Despite strong resident concerns about the scope of the Stickney Point project and its effects on traffic, the advisory board recommended approving the development.
After hours of public testimony Thursday opposing Benderson Development’s plans for a mixed-use project at Stickney Point Road and U.S. 41, the Sarasota County Planning Commission voted 5-2 to recommend approval of key applications associated with the proposal.
Residents argued the plans for Siesta Promenade were too intense and would negatively affect traffic in an already congested area. But county staff, Benderson officials and the Planning Commission all said the project was in keeping with county regulations and the desired development of the 24-acre property.
Benderson intends to build up to 140,000 square feet of retail space, 414 multifamily residential units and a 150-room hotel at the northwest corner of Stickney Point and U.S. 41, near the south bridge to Siesta Key.
As it seeks approval for the project, the developer has filed an application for a Critical Area Plan, rezone and special exception with the county. If approved, the plans would change the underlying land-use regulations on the property and enable Benderson to go beyond the height and density limits associated with the proposed new zoning district.
Following the Planning Commission vote, the applications will go to the County Commission for a final public hearing. The hearing is scheduled to take place Dec. 12.
Since Benderson renewed its efforts to develop the site in 2014, neighboring residents have expressed concern about how the project would affect its surroundings. Sura Kochman, president of the Pine Shores Neighborhood Alliance, has been a leading critic of the evolving proposals.
She has acknowledged Benderson has a right to build on the property, but she doesn’t think the county has an obligation to approve a project that goes beyond what the developer is allowed to build under standard zoning regulations. The use of a Critical Area Plan enables Benderson to seek a residential density up to 25 units per acre and building heights up to 85 feet.
Under the proposed Commercial General zoning designation, Benderson would be entitled to build 13 units per acre and buildings up to 45 feet tall. Given the location of the site, Kochman thought the county had a right to ask the developer to scale down its proposal in an effort to better integrate the project into its surroundings.
“Benderson is entitled to a reasonable use of their property, not the highest use,” Kochman said Thursday.
Representatives for groups including the Siesta Key Association, the Siesta Key Condominium Council, the Gulf Gate Community Association, The Landings Management Association and the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations also voiced opposition to the project at Thursday’s meeting.
Speakers argued the county failed to adequately study the effects of the proposal, with many expressing concern about the proposal’s effects on traffic. Those speakers were skeptical proposed traffic mitigation in the area would effectively deal with increased congestion.
“These 8,000 additional trips per day would just make it intolerable,” Siesta Key Association board member Dan Lundy said, citing a project traffic study.
Todd Mathes, Benderson’s director of development, said the company has repeatedly adjusted the project to address resident concerns. He pointed out the project is below the maximum density and height allowed under a Critical Area Plan, and he said the design is intended to create a transition from the outlying residential areas to the commercial portion closer to U.S. 41.
Mathes said Benderson’s decision to seek a Critical Area Plan reduced the intensity of the project. The developer could seek a standard rezone to commercial general, which could allow for a plan that would generate more trips than the Siesta Promenade proposal, county staff confirmed.
Despite residents’ concerns about scope, Mathes said the proposal was smaller than other commercial centers in the area, including The Landings and Paradise Plaza. He also said it followed county planning principles that encourage denser, mixed-use urban infill projects.
“We’ve worked through a lot of iterations,” Mathes said. “We think we’ve hit the right balance here.”
Despite public criticisms about the review process for the project, county planning staff recommended approval. Planner Steve Kirk said the proposal met all necessary requirements and was consistent with development guidelines.
“The applications, as far as I know, were sufficient,” Kirk said.
Two Planning Commission members shared the public’s concerns about the project, particularly given the location. Laura Benson was hesitant to allow an 80-foot hotel building on the site, which she estimated was about twice as tall as the next tallest structure in the area. And Robert Morris objected to the project’s effects on traffic in a crucial travel corridor.
“It’s too much for there,” Morris said. “It might make sense to me somewhere else. But because you have that intersection, but because you have that bridge, it’s a unique situation.”
The majority of the board, however, echoed staff’s assessment of the applications. Commissioner Teresa Mast expressed confidence in Benderson because of the developer’s history in the area, pushing back against residents she saw as overly critical.
“Benderson could not be a better neighbor to have,” Mast said. “I struggle when I hear a group of individuals demonize someone to the point that they forget the impact that Benderson has had on our community.”
Commission Chairman Kevin Cooper said his vote was not based on his personal feelings about the project, but rather his assessment the proposal complied with county guidelines and regulations.
“This hits all the marks,” Cooper said.
Residents said they were disappointed about the commission’s decision, but they remain intent on pursuing opportunities for reducing the scope of the proposal. Attorney Morgan Bentley, working on behalf of project opponents, maintained there were fundamental flaws in the application that would warrant legal action if approved as-is.
Kochman took solace in the two planning commissioners who cast dissenting votes. Looking ahead to the forthcoming County Commission meeting, she hoped the board would appreciate the nuances of the argument against Siesta Promenade.
“We hope to convince the County Commission that yes, a Critical Area Plan can work there, but they need to really reduce the density,” Kochman said.
If the County Commission approves the project, Mathes said Benderson hopes to begin construction as early as the first quarter of 2019. Despite the outspoken public criticism, Mathes said Benderson wants to foster a collaborative relationship with those living around the project site as the development review process proceeds.
“Our door is always open, and we’ll continue to work with our neighbors,” Mathes said.