St. Regis Hotel moves ahead as attorneys battle for hours

Applicant Chuck Whittall spars with attorney Dan Lobeck on cross examination (top). The Colony today is below.


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It was contentious. It was harrowing. But after two days of deliberations, Unicorp’s application to build a St. Regis Hotel and Residences received a 5-2 vote of approval last week in the first of two readings by the Longboat Key Town Commission.

The approval did not come easy. Attorneys dominated the first day of the hearing with the addition of Blake Fleetwood, a unit owner at the former Colony, named an “affected party” and was granted the ability to have equal time as the town and the applicant with his attorney to cross examine the proposal. Fleetwood hired Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck who fought ferociously from every conceivable angle arguing on one hand that Unicorp and Chuck Whittall had filed an “illegal” affidavit when it applied for the redevelopment as well as arguing over the Association of Unit Owners authority to grant the applicant the right to redevelop. Those arguments were foundational, but then every aspect of the plan was attacked by Lobeck including the traffic analysis, the economic impact and just about every other aspect of the plan.


Terms of the debate

The commission started its discussion debating how it would discuss the proposal. Traditionally, and as was done on the Planning and Zoning Board, town staff goes over the application and all of its details and then makes its recommendation. Then, the applicant is given an allotted amount of time to make its presentation. Following that, the commission deliberates.

But Commissioner Jim Brown protested the linear approach.

“It is just outrageous,” said Brown speaking of the size and scope of the plan and telling his fellow commissioners that he wants to be able to ask questions as they arise in his mind, item by item instead of waiting for hours and hoping.

Mayor Terry Gans said he writes questions down, but Vice Mayor Ed Zunz agreed with Brown in going item by item.

Immediately, the commission started to weigh in and opine.

Zunz immediately launched into what became a major part of the discussion throughout the proceeding.

“We are pretty close to there in terms of substance of what they want, my concern is not the plan that is before us. My concern is the loss of the pool of tourism units. I feel very strongly about losing the pool,” said Zunz.

Zunz was referring to a predicate of Whittall’s proposal in which Whittall is asking to use the remainder of the 165 tourism units the town has in a pool, which it has the authority to allocate. Whittall wants to build a 166-room St. Regis Hotel and 78 St. Regis branded condominiums.

After the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort closed seven years ago, the town grandfathered its 237 units with the hope that a developer would rebuild. Since the units are grandfathered, numerous constraints make that approach undesirable to Whittall and hence he plans to scrape the site and build anew using the underlying zoning for residential units and the remainder of the 165 tourism units for a hotel.

Brown asked his fellow commissioners if the town had the ability to change the rules to not lose the grandfathered units. Town Attorney Maggie Mooney-Portale explained it would take a vote of the public to not lose those units.

The attorney went on to say that the application that was in front of the commission was not to use the grandfathered units, which would expire in 2020.

Staff slowly went through its presentation, stating that it supported the use of the 165 remaining tourism units, citing the fact that it met the goal the pool was created for, and that the deficit the pool was created to offset has been more than compensated for over time. Staff pointed out that the Longboat Key Club has been approved for 300 additional tourism units by voters and a new hotel is forthcoming at Islandside. Staff also pointed out that Zota had received 85 units out of the pool and that numerous tourism rentals exist on online sites such as VRBO and AirBNB.

Staff then went on to say that it was content with the traffic mitigation plan that Whittall has proffered to deal with any special events as well as the condition that no special event on the site would exceed 425 guests.


Whittall makes case

When Whittall had his opportunity to address the commission, he spoke of the storied and renowned history of the former Colony.

“It was known all over the world, but unfortunately, litigation has plagued the property for 10 years. We settled the litigation issues and have gotten 95 percent of the individual owners on board and we are excited to present this plan,” said Whittall.

Whittall spoke of Andy Adams, who owns 74 units at the Colony, and said that an approval of his redevelopment plan by the town will help final negotiations and hopefully lead to a purchase of Adams’ holdings.

Adams and Whittall to date have not been able to strike a deal and even if Whittall receives his approval from the town to build the project, the ownership must be completely consolidated before a building permit can be issued. Adams also owns five percent of the commercial properties in an entity known as Breakpoint LLC. Whittall owns the other 95 percent and has filed a partition action, which requests the court to intervene and force the resolution and ultimate sale in such situations where there is a “holdout” and ownership consolidation cannot be accomplished.

Whittall introduced Lisa Sexton who was a representative for the St. Regis Hotel group. Sexton asked the commission “To be judicious in any further reduction of room counts because any further reductions could make the hotel not viable.”

Sexton said that the hotel planned would be to the St. Regis “brand standards,” but whether it would be four or five stars is up to the groups that evaluate thousands of properties each year.

Whittall spoke of his learning curve on Longboat Key.

“When I came to Longboat Key, I thought something bigger would be better, but I learned,” said Whittall.

Whittall said he scaled the project back substantially after voters turned down his 400 plus room proposal last year. He added that if he were allocated the tourism units, it would put any future decision to add density to the key back in the hands of voters.

Florida Economist Hank Fishkind said the project would have a significant economic impact and a “tremendous halo effect in raising property values on Longboat Key.”

The traffic analyst for the project said that a southbound right turn lane would be constructed and that there would be ample on-site stacking of vehicles as they exited the property. He added that there would be a specific traffic plan for any and all special events.

“You seem confident in your numbers, obviously you don’t live out here,” remarked Jim Brown said to the traffic analyst.

Zunz said it took him 90 minutes to drive from the Colony to the Van Wezel recently.

