Publishers note: Since many of the other publications have reported the passage of the vote to approve the project. Siesta Sand thought it worthwhile to read the county commissioners’ conversations of the day.
By Rachel Brown Hackney
Following the vote, Sura Kochman, representative for the Pine Shores neighborhood, sent an email to
Siesta Sand. Her statement is as follows:
“It is mind-boggling that the BCC ignored our expert testimony regarding the deficiencies in the application, studies required by the Scope of Work that weren’t performed and Comprehensive Plan policies and objectives that Siesta Promenade did not follow.
The testimony of 8 organizations, representing thousands of people, in addition to the heartfelt comments by residents of Sarasota was ignored. The lack of discussion on the issues raised and the comment that if they did carry the decision to another meeting, they would have to sit through more public comment (even though County Attorney Roddy advised them that would not be the case) was shameful.
There was no need to handle this in a rushed manner. Seeing the confusion of the Commissioners on what they were voting on and lack of clear direction was highly irregular. We were obviously naive in our hopes that campaign contributions made by Benderson to the Commissioners’ campaigns would not influence their votes.”
With Chair, Nancy Detert in the minority on all but one of the six votes on Dec. 12, the Sarasota County Commission approved Benderson Development’s plans for 414 condominiums/apartments, a 130-room hotel, 133,000 feet of commercial space and 7,000 feet of office space on approximately 24 acres at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road.
The only facet of the project Detert approved was a street vacation involving Brentwood Avenue and Crestwood Avenue, so Benderson can realign Crestwood as one of the access points to the mixed-use project.
Commissioner Charles Hines joined Detert in opposing the company’s request for a Critical Area Plan (CAP) designation for the project, so it could exceed the standard restriction of 13 dwelling units per acre on land zoned Commercial General. The CAP approval allows up to 25 units per acre, though Benderson’s proposal would achieve a density of about 20.5 units per acre.
In response to the testimony of dozens of members of the public about the exacerbation of traffic congestion they expect at the intersection, Hines stressed the board’s responsibility to address those issues.
“We must make this intersection as important as we did with the Diverging Diamond three years ago,” he said, referring to the structure the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) built to ameliorate congestion issues involving the University Parkway access from Interstate-75. That project was put on a fast track so it would be completed prior to the 2017 World Rowing Championships, which were held in late September 2017 at Nathan Benderson Park, near University Parkway.
“This falls on us,” Hines added of the need to mitigate the U.S. 41/Stickney Point Road problems.
“It behooves us to give it more attention,” Detert agreed.
In explaining her “No” votes, Detert referred to Pine Shores Estates, which is the community of single-family homes adjacent to the Siesta Promenade site. “If we’re going to impact an existing neighborhood in any kind of a negative way,” she said, then the commissioners could not forget about those residents, who had invested in their homes. A house, Detert continued, is typically the biggest investment a person will make. “There should be some benefit to doing that to people,” she said of allowing Siesta Promenade to be constructed next to Pine Shores.
Yet, she told Todd Mathes, director of development for Benderson Development, the applicant for Siesta Promenade, “I’m not seeing anything that you’re bringing to the table that we don’t already have.” She cited the nearby Best Western Plus Siesta Key Gateway Hotel, restaurants and shops.
Detert added, “I would be really happy if you put in, like an upscale resort. I don’t think you’re taking advantage of the fact that your piece of property is so close to the beach.”
If the company built a resort, she pointed out, it then could use a trolley to transport guests back and forth to the beach.
“I just don’t see anything new about the project, and I see a lot of downside.”
“We’ve been melding this project in response to community concern,” Mathes replied. “While we have not made everyone happy, and I don’t think we ever would have made everyone happy. I think what we did was put a project forward that works.” The 140,000 square feet “is smaller than every other center up and down [U.S.] 41. It’s meant for the neighborhood …”
Hines objected to the fact that residential structures as tall as 65 feet would be in close proximity to single-family homes in the Pine Shores Estates. At various points during the approximately seven-hour-long public hearing, he talked of his struggles with accepting the design of the project, saying he felt the higher residential buildings should be on the eastern side of the site, next to U.S. 41.
Commissioner Michael Moran made all six motions to approve the project. Commissioners Alan Maio and Christian Ziegler joined him in support of all the Benderson requests for the design.
Maio did win concessions from Mathes that Maio indicated would make it less attractive for drivers to cut through Pine Shores Estates to avoid traffic congestion on U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road.
Additionally, Mathes proffered that the company would make all of the 25 affordable housing units, required under county regulations for a CAP project, to be rental units. Mathes also said that the company would build those first.
Maio further urged Mathes to make the affordable housing units 750 square feet or smaller, as a new county ordinance will be going into effect soon to give developers incentives for what staff has characterized as “half dwelling units.”
Maio referenced several young people during the hearing that day, who talked of their support for Siesta Promenade in the context of more affordable housing in the community. Maio said the apartments of 750 square feet or less would be homes those speakers “would kill for …”
However, Maio did stress, “Nobody’s getting any increased density” if Benderson agrees to his request. The county Zoning Code specifies that one dwelling unit can range from 500 square feet to 12,000 square feet, he pointed out.
“Understood,” Mathes replied.
In making the motions to approve the various aspects of the project, Moran said of the property, “This is zoned for a full-service gas station — Wawa type — hundreds, hundreds of mobile homes, significant office space. … I simply feel that we can do better than that.”
Moran added, “What we do encourage is compact, mixed-use infill projects that can … use our infrastructure that’s already in place.”
Moreover, Moran said, “I don’t think you can ignore the applicant that’s before us on this today.” Benderson Development is not some speculative builder from another part of the country, Moran continued. “This is a proven developer that has brought projects into our community that have improved our quality of life.”
Hines concurred that Siesta Promenade is an example of urban redevelopment. People have urged the commissioners not to approve projects that would lead to “urban sprawl,” he continued. They have told the board they favor redevelopment in the urban core. “What that means,” Hines pointed out, “is land costs are higher. Neighborhoods already exist. You’re going to have those negative impacts.”