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3 votes affecting quality of life

All three, if approved, will contribute benefits to the quality of life on Longboat Key and, in one case, in Manatee County and the region at large.

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Three important votes are on the calendar for Longboat Key residents over the next few weeks.

Let’s cut to the quick: Details aside, all three, if approved, will contribute benefits to the quality of life on Longboat Key and, in one case, in Manatee County and the region at large.


St. Regis Site Plan Amendment

The first, originally scheduled for Oct. 20, was to be the second and final vote on modifications to The Residences at The St. Regis Longboat Key Resort (see box).

But that vote became uncertain Monday when Brenda Patten, the lawyer for the developer, Unicorp National Developments, filed new modifications to address a parking glitch that surfaced late last week.

Setting that glitch aside, here’s the point that should alarm and alert Longboat Key property owners and residents: The future of this project is only one town commissioner’s vote away from proceeding or dying.

Longboat residents need to understand the importance of their expressing a forceful show of support to assure the project goes forward.

To be precise, the future of the  project hinges on Longboat Key Commissioner Maureen Merrigan.

When the Town Commission voted Oct. 6 on a first reading of modifications to the St. Regis site plan, the outcome was 3-2 in favor of the changes, with Commissioners BJ Bishop and Debra Williams voting against.

Commissioner Merrigan was absent, and Commissioner Sherry Dominick recused herself because of a conflict of interest.

That means when the St. Regis site plan amendment comes before the commission again — be it Oct. 20 or later — six of the town’s seven commissioners will be voting.

Now if you assume none of the five commissioners who voted at first reading will change his or her vote, Commissioner Merrigan’s vote will be the deciding vote. She will determine whether the St. Regis will be developed, killed or delayed for many more months, perhaps another year, who knows.

If Bishop, Williams and Merrigan all vote no, while Mayor Ken Schneier, Vice Mayor Mike Haycock and Commissioner Penny Gold continue to vote yes, a 3-3 tie would mean “no action” on the amendment and kill the project in its present form.

Unicorp CEO and Owner Chuck Whittall would then be faced with months of having to restart the whole site plan approval process again — adding more delays, costs and risks to a project approaching 10 years in the making.

Consider this: Up to now, the St. Regis project has consumed eight and a half years of Whittall’s life and nearly $100 million to acquire the property, develop designs, obtain town approvals, market the project and line up contractors and materials.

Suffice it to say, any outcome other than the commission’s approval on second reading of site-plan amendment would be devastating. Call it a devastating tragedy for Whittall and his buyers and a devastating tragedy for Longboat Key, its residents, the town’s reputation and for the region at large.

Sure, Longboat Key and Sarasota have been thriving just fine with that 18-acre expanse of vacant, Gulf-front scrub at the site of the once-famed Colony Beach & Tennis Resort. But do not overlook the opportunity cost — millions and millions of dollars of lost economic activity that would have provided families with jobs and tax revenues that would have benefited Longboat Key and Greater Sarasota-Manatee.

This tragedy, the 11-year saga of the Colony and its aftermath, must end. It must end with a new beginning: breaking ground on the St. Regis.

And it can — if Merrigan, Gold, Schneier and Haycock show resolve.

In the overall scheme of the project and the bigger regional picture, Bishop and Williams’ objections about parking and whether the proposed Monkey Bar and event center would be too close to the beach are inconsequential concerns.

Whittall and Patten have a reasonable solution to the parking issue: Add parking lifts to a portion of the hotel’s valet parking garage, adding 62 more hotel parking spaces and bringing the project’s total to 467 spaces, 62 more than required.

As for the location of the Monkey Bar and event center, both would be farther landward than what existed in all the decades of the Colony. And not once in all those decades did a tropical story or hurricane destroy or hurl any of the Colony’s structures. Both of Unicorp’s structures — albeit small in scale — are integral to Whittall’s goal of a five-star, luxury experience, of which Longboat commissioners should be supportive. That’s important for the Key and its property owners’ values.

Throughout the history of the town of Longboat Key, its elected commissioners have been notorious for inflicting “death by a thousand cuts” on developers.

Enough. Longboaters have waited long enough for a project worthy to replace the Colony. Whittall’s St. Regis is that and more.

We hope Longboat residents agree and will show up in force to let the town commissioners know they have had enough. It’s time, commissioners, to bring the St. Regis to fruition.


Longboat Key Density Referendum Question

Come Nov. 2, all Longboat voters will be asked if they will allow the Town Commission to change the zoning on 0.86 acres at the corner of Gulf of Mexico Drive and Buttonwood Drive from commercial use to residential use, allowing the construction of two homes on the site.

This one should be an easy yes.

Although Longboaters historically resist increasing residential density, Mark Ursini, the owner of the Buttonwood property and of Brista Homes, is proposing a two-home development project that would benefit his Buttonwood Harbor neighbors, the town and Longboat residents and taxpayers.

Everybody wins.

But let’s start with how everyone is losing with that property in its current undeveloped state.

For nearby Buttonwood Harbor residents, the land in question is a drainage nuisance. For those who have owned the property, the land is a financial drain — a tax drain.

Because it is zoned for commercial use, it’s essentially undevelopable. Longboat has had a glut of commercially zoned property from the day the island was platted.

Still does. Whoever owns the property owns a useless, costly piece of dirt.

The town and its taxpayers, meanwhile, are also losers.

The town receives less tax revenue than it would from two luxury homes, and taxpayers are paying more than they otherwise would if there were two taxpaying homeowners.

Finally, be honest, two new homes on that site won’t create noticeably worse traffic than exists now.

We recommend: Yes on the Longboat density question.


Manatee School Tax

Also on Nov. 2, all Manatee County voters, including the Longboaters who live in the Manatee half of the Key, will be asked to renew the county’s 1-mill school system property tax for three more years, from 2022 to 2025.

For those Longboat voters who stiffen up over any tax votes and who have watched the Manatee County School Board mismanage so many things over the years, there likely is a twitching inclination to vote no.

And there is this: the typical ploy of school boards and teacher unions to conduct these votes outside of general elections to minimize the risk of rejection. At least the board has agreed to make the next referendum part of a general election.

But take solace and satisfaction. After much turmoil, the  establishment of a citizens oversight committee has helped the district improve its fiscal performance and accountability. For eight consecutive years, the district has generated reserves that exceeded the state’s requirements.

But equally important is this: Not to renew this 1-mill property tax would be a crippling setback for Manatee’s public schools. The tax generates $43 million a year, 18% of the $234 million generated from property taxes for school operations.

That money helps keep teacher salaries competitive — at a time when that is so crucial. And it is used to extend the school day 30 minutes a day and expand career, technical, STEM and art programs throughout the district.

This alone might be reason to continue to support this tax: To take it away would send a destructive message to current and future employers about Manatee residents’ commitment to public education.

We recommend: Yes on the Manatee school tax



Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh is the CEO and founder of Observer Media Group.

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