Longboat Key plans future as Hilton plan hinges


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Although the Town of Longboat Key cannot consider or approve any redevelopment applications at the Colony, the Hilton or the Longboat Key Club until it amends its land-use codes to comply with a Sarasota judge’s order, Town Manager Dave Bullock said the immediate issue can be resolved with a “straightforward amendment to the zoning code.”

In an interview on Thursday with the Longboat Key News, Bullock said the immediate issue in dealing with the pending Hilton Hotel expansion application is the Town Commission’s need to address count five of Judge Haworth’s ruling.

Haworth ruled against the Town earlier in November and sided with the Islandside Property Owners Coalition in finding that the Town’s amended zoning code gave the Commission too much discretion to approve an Outline Development Plan using “departures” from Town code.

Haworth said the Town Commission must use clear and objective standards when it grants or allows any deviation from written and adopted land-use policies and zoning code. Part of the rub for the Town is that not only the Longboat Key Club, but any Colony redevelopment or Hilton expansion must be processed as an Outline Development Plan and currently can only be accomplished using departures from the underlying code.

And while the Key Club plan was defeated and found to be nonconforming and the new owners, Ocean Properties, have not submitted a plan — the same is not true at the Hilton.

The Hilton, at the very same time Judge Haworth found the Town’s code deficient, had submitted a plan to the Town to add approximately 85 tourism units to its Hotel and redevelop the restaurant and amenities. That application is causing pressure on the Town to remedy its zoning code in order to consider, evaluate and vote on the expansion.

If the Town decides to quickly amend its zoning code and how it handles departures, it could take as little as two months to make the changes necessary. The standard process would be for the Planning & Zoning Board to consider language developed by staff and the Town Attorney and send a recommended code amendment to the Commission. Upon two successful readings and public hearings of the proposed changes, the Commission could adopt the amendments and the Hilton could then be considered.


What are the departures in the Hilton plan?

The application for the Hilton expansion asks for a total of 10 departures from the zoning code. In contrast, the Longboat Key Club requested 29 departures.

The first departure the Hilton requests is in the Floor Area Ratio. The Floor Area Ratio establishes the maximum amount of square feet of floor area allowed to be built in a development site. The Hilton is only allowed under current code a total of 66,400 square feet of developable floor space. The existing 102-room hotel already exceeds what is allowed at 68,744 square feet. Adding the 85 requested hotel rooms to the site adds nearly 63,000 square feet to the site, almost double what is allowed under code.

Similar departures are necessary due to a loss of open space as well as from setback requirements to accommodate the buildings on the site. The Hilton is also requesting several waivers from the Town’s parking requirements to accommodate the 249 parking spaces required.

All of the departures stem from the same root cause; the fact that the site is already built to its developable limits under many aspects of the current code. The rub is the community has approved via referendum and indicated it would like to see additional tourism on Longboat Key, but the existing code was set up to accomplish just the opposite. In fact, the underlying zoning at the Hilton was intentionally adopted to not allow the expansion of tourism and to encourage the redevelopment with high-end residential properties.

That direction has changed and during the Key Club redevelopment hearings the Commission and community appeared supportive of expanding tourism due to the economic decline on the Island with less visitors able to stay directly on the Key.


A solution?

One method the Town attorney and Commission may consider to remedy the issue is to increase the number of units per acre allowed in the specific tourism zones on the Key, including the Hilton, Key Club and Colony. Expanding the number of units allowed would not increase the number of dwelling units on the Key, but would make the existing unit counts at the Colony, Hilton and the Longboat Key Club conforming with code. It would also reduce the number of departures required because the Town would be giving the property owner the right to the units rather than the current method, which is to ask for zoning departures to accommodate the units.


Referendum reversal

Following Judge Haworth’s ruling earlier this month it was stated by the Town that a public vote would be required before any tourism units can be added to the Key Club at its Islandside Resort – now the opposite appears true. The Town also said that when Longboat Key voters approved adding 250 tourism units it explicitly was stated in the referendum that those units could not be added to the Islandside or Harbourside properties at the Key Club. That is also untrue.

Commissioner Pat Zunz wrote Town Attorney David Persson this week and said she could find no such language in the referendum that restricted where the Town Commission can allocate those units. Persson, upon further review agreed, and now the Town has petitioned Judge Haworth to amend his ruling accordingly. IPOC does not contest this interpretation.

Persson says that while the Town may not need a vote of the public to grant hotel rooms to the Key Club, the Town’s Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Code prohibit the use of any of the 250 rooms at the Club. It would not take a vote of the public, however, to change the Comprehensive Plan and Codes; merely the approval of the Town Commission and state regulatory agencies.

For IPOC President Bob White the salient issue is that the Town take its time to write codes that protect the existing property owners and not distort the character of the Key. IPOC and Ocean Properties have reportedly been arriving at a redevelopment agreement that if the Town approves would not be challenged in court. Ironically, until the Town can fix its land-use policies, it cannot consider any proposal.


Long-range planning

Also in the works at the Commission level is the fact that two consulting firms will be interviewed on Dec. 11 to assist the Town in undertaking long-range planning and code implementation to help guide the community over the coming decades.

Persson has characterized the effort as one in which the Town can self consciously evaluate and decide where it wants to go and what it wants to evolve into in its various zoning districts. The idea and end result would be for all property owners on Longboat Key to have a clearer view and understanding of what is or is not possible in various zoning districts and development sites. The idea is to also define further the extent of tourism and commercial uses the community would like to see at such sites as the Key Club, the Colony and the Hilton so a developer could accomplish reasonable goals in compliance with Town Code instead of a system based on the Town Commission granting departures from a code that already makes the site a non-conformance.


What’s next?

Interested residents have two immediate opportunities to engage and observe where the Town is going in its planning and future development. The first opportunity may occur this Monday night at the 7 p.m. regular Commission Meeting. There, Persson will likely discuss the direction and options the Town has to fix its zoning code. Also, it is expected the Commission will discuss fallout from the Key Club lawsuit and the planning path it intends to undertake going forward.

The second opportunity will be for residents to listen as the Town interviews the two prospective planning consulting firms.  The interviews, which are open to the public, will be held by the committee between 9 a.m. and noon on Dec. 11.

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