Can Longboat Key really offer a fair hearing to the Colony redeveloper?

Editor & Publisher

The real and unreal. Love and hate. The ethical and anti-ethical. The sublime and banal.

All of these can be found in the long story of the Colony.

And now as a community we find ourselves heralded to a fork in a path. Unfortunately, one fork sends the face of our community straight into a tree. Actually it is three trees.

Three of our Town commissioners can smear the thickest foundation on their apparition of fairness, but it cannot mask their desire to kill the plan proffered by Unicorp’s Chuck Whittall.

This sounds bold, but watch the drama unfold and you will see a Civil War of sorts in Town Hall.

Those opposed will use the contrivance of protectionism when what they really are loyal to is a behind-the-scenes preferred developer and his idea. They are at also married to their own idea of what should happen at the site.

But that is not leadership; they are Shakespearian Iago’s  — filling the discussion with all manner of distraction, only to twist the path toward their preferred outcome.

Our only hope as a community is the simple math of four votes beating three.

Either some form of approval will take place in the coming weeks, or the Town will likely be sued for violating the civil rights of the applicant and not affording him due process.

This belief is has far more to do with history than histrionics.

Realize that two of the sitting commissioners — George Spoll and Jim Brown — led the town straight into circuit court when they zealously approved several years ago an oversized Key Club redevelopment plan that a judge found illegal, non-conforming with our codes and he completely overturned. It cost residents more than $1 million in legal fees to fight their own Town. The poor decision-making by these two remains unapologetic to this day. They simply have not learned their lesson.

Fast forward to today and the clique is still on the Commission and now we are heading to another qausi-judicial hearing and the trio must act as “judges” exhibiting impartiality, fairness, equal treatment, unbiased consideration and all of the concepts that guarantee fairness to the applicant. More importantly, these concepts protect the town and taxpayers from legal exposure.


The Langley meeting

Take the most recent news reported this week wherein Commission candidate Randy Langley says that he was pressured by Spoll and Brown in a meeting when he was an investor in Colony assets to not do business with Unicorp and that he should favor their guy, Manfred Welfonder. Spoll was not a commissioner then and Brown, who was, commented with the trademarked Nixonian, “I do not recall,” response.

This week, Whittall, whose application is heading to the Town for review, told Longboat Key News,  “I do not have confidence I can or will get a fair hearing.”

He said he is receiving a level of scrutiny that the developer of the Key Club and Zota did not.  He also is very concerned that he had a contract with Randy Langley at the time Langley met with Spoll and Brown, and feels they may have been “colluding and interfering with that contract.”

Whittall was bothered again after he received an email wherein Planning and Zoning Chair B.J Webb asked 35 questions exhibiting concern over a myriad of issues with the Town staff report on his project.

Whittall said while some of the questions were reasonable, several exhibited a complete “tone of hostility” and what he believes is a level of scrutiny not consistent with other developers and projects.

“I believe the town has violated my civil rights and due process. If not, they are dangerously close. They are certainly holding us to a standard nobody else has ever been held to. My patience is very quickly expiring,” said Whittall.


Today and tomorrow at the Colony site…

But today and tomorrow we must deal with the Colony redevelopment application. And all of the above is unfortunate. Our community should never be in this position. It is almost like déjà vu.

After all, Murf Klauber sued the town for violating his civil rights when the Town revoked his building permit. That cost taxpayers more than $9 million to settle.


What to do…

It really is quite simple.

We should refuse as a community to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

The Town Commission and the residents have waited and wished for a redevelopment of the Colony site for almost a decade.

The various fighting and feral cats known as the unit owners have mostly been harnessed and support Whittall’s plan. And the plan has been and continues to be scaled back.

To its credit, the community overwhelmingly denied Unicorp’s request for his overbuilt and overly ambitious project last year. Whittall scaled the plan back and then last month scaled it back again.

Now, the plan has roughly the same number of rooms as the old Colony and will generate less traffic because it is proposing a mix of high-end residential units and a hotel.


Ballroom busters and why the Colony failed

The ballroom size is the big fight at this point, but that is resolvable.

Whittall might have some wiggle room to scale the meeting and ballroom space back 10% or 15% and then guess what — then the plan should be approved.

As for traffic, I hate traffic as much as anyone. The fact is this plan will create less traffic than the former Colony.

Does anyone remember the Stone Crab Festivals at the Colony where hundreds and hundreds filled not a ballroom, but every inch of the Colony property?

And what about the more than 1,000 who each year attend the Lawn Party at the Key Club and we all leave without traffic strangulation.

The traffic issue is simply the stranglehold of US 41 and the base of the Ringling Bridge. The other pinch point is in Cortez. Those intersections have plagued our community for decades with traffic and the City of Sarasota and Manatee County continue to approve tens of thousands of new units that will continue the influx. So should we punish ourselves as the City acts irresponsibly?

After all, the former Colony failed. It was not simply infighting and feuding — it was a lack of revenue.

Most businesses do not close doe to an abundance of success. Part of that failure was clearly that there was not enough meeting space to compete. Klauber made that a mantra. He needed a conference center. The Key Club has made it a mantra. They needed a larger conference center they said over and over.

And I have made a different mantra for years. We need the Colony applicant to deliver the least impactful project that will be successful. And I think we are almost there.

I believe we can find a way to say “yes.”

I believe a majority of the Planning and Zoning board will move this on to the Town Commission.

At that point, the Commission will hopefully have four who will vote yes. It will likely be a close vote — there will be three trees in the way. But those trees will be cleared out in a year.

After all, politicians are a lot like babies: they must be changed often and for the same reason.



Correction: The above column was corrected from the print edition and earlier online edition that stated current Commissioner Randy Claire voted to approve the Key Club. Claire was not on the Commission at that time.

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2 Responses for “Can Longboat Key really offer a fair hearing to the Colony redeveloper?”

  1. BJ Bishop says:

    Mr. Whittal’s legal counsel appreciated questions in advance. What a stupid thing for him to complain about – getting advance thoughts from the Board. I guess he prefers being blindsided so he can make excuses for delays that did not happen. He received a fair and complete hearing despite his attack on the chair. Now he attacks the Commission. Is he trying to sabatoage his own application?

  2. Marc Preininger says:

    Could not agree more with your comments….well

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