.

In July, Whittall had hoped to break ground on the project within a year. That is still possible, but the timing for that goal has become tighter. Whitall won't be able to face the planning and zoning board until January at the earliest, and would subsequently still require approval from the town commission.

In his years-long pursuit of redeveloping the property, Whittall said he understood residents’ concerns regarding traffic. Included in his company’s proposal was a traffic study from Kimley-Horn, which concluded that the development will have a minimal impact on peak-hour traffic. The proposal also stated that the resort would implement a parking fee to “discourage hotel guests and visitors from using personal vehicles.”

In addition, Whittall said his company would be involved in implementing short- and long-term traffic solutions through the Barrier Islands Traffic Study, a $942,000 project of the Florida Department of Transportation, designed to determine ways to improve the flow of traffic to, from and on Longboat, Anna Maria Island and Lido Key.

This summer, Whittall said he was hopeful the community would embrace the new plan, saying that the resort would bring visitors to support businesses, raise property values and “get rid of an eyesore,” referring to the property in its current state.

“We hope to be able to move ahead with the project that we believe will be good for the community,” Whittall said.

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