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Request to combine 'nonconforming lots' on barrier islands denied

Sarasota County Commission approval would have allowed legacy 25-foot-wide lots to be redeveloped contrary to the current density requirements.

Some homes on Siesta Key are built over several underlying 25-foot-wide lots as platted in the early 19th century.
Some homes on Siesta Key are built over several underlying 25-foot-wide lots as platted in the early 19th century.
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In the 1920s, long before the existence of Sarasota County’s land development code, some land on the mainland and barrier islands was carved into 25-foot-wide lots and offered for sale to buyers who wanted to own a sliver of paradise. 

Today those are defined as “nonconforming lots of record,” and owners can build one or two homes across four adjoining lots, maintaining the remainder of the plot of open space. 

On Tuesday, that history caught up to the Sarasota County Commission as it wrestled over a privately initiated amendment to the county’s Unified Development Code submitted by attorney Steve Rees of Icard Merrill. The amendment would have allowed those lots to be combined or recombined to permit a single house — or up to three houses given the 17,000-square-foot minimum lot size — to be built.

Commissioners rejected the amendment request by a 4-1 vote with only Ron Cutsinger, calling it a property rights issue, voting in favor of his motion to approve, one that languished for several seconds before it was seconded by Joe Neunder for purposes of discussion.

The county’s 1989 update of its 1975 Comprehensive Plan permits combining such lots on the mainland, but in the interest of controlling density, not on the unincorporated barrier island residential zone districts.

The conflict was whether allowing redevelopment of four 25-foot lots would result in more density — or less.

Ralf Brookes, an assistant county attorney from 1990 to 1991, told commissioners the proposed amendment would bring more density as most four-wide nonconforming lots on the barrier islands, Siesta Key in particular, have only one or two homes.

“In the 1920s It was more of a sell lots on the back of a cereal box and people up north would come down, and lots were inexpensive, and they would buy many lots and make a parcel,” Brookes said. “Typically, you wouldn't build on those 25-foot lots. There are some 25-foot lots that may be out there that may have one single-family home on them, but the shortest ones I know of are like 50 feet.”

Brookes’ point was that the amendment would allow a single home on a 100-foot-wide combined parcel of four platted lots to be demolished and, in its place, up to three homes built. Rees argued that the density of four homes on four lots was baked into Comprehensive Plan, and that the amendment would result in one, two or three homes where four homes, impractical though it may be, could be built.

Rees initiated the amendment request on behalf of a client, which he said grew into a larger discussion of the policy on all the barrier islands.

Shari Thornton read a statement prepared by Siesta Key resident Lourdes Ramirez, who has successfully litigated against county-approval of hotels on the key. The statement challenged the proposed amendment as noncompliant with the Comprehensive Plan and should be denied.

The nonconforming lots, she read, “Do not conform with the minimum lot sizes required by our zoning code since 1975. According to the Comprehensive Plan, all new lots created since 1975 must meet a minimum lot size requirements for their district. The county must adhere to the laws for the barrier islands as they existed in 1989.”

Rees attempted to convince commissioners the amendment would reduce density on the barrier islands “in perpetuity” by codifying that what could be four homes side-by-side on narrow lots will be fewer in number.

Brookes countered that while it could result in a one home over four lots, it was more likely to be two or three homes where one currently stands.

“Make no mistake with this ordinance, the way it's written, allows you to take that one house that's on those four lots, sell it to a developer who will demolish it and then they can build three. It will be less than four houses, but they could put three houses on those four lots. It's not going from raw land like you would think. There are many homes on Siesta Key that are built on top of more than one underlying lot.”

In support of his motion to approve, Cutsinger said the density that one house per each 25-foot lot was already considered in the Comprehensive Plan, and that the amendment, as Rees argued, would reduce that density.

“The density was the density that existed when (the plan) was originally done, and those four lots represent four buildable sites,” Cutsinger said. “So if they would take those four and build two instead of four, I certainly wouldn’t have a problem with that.”

In opposition to the motion, Commissioner Mark Smith, himself a Siesta Key resident, cited recent litigation losses by the county with regard to proposed developments on Siesta Key, and his desire to avoid future legal skirmishes.

“The whole question of density on Siesta Key, I’m very sensitive to it,” he said. “We need to find a way to reduce the density, and this I’m seeing is a way of increasing it.”



Andrew Warfield

Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

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