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Longboat Key Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018 3 years ago

The Colony developer withdrew its Longboat zoning code change. Now What?

Unicorp eased the path to approval when it withdrew its application. A lot still has to happen before construction could begin.
by: Bret Hauff Staff Writer

Dozens of residents in recent weeks denounced Unicorp National Developments' proposal to change town zoning codes that would allow the Orlando-based development company to build more units than the law allows at the site of the former Colony Beach & Tennis Resort. 

So Unicorp President Chuck Whittall last week withdrew his application to remove density restrictions for developers seeking tourism units under the planned unit development process. 

"I think it was a wise move on his part," District 2 Commissioner George Spoll said of Whittall in an interview after hearing the news. "I believe the vote would have not carried it though."

Developers submitted a new plan Friday to town planning, building and zoning staff for review. 

What’s the new plan?

Externally, Unicorp's new plan isn’t much different than the plan it had submitted with the hopes of a zoning code change. It still plans to build a 166-room, five-star St. Regis hotel. It's still asking for flexibility from town codes for setback and height restrictions. A 10,000-square-foot ballroom, multiple restaurants and a re-creation of the Colony’s famous “Monkey Bar” are included. All the buildings are the same size, served by the same number of parking spaces.

The only difference: the developer plans to build 24 fewer condominium units and use the gained space to build larger dwellings. Unicorp now wants to build 78 condominiums in the space it planned for 102. These units will cost between $3.75 million and $10 million, Whittall said. 

What’s government role going forward?

At least three public meetings must take place involving two town boards: the Planning and Zoning Board and the Town Commission  They  must approve the developer’s planned unit develop/outline development plan, often referred to as PUD/ODP, and its final site plan.

The Planning and Zoning Board is scheduled to recommend the Town Commission approve or deny the application at its 9 a.m. Feb. 20 in the town commission chambers. The Town Commission is scheduled to hear the application at its March 5 regular meeting, provided the Planning and Zoning Board doesn't table its hearing for further information. 

ach of these boards will hear and decide on the developer's request for departures from the town code that are allowed in the PUD/ODP process to encourage flexibility in development, the applicant's request for 165 tourism units and the plan as a whole.

The nine proposed departures, or requested amnesty for not adhering to town code in development plans, include appeals for reprieve from floor area, living space and open space ratios, greater allotment of commercial space, smaller setbacks on the northern, southern and western sides of the development and concessions for how much of the development is visible from Gulf of Mexico Drive.

Is this a victory for grassroots groups Keep Longboat Special and Preserve Longboat?

The groups have been working to ensure Unicorp National Developments' project fits the property and their perceived standards for the island ever since the Orlando-based developer showed interest in the site of the former Colony. They’ve been instrumental in prompting the developer to rethink its plans for the site multiple times, including rallying many of the 87% of voters who rejected the referendum to put more than 400 units at the site in 2017.

But the groups still pose opposition to portions of Unicorp’s plan to develop the property, including the 10,000-square-foot ballroom. In short: they’ve won another battle, but not the war.

What about the court case to dissolve condo association?

The court case Unicorp National Developments has filed against the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort Association will take months to litigate, Whittall said. The developer, who owns 11% of the association, seeks court-ordered termination of the condominium association that would clear his path to demolishing existing structures and developing the property.

Florida law requires 95% of condominium members agree to terminate the association unless the property retains “damage to or destruction of all or a substantial part of the condominium property, and if the property is not repaired, reconstructed, or rebuilt within a reasonable period of time.” In such cases, any unit owner may petition the court for “equitable relief,” which could include terminating the association.

What was the turning point for Whittall?

The Orlando-based developer said he decided the night after the town commission workshop that he was going to withdraw his application to change the town’s zoning codes. But it wasn’t so much that he had reached a turning point but rather that he’s working to accommodate residents’ requests, Whittall said.

It’s all part of a give and take negotiating process that happens with developments, Whittall said, and “I think everybody in the community realizes at this point that we’re not going to go away and we’ve been very tenacious in what we’re doing and we’re solution-oriented.” But this past concession may be the last, Whittall said. “I can tell you at this point I’ve given everything that I can give,” Whittall said.

The Colony Beach and Tennis Resort has been closed for almost a decade.

What objections still exist?

There are a few, according to David Lapovsky, president of Preserve Longboat. Those include the 10,000-square-foot ballroom and other public spaces the group calls oversized for a hotel of this scale, the request for all 165 remaining units from the tourism pool and unchanged size of the development despite a reduction in density, Lapovsky said. Whittall has said in his application to the Planning and Zoning Board on Dec. 19 that he will limit attendance in the ballroom to 400.

Sarasota event planner Mary Kenealy said a room of that size could fit 600 to 650 people. If all the 166 rooms of the hotel were filled with two people in each room, it could host 332 people. These numbers raise concerns about increased traffic on the island by the way of requiring outside attendees to fill the space, a letter sent to commissioners by Preserve Longboat notes. 

How did we get here?

The Colony closed almost 10 years ago. Since then, it's been declared bankrupt, condemned by the town and knotted in litigation. Then, in July 2016, came Unicorp National Developments and its president Chuck Whittall with a plan to build a five-star hotel and condominiums totalling 417 units. Town voters rejected that proposal by a margin of 87% in March 2017.

Whittall whittled his proposal to 268 units after that vote, 166 for a St. Regis hotel and 102 condominiums. This plan included 165 units from the tourism pool, which would deplete the reserve, and higher density than allowed by the town code. That proposal assumed the allowed density when seeking tourism units under the planned unit development process would be six units per acre, as proposed in the now-withdrawn zoning code change. Town code allows four and a half. But then, after more than two-thirds of more than 40 members of the public said they wanted something done with the property but within the town codes, Whittall retracted his application to change town codes.  

What’s the timeline look like?

It all depends on how quickly the plan makes it through town approval. The planned unit development/outline development plan and site plan applications are scheduled to be heard before the planning and zoning board Feb. 22. If it passes the planning and zoning board that day, the applications could be heard by the town commission at its March 5 regular meeting.

If approved by the commission, the developer must wait for the condo association to agree by a consensus of 95% to dissolve the agreement or, which is more likely, the court to decide in favor or Unicorp in its civil case filed against the association.

I’m a Longboat Key Staff Reporter. I write stories about how decisions and events affect the island, its leaders and its citizens. I received a bachelor's degree in journalism from Emerson College, where I wrote for The Boston Globe. Reach me at 941-366-3468 ext. 333.

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