By Rachel Brown Hackney
Call it a “tale of four houses.”
In a two-block span, three new towering residences and one under construction epitomize for longtime Siesta Key residents the unwelcome changes that have been taking place on the island in recent years.
The four-story structures at 547 and 551 Beach Road are advertised on rental property sites as being capable of sleeping 24 people each. Just a bit south of them, at 645 Beach Road, another multi-story house is well underway. The Sarasota County application for that project says it will have eight bedrooms and seven bathrooms.
Yet, even though the house at 641 Beach Road is four stories, as well, it has only four bedrooms and four baths — and, the builder tells The Sarasota News Leader, it really was designed as a single-family home.
One-story, decades-old cottages on the Key increasingly are being replaced by multi-level dwellings whose owners advertise them on websites such as VRBO and Airbnb as being capable of sleeping far more people than the number of family members who occupied the previous dwellings.
Although most residents with whom the News Leader spoke declined to be quoted, they expressed dismay about how the guests of these houses translate into additional traffic congestion, and — on numerous occasions — piled-up garbage that sits at the curb for days, awaiting the weekly stop by the Waste Management truck.
Concern also has been aired that these new houses brimming with tourists mean far more people would have to be evacuated from the Key in advance of a threatened hurricane strike.
Yet, arguably the greatest cause for alarm is the potential for a raging fire in a structure built as a home, without the mandatory sprinkler systems and other safeguards upon which hotel guests can rely.
One person who has been willing to comment publicly about her worries is Margaret Jean Cannon, who lives on the Gulf side of Beach Road. Cannon formulated her concerns into a four-page document she shared with Siesta Key Association leaders and the News Leader.
She and her husband have been full-time Siesta residents for 20 years, she writes. “We believe citizens should have the right to purchase, update or replace residences, operate rental properties.” They also believe property owners should be able to rent out houses, she adds, as long as the people are complying with the appropriate zoning and building codes, and other legal requirements.
“We need growth to remain vibrant and viable as a community,” Cannon continues. “At the same time, we need to work to manage our growth, so we don’t overwhelm our environment, resources, infrastructure, or lose our ‘community-residential’ culture. We need management of our zoning and building codes to ensure the quality and culture of Island life continues to support our needs. All of us and our visitors want to enjoy our beautiful environment and Island Beach.”
Matt Osterhoudt, Sarasota County’s Planning and Development Services director, has explained to the News Leader that the new multi-story houses — with enough bedrooms for a wedding party, as Cannon describes them — are permissible under the county’s zoning and building regulations. He did point out in an email, however, that “as those properties move through [the] licensing process, Emergency Services staff may be needed to conduct a fire review, as [residential single-family house construction] does not require a fire inspection.”
In response to a public records request, the News Leader received copies of applications and construction permits for all four houses.
The Michigan owner of the properties at 547 and 551 Beach Road did incorporate a “complete wet pipe fire sprinkler system” into both of them, the News Leader learned. In contrast, no such separate forms were submitted for the houses at 641 and 645 Beach Road.
In a July 13 telephone interview, Daniel Gerdes, the registered agent of the company that owns 641 Beach Road, told the News Leader he did not consider installing any fire suppression systems in the new structure there, because he planned it as a single-family home. “It’s not required by any code,” he also noted, referring to a sprinkler system.
However, Gerdes said, he is well aware of other developers packing multiple bedrooms into new houses. Without fire sprinkler systems, he pointed out, “Those are a hazard.”
Through a county spokesman, the county fire marshal declined a News Leader request for an interview.
The zoning issue
Both the houses at 547 and 551 Beach Road have been the focus of county Code Enforcement complaints, the News Leader learned through a public records request. For example, since May 12, Code Enforcement has kept open a case regarding the number of vehicles parked in front of 547 Beach Road. In July 2015, a Code Enforcement officer found six cars in the driveway, according to county documentation. Then, on Aug. 3, 2015, the officer who re-inspected the property reported “multiple vehicles in the driveway crossing the sidewalk,” adding that law enforcement personnel should be notified about that.
Almost identical complaints were investigated at 551 Beach Road in 2015, Code Enforcement records say.
Although rental listings for the houses at 547 and 551 Beach Road describe them as single-family homes, the county property records list their zoning as RMF1 — “Residential, Multi Family.”
The same zoning applies to the houses at 641 and 645 Beach Road.
In response to the News Leader’s inquiries, Osterhoudt wrote in his email, “Planning and Development Services staff has reviewed the concerns brought to their attention. The properties researched are zoned Residential Multi-Family, and meet the requirements to be considered short-term rentals, which is consistent with zoning regulations. In addition, the structures are permitted for Residential Single Family (RSF) homes, but the code does not regulate the number of bedrooms in any RSF structure.”
Osterhoudt added, “We understand that the Department of Business and Professional Regulations (DBPR) [has] been in touch with representatives of the subject properties, and informed them of state licensing requirements for vacation rentals.”