Only months after a court ruling that disallowed two hotels to be built on Siesta Key, the battle lines are once again being drawn over the matter of transient accommodations on the barrier island.
In a procedural process, on Tuesday the Sarasota County Commission voted 3-1, with Commissioner Mark Smith opposed, to advance one of three privately initiated, out-of-cycle requests for a comprehensive plan amendment to permit construction of a new hotel in the approximately 45 commercially zoned acres in Siesta Village. Commissioner Joe Neunder was absent.
The approval sets in motion the public process required to make changes to the comprehensive plan.
That was explained by Chairman Ron Cutsinger to the dozens of opponents to the proposals at the onset of the meeting, informing them that they were welcome to speak on the matter during public comments and that no comments could be made when it comes up for discussion only later in the meeting.
And there were plenty of comments. Of 19 speakers, 18 spoke about the amendment proposals with only one, Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce Board Chairman Mike Gatz, in favor of the chamber’s own plan.
The common themes among the opponents were evacuation safety, increased traffic, inappropriate scale, strain on utilities and a general disruption to the quality of life of longtime residents.
“We’re all booked up!” summarized Sura Kochman. “We have no vacancies. Our roads and our bridges are all booked up. In the not too distant future our water supply is going to be all booked up. Don't fall for the notion that the hotel's existence will diminish traffic because Sarasota is not only known for its beaches, but for its arts and its culture. The people who go to these hotels are not going to be captives on the island. They're going to go off onto the mainland to experience all that Sarasota has to offer.”
The speakers talked about high-density hotels bringing not only more traffic by visitors, but also by staff and delivery trucks, all accessing the key from two two-lane bridges and traversing the island on two-lane roads, particularly Ocean Boulevard through Siesta Village.
That stretch was described by resident David Walter as “the best half-mile in America.”
“I would highly suggest that you do not move it forward for consideration,” Walter said. “It's out of cycle. It's not appropriate. It doesn't need to be done. If you allow hotels in the village, which is what this is proposal is about at the end of the day, you will kill the village.”
Commissioners were asked by staff to provide guidance on how many, if any, of the proposals on which to begin the vetting process. That includes community discussion and public input and eventual legislative public hearings before the Planning Commission and, eventually, the County Commission.
A proposal by Benderson Development via consultant Kimley-Horn would limit to 15% of the total combined acreage of the commercial zoning districts be developed as transient accommodations, and in no event may new transient accommodations be located on the beaches. Additionally, transient accommodations would no longer be defined as residential uses or be limited by density.
Meanwhile, a similar proposal by Stantec Consulting Services would limit densities to a maximum of 52 transient accommodation units per acre. The Chamber of Commerce plan would limit hotels to no more than 75 rooms without kitchens and limit restaurant and bar seating to 1.5 times the number of rooms.
“I want the most latitude possible,” said Commissioner Mike Moran of his motion to advance only the Benderson request. “Ultimately, this board will have the power and authority under the legislative process to not move forward or move forward. I think the real discussion and real debate from the community will come in those public hearings.”
Commissioner Mark Smith, who lives and works on Siesta Key, had previously moved to advance the Chamber of Commerce and Stantec proposals to the public process. His motion died for lack of a second.
“The Kimley-Horn (proposal) with unlimited density on Siesta Key, we’ve already been through a loss in court there and I'm not I'm not comfortable changing the comprehensive plan for unlimited density on Siesta Key,” Smith said.
The comp plan amendments constitute a work-around for previous losses in both the Department of Administrative Hearings and the 12th Circuit Judicial Court, which agreed with plaintiff Lourdes Ramirez that two previously approved Siesta Key hotels were in violation of the county’s comprehensive plan.
“You have to be really dumb to believe that visitors staying overnight will not impact emergency evacuation times,” Ramirez said. “Visitors including hotel guests, will have to leave at the same time as residents in an emergency. With Siesta Key already overcrowded, that means we all have to compete to go onto the same two-lane constrained roads and the same two bridges. Adding more people to Siesta Key can lead to deadly consequences.”
With the commission’s approval, the next steps are for the petitioner to attend a pre-application meeting with staff, meet the neighborhood workshop requirements and submit an application for staff review. That would then be followed by Planning Commission and County Commission public hearings.