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LBK Planning Board blesses St. Regis plan for Colony site

STEVE REID
Editor & Publisher
sreid@lbknews.com

Following two days of intense deliberation and a room full of Longboat Key residents speaking in both approving and disapproving tones, the plan to redevelop the decaying Colony property was approved by the Planning and Zoning Board last week.

For Unicorp President Chuck Whittall it marks one of the most important steps in his five-year path to develop the 17.6-acre property into a 166-room St. Regis Hotel along with 78 St. Regis branded condominiums.

The approval did not come before the contentious 10,000 square-foot proposed ballroom was cut back to 7,650 square feet when Planning and Zoning Board Vice Chair Ken Schneier made a motion for the reduction.

Unicorp proffered additional controls on the meeting space and ballroom including limiting attendance to 425 for any event at any time on the site.

Town Planning and Zoning Director Allen Parsons introduced the proposed application by saying that the Colony site is one of the first “intentionally developed tourism sites on Longboat Key.”

The build-out of Longboat Key and the prospect of more intensive redevelopment had many in the audience afraid primarily of traffic that they felt would emanate from events held at the proposed St. Regis.

 

Staff in total support

On day two of the deliberations, Parsons said that he and staff could completely recommend approval of the plan after Whittall submitted a management strategy that will require submitting a plan one month in advance of any event that will have more than 385 attendees. Whittall also agreed to a starting point of $5,000 for any violation.

Planning and Zoning Chair BJ Bishop suggested that a $5,000 fine might end up simply a “cost of doing business,” and might not dissuade violations.

Whittall said that was not a fair assumption that the rules would be broken simply because the consequence is not onerous.

One of Whittall’s attorneys, Don Hemke, told the Planning and Zoning Board through numerous case law exapmles and precedents that great weight must be placed on staff findings. He said that they are “findings of fact” and not mere opinions.

Board member Phill Younger shot back, “You sure didn’t come forth with this argument when staff was against the code change (referring to the text amendment a month prior).”

Numerous audience members spoke with some armed with statistics showing smaller ballrooms connected to larger hotels within the St. Regis Hotel system.

Other residents, including Commission candidate Jack Wilson, pointed out that the density on the site will be one-third that which the Commission approved for the Zota hotel mid-key.

“As the British say, ‘let’s get on with it,’” said Wilson.

One Colony board member fought back against Colony unit owner Blake Fleetwood who told the board that Whittall does not legally have full ownership and standing to make his application.

To that statement, Colony Association board member Bob Erasmus said, “Fleetwood has a condo on the beach and he is working overtime to torpedo any plan that tears down his shack on the beach.”

Colony Association attorney Jeffrey Warren told the board that the condominium association will be terminated by either the majority agreeing or through judicial termination.

 

Not your job to design ballrooms…

Real Estate broker and Longboat Key resident Michael Saunders came out in support of the plan.

“I think we are a five-star community. I don’t know if it’s our job to design the ballroom. I urge you to be leaders and thoughtful on how you recommend controlling this space,” said Saunders.

Redevelopment Task Force member Tom Friewald said he was in support of the plan, but did not want the allocation of the remaining 165 tourism units. He implored the board, Unicorp and the attorneys to find a way to use the grandfathered density and not retire the tourism pool. This idea did not gain traction.

Tim Field, whose father built the original Colony prior to Murf Klauber taking ownership, told the board that the St. Regis proposal, “Is the best thing that could re-invent Longboat Key.”

Katie Moulton, who helped run the resort along with her father for many years, concurred.

“This is the opportunity to bring one of the finest brands on the planet to our community,” said Moulton.

Moulton added that the town should not tinker with the ballroom size and she said that every Fourth of July for 20 years, the Colony had 800 people in a sold-out event with the restaurant, resort and entire property full and there was never a complaint.

The Planning and Zoning Board first entertained a motion made by Bishop to approve the plan but with a reduction in the overall commercial accessory space.

That motion was not supported.

Bishop said she was, “alarmed by testimony of the developer that celebrities would come to the Key. We are a low-key community. The developer also made presentations to the community; he made promises of road improvements to the north and south end of the key.”

Bishop added that Whittall had said he would fund additional tennis and pickle ball courts.

Planning and Zoning Board member Ken Marsh spoke in favor of approving the application with the 10,000 square foot ballroom without any reduction in size.

“I don’t believe it is for us, the P&Z or the commission to make decisions on how big a ballroom or other rooms are. I believe the traffic can be handled. There will be traffic issues, but they will hire a traffic cop as is done with every other sizeable event on the Key. I think the proposal should go forward as presented,” said Marsh.

Younger said, “You don’t build a Mercedes Dome and say ‘we’ll only be one-half full.’ I feel we need to cut the space back.”

Board member Len Garner said that he believed the board had reached a level of consensus and the community finally had an offer to develop the old Colony.

“We are deliberating a very beneficial proposal which will benefit us all,” said Garner.

Board member Steve Mavda agreed.

“I think a five-star resort would be the best thing for this island,” said Mavda.

At that point, Bishop’s motion to cut the commercial from 27,000 square feet to 19,000 square feet failed with a 5-2 vote.

That opened up an opportunity for Vice Chair Schneier to make a motion to accept the application, but limit the ballroom to 7,650 square feet. Schneier suggested that it was a reasonable middle ground.

Bishop said she felt that Whittall agreeing not to put the residential condominium units in a tourism rental pool was promising.

At that point, Schneier’s motion passed 5-2 and the Outline Development Plan and Planned Unit Development were subsequently approved as well.

The recommendation for approval will now bring the entire project before the Town Commission for its consideration at 9 a.m. on March 5 in the John Ringling Room at the Longboat Key Club Islandside. That venue was chosen to accommodate what the Town Commission believes may be overflow crowds.

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2 Responses for “LBK Planning Board blesses St. Regis plan for Colony site”

  1. Carl F. Berg says:

    Tennis isn’t what it was in the heyday’s of The Colony. Northern visitors (tourists) come to LBK for the private beaches and great rental facilities. From 1990 to 1996 my employer ran sales contests and up tp 75-80 Husbands and Wives “died” to qualify for a trip to LBK and The Colony.
    Traffic, they rode a r/t bus to this great Barrier Island. My wife and I as management would extend our stay and Fly in our adult kids.
    After retirement we rented a Condo up the island for five years. Corporate America stopped incentive trips long ago. My point; Today its spending tourists not tennis players.

  2. Marglo says:

    I am sure the St. Regis is indemnified from any losses. There is no reason for a 5 star resort on Longboat Key. The only way this works if the St. Regis cuts a deal with the Longboat Key Club to improve and share the tennis facilities. This includes the construction of indoor courts. Otherwise, this cannot work. WInter in Florida is too cold and the summer burning hot with afternoon thunder storms. The wealthy are not coming to Longboat Key unless there is some reason. I like Longboat Key but the only reason I come is for tennis.

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