By Rachel Brown Hackney
A June 12 vote by the Sarasota County Board of Zoning Appeals has prompted not only legal action but also a proposal for an amendment to the county’s Zoning Code that governs all of Siesta Key.
With the consensus of the Sarasota County Commission on July 12, County Administrator Tom Harmer will work with the county’s Planning and Development Services Department staff on language that would provide flexibility in the Siesta Key Overlay District to allow commercial buildings taller than 35 feet to be set back less than 25 feet from the street.
Several speakers from Siesta Key — including a chiropractor who has proposed building a hotel on Old Stickney Point Road — implored the County Commission to facilitate commercial redevelopment on the island.
In comments to the commission on the morning of July 12, long-time Siesta architect Mark Smith explained what he called the “unintended consequences” of a June Board of Zoning Appeals decision. On a 3-2 vote, the members supported the interpretation of county Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson that 25 feet would be the minimum setback for structures taller than 35 feet in commercial zones on Siesta Key. Her determination regarding the Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD) included the interpretation that the street setback for structures up to 85 feet tall — the maximum height allowed on a barrier island in the county — would be half the height of the building.
“The intent of the Siesta Key Overlay District,” Smith told the County Commission, “was to keep the commercial district pedestrian-friendly,” with buildings close to the sidewalk. “Unfortunately, in the district ordinance,” he continued, “it isn’t clear what happens when a building height is above 35 feet.” What should happen, Smith said, is that the County Commission should consider a special exception petition from an applicant seeking a smaller setback than the standards Thompson outlined.
Therefore, he continued, he wanted to propose an amendment specifying that in Commercial General, Commercial Intensive and Office, Professional and Institutional districts in the SKOD, buildings taller than 35 feet, up to 85 feet, be considered under the special exception process and that 2-foot setbacks be allowed for them by special exception.
“That would tie the building height with the setback,” Smith pointed out.
He would not want to see an 85-foot-tall commercial building standing 2 feet from the sidewalk, he added, but he also did not want to see “a building just over 35 feet need [a setback of] 25 feet … That wasn’t the intent of SKOD.”
He drove by the Terrace building that morning, he continued, referring to the condominium complex next to Beach Access 5, and he estimated the street setback of that 170-foot-tall building is 40 feet. “That’s twice the height we’re looking for in any [Commercial General] district,” he pointed out of the Terrace.
Thompson’s determination about the SKOD setbacks in commercial districts came in response to a query from Charles Bailey III of the Williams Parker law firm in Sarasota. Bailey was acting on behalf of Siesta Acquisitions LLC, whose principal is Dr. Gary Kompothecras, the chiropractor known for his “1-800-Ask-Gary” advertising. Bailey informed the County Commission on July 12 that he would be filing a petition in 12th Judicial Circuit Court, seeking to overturn the Board of Zoning Appeals (BAZ) decision on June 12. While neither the county nor the board would be named as a defendant in the case, Bailey said, the county typically handles litigation for the BZA.
Addressing the commission himself, Kompothecras decried Thompson’s interpretation of the SKOD and the June 12 vote, saying the latter “was supposed to be a formality.” Instead of being able to put more money into plans for the hotel he proposes, Kompothecras added, “now I got to fight you guys, which I don’t want to do.”
During his comments, Bailey stressed, “We have no application pending [for a hotel on Siesta Key].” However, he said, as the project team was looking into the feasibility of constructing one on Old Stickney Point Road, it sought the zoning determination about street setbacks. Because of the BZA vote, Bailey said, “you’ll see simply bars and restaurants replacing bars and restaurants in old, non-conforming buildings.”
After Bailey completed his remarks, Commissioner Michael Moran asked County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh if the only recourse for Siesta Acquisitions was litigation.
The company could request a Zoning Code amendment to resolve the SKOD issues, DeMarsh replied.
Moran then asked County Administrator Harmer about county staff action, if the board’s consensus was to pursue an amendment to the SKOD.
“We can come back with a recommendation for how the [commission] can deal with those [setback] requests” through a proposed change to the Zoning Code, Harmer responded.
“I personally would like that,” Moran told Harmer.
Chair Paul Caragiulo indicated that was the board’s consensus, so Harmer said, “We’ll take it on as an assignment.”
Since word began spreading in late December 2016 about Kompothecras’ plans, numerous residents have fought the proposal. Former Siesta Key Association (SKA) and Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations President Lourdes Ramirez has been among the leaders of the opposition.
Responding to a request for comment about the July 12 County Commission discussion, Ramirez wrote in an email, “The residents on Siesta do not want to see our island become as overly built as the City of Sarasota. To have a 2 foot street setback for buildings taller than 35 feet is absurd. We don't want to see a 'Vue' type structure in the [Commercial General] district on Siesta,” she continued, referring to a controversial new condominium tower in downtown Sarasota. “We will fight any attempt to shorten our setbacks.”
Furthermore, in a recent survey, the SKA found that, by a ratio of 18-to-1, its members oppose any increase in intensity or density, beyond what the county’s Comprehensive Plan allows, in regard to proposals for a new hotel on the island.