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Letter to the Editor

Don't let crony capitalism run Siesta Key

A reader writes that Siesta Key doesn't need "mega" hotels.

  • By
  • | 4:30 p.m. April 8, 2024
  • Sarasota
  • Opinion
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Oftentimes, corporations lobby the government in an effort to have their product or service specifications established to gain a competitive advantage. This lobbying can take the form of grants (think Solyndra) or can take the form of the government entity writing purchase specs or regulations that favor the corporation. This strategy is called crony capitalism and is exactly what is playing out today in Sarasota County.

It recently manifested itself in the Benderson Promenade development site (U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road). Benderson Development courted the county commissioners to approve this development despite significant and almost universal resident opposition. The major opposition came from nearby residents and people who access the Siesta Key south bridge. Westbound traffic on Stickney Point Road frequently backs up from U.S. 41 all the way to Midnight Pass Road on Siesta Key. Eastbound traffic is similarly gridlocked.

Even before the increased congestion the Promenade will cause, Benderson is emboldened to attempt to destroy the Old Florida feel of Siesta Key by promoting high-density hotels and by changing the Sarasota County Comprehensive Plan to achieve its goal and the goals of other developers to build multiple high-density hotels on Siesta Key. For a quarter century, Sarasota County has recognized that Siesta Key already has a high level of congestion. This recognition of high-density congestion is contrary to the recent action by county commissioners to allow Benderson Development to assist in rewriting the Sarasota County Comprehensive Plan and allowing their plan to develop a hotel on Siesta Key to move through the application process.

This action by the commission of promoting crony capitalism is anti-competitive and not consistent with Republican objectives of promoting free and fair competition. “first mover” competitive advantage has been granted to Benderson. This status is antithetical to free and fair competition.

On the surface, this crony capitalist approach is only targeted at Siesta Key. This is just the beginning since the county commission tacitly accepted the Benderson proposed language that changes the county’s definition of “transient accommodations” and creates virtually unlimited numbers of hotel rooms per acre from the currently reasonable level of 26 rooms per acre under the existing Comprehensive Plan throughout Sarasota County. 

This Benderson proposal will not only affect Siesta Key, it will soon be extended, and proposals will appear in Venice and at a location near you. All of Sarasota County is at risk for these high-density hotels.

Many of us moved to Sarasota County from blue states where crony capitalism was most often the rule rather than the exception. Deviating from a market economy is a slippery slope. If Benderson’s lobbying and political contributions are not stopped now, the county will move from free and fair markets to a dialing for donations cesspool. Sarasota County residents deserve better. It is our hope that the County Commission steps back from allowing Benderson to rewrite the comprehensive code and heed the will of almost all of Siesta Key residents in opposing the mega high-density hotels and their concomitant development code revisions.

I participated in three recent Zoom neighborhood workshops for these high-density hotels, and there was not a single Siesta Key resident who supported Benderson or the two other developers. Sarasota County has already facilitated these proposals by permitting the developers to conduct virtual Zoom meetings rather than in-person public workshops. COVID excuses are over. Gov. DeSantis clearly realizes this fact by having the Florida Department of Transportation conduct in-person hearings. He is and has promoted public participation.

The County Commission should operate consistent with the governor’s approach of honest and open in-person discussion. At the very least, I would hope that the governor sends a message to Commissioner Neil Rainford (his recent appointment to the County Commission) that the process to consider Benderson’s high-density hotels should be restarted with open, in-person public workshops. Good public policy flourishes in the open. I would hope that all five commissioners listen to Siesta Key residents and reject the development of high-density hotels on Siesta Key and in all areas of Sarasota County.

The mission of the County Commission is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of the county and not crony capitalism welfare for high-density hotel developers. If the Benderson proposal is allowed to move forward, four or five additional mega hotel proposals will soon follow. The County Commission will have little or no legal basis to deny them. Miami Beach, here we come.

— John Doherty, Siesta Key


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