By Rachel Brown Hackney
One day before Benderson Development submitted its latest application to Sarasota County regarding its proposed Siesta Promenade project at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road, a Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) engineer sent a letter to Sarasota County’s transportation planning manager, pointing to the “astonishing 175 percent total increase” in crashes at that intersection between 2010 and 2014.
The Siesta Promenade plan has been classified a Development of Regional Impact (DRI), according to a document filed with the county’s Planning and Development Services Department. According to Florida State Statute 380.06(1), a DRI “is defined as any development which, because of its character, magnitude or location, would have a substantial effect on the health, safety or welfare of citizens in more than one county.” The Benderson application proposes the rezoning of the approximately 24-acre site to Commercial General to allow 140,000 square feet of commercial space, 150 hotel rooms and about 600 dwelling units.
In response to a question from SNL about the timeline for county staff review — and subsequent Planning Commission and County Commission public hearings on Siesta Promenade — county Planner Steve Kirk explained that county staff had reviewed the scope of work proposed in the firm’s Critical Area Plan (CAP) application, which was filed July 21. Benderson needs to have a CAP adopted by the county, he said, so the firm can increase residential density on the site to 25 units per acre. Based on staff comments regarding the latest application, Benderson employees will refine the proposal and then submit it to the county, along with a petition to rezone the site, he added. “I expect them to file that at any time,” he said.
On July 25, Keith Slater, traffic services program engineer with FDOT, sent a formal letter to Paula Wiggins, the county’s transportation planning manager, following up on comments FDOT representatives made in meetings with county staff, Bartolone told SNL. County staff had requested the letter, Bartolone added, noting that it “is being shared with Planning and Development Services staff so that it can be entered into the record and considered once the rezone application and Critical Area Plan have been submitted.”
Slater’s letter points to “the growing safety and operational concerns related to the intersection of U.S. 41 and State Road 72 [Stickney Point Road]. [FDOT] has a responsibility to provide a safe and efficient roadway for our residents and the thousands and thousands of visitors and tourists that come to our great state each year. Sarasota County is one of the larger tourist areas within the state with many new residents moving to this county annually.”
Slater noted that the intersection is on the county’s “High Crash Segments” list and that “over the past five years there has been a constant increase in crashes within this segment.” Slater continued, “Crashes have increased on average 30 percent per year with an astonishing 175 percent total increase between 2010 and 2014. Having reviewed the crash data for this area, it became very clear why coordination efforts for this area are so vital.” He further noted, “As for our operational concerns, significant increase in traffic for eastbound and westbound will only cause additional delay and congestion. During peak hour, the traffic queues regularly reach past Stickney Point Bridge. … The eastbound left turn movement has up to 75 percent more volume than the roadway design can accommodate. To simply maintain the current Level of Service with additional traffic added, [traffic light] cycle lengths would need to be significantly adjusted.”
The letter pointed out that department representatives met with “key county staff” on May 12 to discuss the concerns about the intersection and the county’s approval of land uses for the surrounding property, “[s]pecifically, the parcel(s) making up the northwest quadrant of the intersection of U.S. 41 and S.R. 72 north to Upper Glencoe Road and from the intersection west to Glencoe Road.”
During that May 2015 meeting, Slater added, and “via the permitting process,” FDOT staff learned of the potential for the county to approve the rezoning of the Benderson property.
Preventing a ‘losing battle’
Selina Carroll, a traffic engineering specialist with FDOT, sent an email to Slater, L.K. Nandam — FDOT’s district operations engineer in Sarasota — and other department staff on May 18 to summarize the May 12 session with county staff. She noted that Nandam “advised the FDOT access permit is the final leg in the process and a losing battle if the county approves a large density [on the Benderson property]. That’s why we are here — to get the county’s cooperation at the beginning of the process.”
(A June 6 letter from county Planner Todd Dary to Todd Mathes, the Benderson project manager, explained steps necessary to Benderson’s winning approval for Siesta Promenade. In it, Shannon Rodden of the county’s Transportation Planning Department staff estimated that the mixed-use development would generate more than 100 peak hour trips in the afternoon.)
The May 18 email said Wiggins pointed out that the county’s Comprehensive Plan shows the proposed Siesta Promenade site designated for commercial purposes in future land use planning. She added that the county has “no control over intensity based on traffic.” However, the email continued, Wiggins added that the County Commission “may be able to consider a lower intensity based on compatibility or safety & operational issues.”
The email noted that Slater “advised capacity and [Level of Service] leads before safety & operational [concerns].” Wiggins countered that, “by law the county is unable to restrict development based on capacity & traffic.”
Then Wiggins and FDOT staff concurred that Glencoe Avenue would be the preferred access point for the Benderson property. The email pointed out, “She added the [County Commission] can deny it based on compatibility if residents resist.” On May 18, an email from Nandam to Carroll and the other recipients of the earlier email showed his suggested revision to that statement: “She added the [County Commission] can consider compatibility as an item if residents resist.”
‘Trying to sell this plan’
A June 30 email from Carroll summarized discussion at an “Internal [FDOT] meeting to discuss access plan for Siesta Promenade.” An FDOT construction project administrator, Nathan Kautz, presented the latest traffic study and site plan for the Benderson project, which he had received on June 21 from the Kimley-Horn consulting firm, the memo said. After he and another FDOT staff member had reviewed it, the email continued, they determined, “FDOT would need more information before developing an access plan for [Siesta Promenade].”
When Nandam asked what Kimley-Horn was seeking at that time, the response was that the firm is “in the process of going through zoning approval with the county. … [The firm’s representatives] are looking for an access plan from FDOT because they are trying to sell this plan to the [residents],” the email noted. If FDOT did not have a final site plan, Nandam pointed out, it could not make a final decision, the email said.
Kautz “recommended FDOT not provide an access plan until [Kimley-Horn provides] an acceptable traffic study.”