By Rachel Brown Hackney
On a 3-2 vote, the Sarasota County Commission has approved a Coastal Setback Variance so owners of a home on Heron Lagoon in the Sanderling Club can demolish it and construct a new home on the Gulf of Mexico that will be 111.2 feet seaward of the county’s Gulf Beach Setback Line (GBSL).
Commissioner Michael Moran made the motion, with a second from Commissioner Alan Maio. Although Commissioner Paul Caragiulo asked several questions of William W. Merrill III of the Icard Merrill firm in Sarasota — the applicants’ representative — Caragiulo announced that he would join Moran and Maio in supporting the motion.
Chair Nancy Detert and Commissioner Charles Hines were in the minority. Since he first was elected to the board in 2012, Hines has held steadfast in opposing requests for residential construction seaward of the GBSL. County Environmental Permitting Division staff members have explained on many occasions that that line was implemented to preserve dunes and beach vegetation, which provide protection to landward property in the event of major storms, including hurricanes.
During the July 11 public hearing, Detert offered a variation on a view she has asserted many times since she was elected to the board in November 2016. “I really always hate to vote for a variance that puts you in front of the [GBSL], especially if you’ve owned the property for five years.”
Merrill noted in his presentation that the applicants for the variance, Todd and Sean Bavol-Montgomery, bought the property at 8445 Sanderling Road about five years ago.
Detert also pointed to “the fact that we have erosion now and we’re going to continue to have erosion.” She fears, she added, that, with board votes having allowed construction closer to the Gulf of Mexico in recent years, people “will show up in this very room, screaming that they need beach renourishment. … You’re really flirting with Mother Nature, and this isn’t a small variance. This is 111 feet seaward of the [GBSL].”
Yet, Merrill said during his presentation, “Without the variance, it is unreasonable to require the petitioner to continue using a very small, [1,128]-square-foot, noncompliant, on-grade, built-in-1953 residence” that violates the modern county zoning code setback lines and “overhangs the Mean High Water Line of Heron Lagoon.” Merrill called the latter situation “very unusual. … It would not be allowed today in Sarasota County.”
(Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office records show the existing house was constructed in 1955.)
“It would also be an unreasonable hardship to require all construction [at 8445 Sanderling Road to be] landward of the Gulf Beach Setback Line,” Merrill said, because the new residence would be “landward of all other homes in Sanderling Club.”
Caragiulo noted the “50% Rule” of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which says that if the owner of property in a flood zone wants to spend more than 50% of the value of that property to improve it, the owner must bring the structure up to the current building code standards for property in that flood zone.
“If your clients wanted to take the entire [lagoon] house down and rebuild another home,” Caragiulo asked Merrill, “they wouldn’t be able to do that?”
Merrill responded that the on-grade foundation would not support a new structure in the very same footprint that would comply with the current FEMA guidelines. If the petitioners had to adhere to all the current county and Sanderling Club setback restrictions — without seeking a variance — Merrill pointed out that the only area left for them to build on would be an “irregular-shaped lot” comprising 1,138 square feet.
In making the motion, Moran said, “I think it’s a reasonable, commonsense request, given the contour of [Sanderling Road in the immediate area] and the placement of that residence.”
Part of the plan entails a realignment of a portion of Sanderling Road, which bisects the Bavol-Montgomery property, “splitting it into about equal gulf-front and bay-front areas (each about 12,819 [square feet]),” a July 11 staff memo explained.
The petitioners will pay for the relocation of the segment of road on their property and partly on the property owned by Robert Roggio at 8440 Sanderling Road, Merrill said. They also will bear the expense of upgraded county utilities that run along that portion of the road, he noted. He and his clients have worked closely with Spencer Anderson, director of the county’s Public Works Department, on that aspect of the project, Merrill added; the project will not disrupt utility service.
One factor that Maio noted in offering his support of the project was testimony from Roggio.
Roggio explained to the commissioners that he has been head of the Sanderling Club’s Building Committee for the past 20 years. When the previous owner of the petitioners’ property was preparing to put it on the market, Roggio said, she conferred with him, because she wanted to be able to tell a potential purchaser that a new house could be constructed on the Gulf of Mexico side of the property. She worked with him and an architect on a tentative proposal very similar to the design of the new house that the applicants have proposed, Roggio added. “She was able to say, ‘This is what you can do.’”
“To stop this,” Maio said, “I’m not sure of exactly what we’re accomplishing. … I do believe that horse is out of the barn.”
However, during the public hearing, Nancy Cason, an attorney with the Syprett Meshad firm in Sarasota, asked, “When was the last time the commission allowed someone to move their … residence that they have reasonable use of over 100 feet seaward?”
She noted that she was speaking on behalf of Jeffrey Roberti, who owns the adjacent Gulf-front property at 8448 Sanderling Road.
The petitioners, she pointed out, are “seeking to demolish a gorgeous dream home/lagoon residence and build a mansion on the beach.”