First vote goes 5-2 in favor of Unicorp in plan to remake former Colony. Second vote planned for March 16.
The Town Commission voted to advance Unicorp National Developments' proposal for developing the site of the former Colony Beach & Tennis Resort, moving the application for final approval to a special meeting on March 16.
Town residents sat through two full days of testimony Monday and Tuesday from town staff, the applicant, and a Colony-unit owner. The commission voted 5-2 to approve the application on its first reading.
District 1 Commissioner Randy Clair and District 2 Commissioner George Spoll voted no.
"We all participated in this process, and it may not be perfect," said At-Large Commissioner Irwin Pastor, who made the motion to approve the applicaiton. "As a commission, we should want nothing but a five-star hotel."
But District 5 commissioner Ed Zunz said voting on this would be premature — he didn't think the commission had enough time to vote on something in which so much evidence had been submitted, some of it just within the last few hours.
"This is the most important decision we’re going to make for a while," Zunz said. "This is the first time ever that this commission has to talk to each other about the things that have consumed so much of our time."
Some of that testimony came from Blake Fleetwood, an owner and board member at the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort.
Fleetwood threatened to sue the town if it approved the Orlando company's application, saying it's flawed.
Fleetwood and his lawyer Dan Lobeck said the application, as submitted, discounts a unit owner, Breakpointe LLC, which opposes the proposal to build a St. Regis Hotel and Residences at 1620 Gulf of Mexico Drive.
“As long as Whittall is involved, this property will be a vacant lot, tangled in litigation,” Fleetwood said of Unicorp President Chuck Whittall.
Fleetwood is a property owner and board member with the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort Association. He used this standing as grounds gain the same rights to presentation, cross examination of witnesses and rebuttal as Unicorp.
In addition to the Breakpointe LLC issue, Fleetwood's lawyer Dan Lobeck questioned the legitimacy of a traffic report prepared by Unicorp and the accuracy of the developer's economic modeling and asked the commission to reject this “fundamentally flawed application.”
The condo board's lawyer disputed Lobeck's assertions.
"Mr. Fleetwood has never challenged the authority of the board to extended approval to the application," Jeff Warren said. "We will obey and we will comply with the life-safety determinations by the town of Longboat Key official, because that's too important for the individual concerns of one person, or two people or three people."
Mayor Terry Gans said it didn't seem like the business of the town to involve itself in a legal fight between Unicorp and Fleetwood.
"We have been advised by our counsel that we have an application that has legal standing to be reviewed by this council,'' he said "I don’t view our job to settle the underlying dispute that you have presented."
Breakpointe is an active, state-registered entity that lists a unit at 1701 Gulf of Mexico Drive as its mailing address and Andrew W. Adams as its member-manager. Adams controls 75 units at the Colony Beach & Tennis Association and has opposed Whittall's moving forward with the project.
Adams could not be reached for comment.
“The entire ownership of the property has to apply for these land-use changes. The record is clear that this didn’t happen. Breakpointe LLC was not in the record,” Lobeck said of the application approved by the Planning and Zoning Board.
Unicorp filed a lawsuit in January against the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort Association in an effort to dissolve the condominium coalition on the grounds that it is decrepit and a threat to public safety. Ordinarily, 95% of members of a condo association would need to vote to dissolve the organization.
With Adams blocking such an approval, Whittall and condo association leadership went to court. Whittall said he is working toward a deal with Adams and hopes to avoid litigation, if possible.
The case has not yet been heard.
Two days of meetings
More than 70 people attended the more than eight-hour hearing Monday, and more than 40 on Tuesday, where town staff, Unicorp National Developments, Fleetwood, Lobeck and members of the public all testified about a St. Regis proposal, which includes a 166-room hotel built to five-star standards and 78 condominiums, in addition to public meeting, dining and entertainment spaces.
At least 29 members of the public testified before the commission, more than half of whom spoke in support of Unicorp's plan as it was submitted. At least 18 people who asked to be heard Monday did not appear for Tuesday's public comment opportunity.
Pat Wermuth, a Longboat Key resident, said she’s concerned that residents don’t want a five-star resort on the island.
“For the average resident, do you think this really is what has been framed as progress. No. I will say unequivocally no,” Wermuth said.
Bob Erasmus, Treasurer for the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort Association, said the board “resoundingly” supports Unicorp proposal. He said Unicorp has compromised and invested much over the past couple years it has sought redevelopment of the once-iconic resort.
“This Colony problem has been around with us for too long and it is time for it to get your attention,” Erasmus said of the Commission.
Town staff, in its testimony before the Commission, echoed much of what it recommended to the Planning and Zoning Board: The commission should approve the developer's request for the remaining 165 units from the tourism pool, its planned unit development/outline development plan and final site plan for the hotel — granted the applicant meets 53 conditions.
The PUD/ODP contains nine departures, or requested flexibility within town codes, including an appeal for more accessory commercial space than allowed by town code. Local law allows 10% of a hotel for accessory commercial space — the developer wants more than 30%.
The developer also offered a 54th condition that would reduce the ballroom size to 7,650 square feet, a compromise conceived in its February hearing before the Planning and Zoning Board. The originally sought area was 10,000 square feet.
Residents have opposed this departure in dozens of emails to the Town Commission and in testimony before the Planning and Zoning Board.
“The death of good is perfect, and were never going to get something that is perfect for everybody,” Whittall said of his plan.
Unicorp promises, in its conditions of approval, to allow island residents access to the resort's amenities, limits the number of total participants for all indoor meeting space events and agrees to construct the project within three years.
Whittall, in his testimony, said that if his application were approved, he hopes to start construction by January or February. Demolition would begin within months.