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Longboat Key Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018 1 year ago

The greater legacy

The Colony represents the future of Longboat Key. We urge the Silent Majority not to squander this opportunity.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

While much of the TV news media over the next several days will remain obsessed with pouring gas on the fire burning between Donald Trump’s State of the Union and that of “Nancy Schumer’s” view of the nation, since Tuesday night we’ve taken the view: “What’s the point of tuning in? Nothing will change the Washington discourse.” 

Instead, we find ourselves close to being obsessed with an issue that stirs the passions on Longboat Key as much as Russian collusion stirs them in the Swamp: the future of the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort and the future of Longboat Key in general.

Ever since the Jan. 22 Colony public hearing, where a small group of speakers (say, 30 out of 6,800 residents) opposed letting Unicorp National Development construct 26 more condo units than is specified in the town’s codes, we have read and heard reactions that remind us of the emotionally charged partisan divides in the D.C. Swamp.

It has always been thus in the 62-year history of Longboat Key — the feud over development … over who can build where or how much.

Rational minds can understand both sides in this dispute. The anti-development, anti-traffic constituents hold fast and hard to “the law.” The town’s 30-year-old town code says the maximum density in a planned unit development zoned T-6 (tourism use) is 4.5 units per acre. But if you’re not developing in a PUD, the maximum density is six units per acre.

Unicorp chose to go the PUD route because of some of the flexibility it offers; it also wanted the town to amend the code to allow six units per acre instead of 4.5 units per acre — 26 additional condo units.

But the code is the code. And to emphasize that view, those against Unicorp’s request recited in their pleadings the usual Scenario of Horrors: Too much traffic! If you make an exception, then you’ll have to do it for everyone! Greedy developer!!

On the other side were those who see and saw Unicorp’s proposal as all upside (put us in that camp): A five-star resort that converts, in the words of Trump, a “sh**hole” to a gleaming attraction that increases the values of all Longboat property owners; that adds new life and elan and makes Longboat Key even more special than it already is. On top of that, they argued, the 30-year-old code may say 4.5 units instead of six, but that makes absolutely no sense, and that was 30 years ago! Indeed, no one could offer any historical rationale on why the code ended up as it did.

But no matter what anyone said at the public hearing, it would not bridge the divide between those for or against amending the code. That’s the way it has always been on Longboat Key — and likely to remain from what we observe.

Indeed, the Keep Longboat Special interests, apparently not satisfied enough with Unicorp dropping its request for six units per acre, in a Jan. 28 email to its constituents began stoking opposition to Unicorp’s plans for ballroom and conference center space, suggesting they’re too big. 

They create the impression that Unicorp’s motivation for the space is to stuff as many people as possible onto its property at once. But if they bothered to ask Unicorp’s Chuck Whittall to explain, it might register that when St. Regis resorts agrees to place its flag on a property, it expects its guests to have a luxury experience. “They don’t want their guests sitting in a sardine can,” Whittall told us.

Common business sense says St. Regis and Whittall want customers who are paying top-dollar for resort amenities to have an experience that encourages them to return.

But here we are again, going down that same road Loeb Partners Realty traveled when it tried to expand the Longboat Key Club and Resort — death by 1,000 cuts. Here we are 10 years and millions of dollars in legal fees later, the Key Club has only recently begun rejuvenating the idea of trying to propose its long-planned expansion. Will that be the Colony’s fate as well?

This repeating pattern sends a definitive message: It’s not the people in Town Hall; it’s the rule book.

We’ll go back to a reference we made two weeks ago to the 2013 report on Longboat Key from the Urban Land Institute. In its 50-page report, ULI advisers wrote repeatedly about the divisive strains the town codes have engendered and the urgent need for revising them.

Click here to read the report.

“While there is much to love about Longboat Key, the community has recognized the need for change … There have been divisive and distracting debates over density restrictions adopted by the town in 1984. Community leaders have expressed concern that Longboat Key’s future must be revisited to ensure that the high-quality lifestyle and pleasing mix of residential areas and commercial uses can be maintained and enhanced.”

What’s more, as we noted two weeks ago, one of the ULI panel’s top recommendations for Longboat went as follows: 

“Focus on the future instead of the past … The 1980s-vintage plans and codes not only are out of date, but also perpetuate an unfortunate current pattern of community infighting, with good people focusing on the things that divide instead of working together and making more progress. The panel’s recommendation is not to amend the town’s comprehensive plan, but to replace it with a new plan tailored to meet the needs of the future.”

This is no small matter. It’s not just the Colony at stake here, or whether a 10,000-square-foot ballroom is too big. If you look at the larger picture for Longboat Key, the recommendation of the ULI panel with each passing day becomes increasingly urgent. Consider these realities: 

  • n So many of Longboat Key’s condominium developments no longer meet today’s market demands and are facing redevelopment dilemmas;
  • n Longboat Key has a surplus of deteriorating commercial properties that make no economic sense to develop or redevelop; nor are voters willing to let them be developed into residential uses … Whitney Beach Plaza; the bank building and service station on the north end; the Saba property north of Whitney Beach; the declining shopping plaza north of Harry’s Continental Kitchens; Harbour Square next to Pattigeorge’s; the Mote Foundation property on Gulf of Mexico Drive; and more. At some point the owners of these properties may be serving the town with Bert Harris Act lawsuits for unlawful takings.

All of this … the Colony, the Key Club, Longboat’s aging condo developments, the town’s antiquated and, yes, destructive, codes … they call for enlightened leadership and a populace that takes seriously the legacy it wants to leave behind. 

When the ULI panel made its recommendations to the town four years ago, its top priority for the town to address was the redevelopment of the Colony. That time is now. 

It’s time for the silent majority to be heard. Come out in support of Unicorp’s plans Feb. 22 at the Planning and Zoning Board meeting and March 5 at the Town Commission meeting. The smart people of Longboat Key cannot let this opportunity be squandered. Think of the greater legacy.

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