By Rachel Brown Hackney
Even before the county’s Environmental Permitting Division manager completed his presentation during an Aug. 26 Coastal Setback Variance (CSV) petition hearing, Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert had a question.
Addressing Howard Berna, Detert asked about the potential for the owners of “all the other houses on [Beach Road]” with property covered by dunes and vegetation seaward of those homes to seek approval for larger structures if the board that day signed off on the proposal for a six-unit condominium complex at 636 Beach Road.
The application before them cited “unity of title” of two lots protected by a conservation easement, plus two on which a single-family home stands, in contending that the allowable density for the new construction would be 11 dwelling units.
Referring to other Beach Road property owners, Detert asked Berna, “Do they own their lots in front that probably used to be underwater and now through accretion have sand? Couldn’t they do the exact same thing? Or at least ask permission to do it?”
“I imagine they might be able to ask,” Berna replied, as some do have undeveloped lots seaward of the county’s Tenacity Lane right of way that are not protected by conservation easements. Construction is not allowed on those easements, he noted.
“Can you in good conscience say [that the owners of the 636 Beach Road parcel] would absolutely be the only [ones] out of this group to do that, ever?” Detert asked, referring to the application for the CSV.
“I can’t make that definitive statement,” Berna replied.
Saba Sands LLC, whose principal is Sarasota attorney William Saba, was seeking board approval to demolish a two-story-over-parking, single-family residence with 3,990 square feet of habitable space and replace it with a new, three-story, pile-supported structure that would contain 17,106 square feet, as Berna explained to the commissioners on Aug. 26.
At its farthest point, the new construction would be 191 feet seaward of the county’s Gulf Beach Setback Line (GBSL), which was established in 1979, the staff report noted.
The elevation of the first floor, Berna said, would be 18.3 feet, which is “typical for construction on Siesta Key.”
Attorney Stephen D. Rees Jr. of the Icard Merrill firm, representing Saba Sand, stressed that the new building and accessory construction would have no impact on the barrier island’s coastal systems. “I’m making that abundantly clear.”
Rees emphasized that the new building would be 793 feet from the Mean High Water Line (MHWL).
“This is the minimum variance necessary to permit reasonable use of the property,” Rees told the commissioners, referring to state and local regulations regarding private property rights.
He further noted that the design of the new structure would be almost identical to the building at 610-616 Beach Road, for which the owners won a CSV from the County Commission in 2011.
Ultimately, following a hearing that lasted close to two hours, Detert made the motion to deny the CSV petition, winning unanimous support from her colleagues.
She talked about her participation in a public hearing on a similar application, shortly after her election to the board. “I was just taken aback. I found it frankly shocking that [someone] would have the nerve to ask for that kind of a variance. To me, it’s beyond the spirit of the law that was written,” she continued, referring to the GBSL.
Noting that she spent 14 years as a real estate agent and 25 years as a mortgage broker, Detert continued, “I’m not anti-property owner. But, to me, you’ve got what you bought. … It does take a lot of nerve to ask for multiple units on this [636 Beach Road] property. This just sets a horrible precedent, as far as I’m concerned.”
Given all the No. 1 Beach accolades Siesta Key has received, Detert pointed out, “We’re going to attract a lot of investors that want to change the look of it. To me, it’s one of the jewels in our crown here in Sarasota County.”
She would prefer it resemble the natural state of Sanibel Island, she said, “instead of Anna Maria [Island] or even Miami Beach.”
After Commissioner Charles Hines seconded the motion, Commissioner Alan Maio said he also would support it. Maio referred to testimony by Christine Johnson, president of the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, and Rob Patten of Sarasota, who worked in various environmental and coastal division positions with the county over a period of 40 years.
“Why do we have such strict rules on beachfront development?” Patten asked during his comments. The reason, he said is that shorelines are unstable.
Patten called statements that people can build seaward of the GBSL because the beach has accreted significantly since 1948 a “polite fiction.” (In 1948 and 1974 aerial photos Berna showed the board, the Gulf of Mexico was much closer to the property at 636 Beach Road.)
Patten stressed that the barrier islands “move; they change.”
Johnson pointed out that the Foundation owns nearly 2 acres adjacent to the 636 Beach Road parcel. The proposed increase in residential intensity on the land, Johnson said, “has a high probability” of upsetting the balance between public use of the beach and wildlife’s use of the beach. Six dwellings in place of one, she pointed out, would lead to “increased foot traffic, beach use and lighting pollution.”
Patricia A. Petruff of the Dye, Harrison, Kirkland, Petruff & St. Paul firm in Bradenton, the attorney for Drs. Lisa and Amir Arbisser, who live next to the parcel, referenced Rees’ remarks that six dwelling units is reasonable use of the property at 636 Beach Road. “No, it’s not,” Petruff said.
The owners of the land when four previous CSV petitions were granted for the parcel “determined that the reasonable use” was a single-family home, she added, though at one point, she said it did appear that a duplex stood on the site.