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Big hotels on Siesta Key: Commissioners give the go-ahead for Round Two

Written by on Thursday, November 30, 2023

In a 4-1 vote, Sarasota County commissioners pick the most extreme of three proposals to move to hearings.

By Ramon Lopez

Original Air Date: Nov. 29, 2023

Host: Sarasota County commissioners yesterday got an earful about renewed efforts by developers to build bigger-than-allowed hotels on Siesta Key. WSLR reporter Ramon Lopez will let you know what they decided.

Sarasota County commission meeting on Tuesday. Photo: Lopez/WSLR


Ramon Lopez: Sarasota County Commissioners voted four to one on Tuesday to move forward a proposal to increase hotel size on Siesta Key to unlimited capacity.

The one nay vote against the proposal came from Commissioner Mark Smith who lives on Siesta Key.

There had been three proposals for Siesta Key comprehensive plan changes. Three developers sought a green light to build large hotels on the world famous beach.

One was from Dave Balot for 52 hotel rooms per acre. The second came from the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce for 52 hotel rooms per acre with a cap of 75 units. The third proposal—the most controversial one—was from Benderson Development. It would not limit the number of hotel rooms. The Commissioners voted to only consider Benderson’s proposal.

Opponents to large hotels on Siesta Key thought the matter had been put to rest. The County Commission had previously voted to remove a cap on hotel rooms there. But Siesta Key resident Lourdes Ramirez challenged the decision in a hard-fought, two-year court battle and Sarasota County lost. That outcome was not forgotten by Commissioner Mark Smith.

Mark Smith: My opinion, being a resident of Siesta Key and having my office out there, is that the Kimley-Horn proposal with unlimited density on Siesta Key, we’ve already been through a losing end of a lawsuit there with the DOA decisions. And I’m not comfortable changing a comprehensive plan for unlimited density on Siesta Key. 

RL: Commissioner Mike Moran said the Benderson bid should move ahead before the county commission.

Mike Moran: I want the most latitude possible. I’ve said over and over on this dais, there’s no substitute for a good project. And ultimately, this board will have the power and authority under that legislative process to not move forward or move forward. With that said — no disrespect, Commissioner Smith — I think it’s the opposite for me. It’s number two that would give the most latitude on that to bring projects forward, which again, ultimately under that legislative process, we would have the full authority to decline and not have to go through the findings of fact under that quasi-judicial process. But I’ll listen if anybody has anything else to say, but I think the real discussion, real debate from the community will come through those public hearings.

 RL:  More than a dozen vocal hotel opponents attended the meeting, including David Walter and Lourdes Ramirez.

David Walter: I would highly suggest that you do not move it forward for consideration. It’s out of cycle. It’s not appropriate, doesn’t need to be done. What I would like to suggest is that somewhere along the way, the commissioners consider that if you allow hotels in the Village, which is what this proposal is about at the end of the day, you will kill the Village. That’s the best half mile in America.

Lourdes Ramirez: You have to be really dumb to believe that visitors staying overnight won’t impact emergency evacuation times. Of course, they will. Visitors, including hotel guests, will have to leave at the same time as residents in an emergency. Adding more people to Siesta Key can lead to deadly consequences. All these mega hotel proposals will make Siesta Key less safe for residents and visitors.

Lourdes Ramirez. Photo: Lopez/WSLR

RL: Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce President Michael Gatz said his group’s proposal was a good compromise.

Michael Gatz: Clearly, this has been an issue that’s been going on for a couple years now. We got involved because we didn’t think that unlimited density and growth on Siesta Key was a good idea either. As a business organization with a visitor center on Siesta Key, we are aware of the need for transient accommodations. With that, we strongly believe that growth should be limited and consistent with the character of Siesta Key. The Chambers Comp Plan Amendment includes a limit of 52 units per acre with a cap of 75 rooms, a limit on height to match the surrounding properties and a limit on the size of the restaurant or bar at 1.5 seats per room. 

RL:  Ramirez said the issue has been contentious, and has raised public awareness about the physical and realistic limits to the size of hotels.  She said: “The future of Siesta Key hotels must be about quality, not quantity, and governed by a policy that ensures the safe enjoyment and unique quality of life on this special barrier island for permanent residents and visitors alike.”

LR: So that’s why thinking of adding density, even by any allowance, is dangerous for the people on Siesta Key because we’re already at beyond capacity.

RL:  For now, the Benderson proposal remains just that: a proposal. Over the coming months, a pre-application meeting will be held between Benderson’s people and county staff. Neighborhood workshops will follow. Benderson will then submit a formal application for staff review. The Planning Commission will then hold a public hearing and recommend whether the proposal should move forward. Finally, the Sarasota County Commission will hold a public hearing and then vote on the controversial issue.

But one thing is certain: Permission to build mega-hotels on the famous beach town would prompt further court challenges from vocal opponents.

This is Ramon Lopez for WSLR News.


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