Whittall responded that the majority of his guests and during events, would be coming to the property during peak traffic and essentially going against the tide of traffic that heads to Sarasota each afternoon and early evening.

Commissioner Jack Daly wanted to know exactly how many unit owners had signed on to Whittall’s plan. Colony Association Attorney Jeffrey Warren said that 163 individuals or entities owned the 237 units with some obviously owning more than one. He said that of the 163, 149 were in favor of Whittall’s plan. He said that 13 unit owners and Andy Adams have not signed on to the plan.


Whittall talks value

Vice Mayor Zunz asked Whittall what the average price per room at the hotel as well as the price of the condominiums would be. Whittall responded that the average condominium price would be $5 million, with penthouses selling for $10 million. He also said that of the 12 penthouses, he had five on a list to purchase already. The hotel rooms, according to Whittall, will rent for $650-$800 per night on average in the off-season and over $1,000 per night during peak season.

When asked of his financing, Whittall said that he had offers from Citibank and Goldman Sachs.

Zunz pointed out that Whittall’s estimates were higher than a three-year-old report that was submitted in the application that testified to the economic viability of the project and set cost parameters.

When asked about the process involved in terminating the existing Colony Condominium Association in court, Whittall said that it would take six months if it goes well, and two years if it “went horribly.”

Whittall said that he prefers to work a deal out with Adams but that he needs an approval from the town in order for the parties to have something to truly negotiate with.

“If it was my decision, I’d have a loader out there today to demolish the Colony site. There is one man, Andy Adams, in the way of a quick resolution,” said Whittall.


Blake battles the plan

Blake Fleetwood spoke before the commission and said that he was going to have to “plead guilty for fighting for my home.”

Fleetwood owns a ground floor unit that sits along the beach at the old Colony and he said he renovated his condominium and it meets all town codes and that he in no way feels that it is legal for Whittall to move forward with the application, or for the town to consider it. He said that Adams is not in negotiations with Whittall and “they are far apart.”

Fleetwood then accused both Whittall and his attorney of filing an “untruthful” affidavit of ownership in that it let off Adams’ limited liability corporations as one of the owners in the supporting materials. He urged the commission to deny the project and said it was too dense for Longboat Key. Next, his attorney Dan Lobeck said, “Why approve this? Why put the cart before the horse? Do not try to hammer out the details today, it would be an injustice and ill conceived from the standpoint of public interest. Let’s not drag this out in the courts for many more years,” said Lobeck.

Town Attorney Maggie Mooney-Portale said that many of Lobeck’s arguments were incorrect in that the town was not changing the zoning and that the code has no definition that required Whittall to list all of the parties, which are in flux day to day as units sell.

“This is a private property dispute. We do not have the jurisdiction to resolve the private property dispute. That is by statute,” said Mooney-Portale.

Mooney-Portale the pointed out that there had been six occasions over the last seven years in which the Colony Association had requested and the town approved the grandfathering of the units.

Fleetwood did not make any of these arguments when those applications were made.


Commission debates

Commissioner Brown said he found the whole procedure “disturbing.” He said that he was disturbed by the Town’s Attorney comparing the commission’s authority to save units as the same as the authority to destroy them.

Brown suggested that Whittall soften the impact on what the public would see from Gulf of Mexico Drive. He said that he would make a positive vote on the application if Whittall would try to make some small changes between the first and second reading.

Commissioner Irwin Pastor said that as a commission the focus should be on making sure the sustainability of the project was a priority. He said that the commission should want a five star hotel and he commended the work done by staff and the community in helping to shape the project. Pastor made a motion to approve Whittall’s proposal.

Zunz said he had “a very big problem” with the direction the commission was going.

He said it was a complex problem and issue with over 1,000 pages of materials.

“After all of this time, this is the first time the commission can sit down and talk to each other. I don’t even think we should think of making this decision tonight. The biggest problem we have is the units in the tourism pool. I’m surprised the Planning and Zoning Board did not discuss this, and it’s a very complex subject. We need to get some rest and come back fresh,” said Zunz.

Mayor Terry Gans disagreed.

“What we have in the end is relatively simple decision. Most of us have been considering this for years. There is a motion on the floor, and I don’t want to talk this to death. I’ve given this a lot of consideration,” said Gans.

Gans then spoke of the accomplishment that most of the people who had issues with the plan, got 90 percent of what they wanted changed. He questioned what the price of going after the other 10 percent would be.

“To continue to poke at this plan, is another way to maybe say ‘No,’” said Gans.

Zunz countered that it was the most important decision for a long time.

Zunz was critical of the idea of using up the 165 tourism units.

Spoll said he was not pleased with the approach.

“I feel very much like the Vice Mayor, that we should not cut off debate. I believe the motion is premature,” said Spoll.


Save the tourism pool

Zunz proposed preserving the 237 grandfathered units at the Colony in order to preserve the 165 tourism pool units.

“I was hoping we could cobble something together with the grandfathered units. I was hoping when we got together in a room we could preserve the pool,” said Zunz.

Spoll agreed with Zunz.

“If there was a way to utilize the 237 grandfathered units that would be a win-win solution for everyone. Now as for how to do that, I have some thoughts,” said Spoll.

But Gans was not on board with this thinking.

“I’m condemned to living in the real world. What’s on that property now? When that tourism pool was voted on, the Colony was still operating. If anyone can come up with a way to keep the 237 grandfathered units, that would be great and I’d be willing to listen to it. But this is the application that we have in front of us. It’s speculative that you say, ‘Well, someone may come along and want more tourism units,’” said Gans.

Brown tried to bridge the gap in the commission’s thinking.

“I think the 165 tourism pool units is a moot point. I’m going to suggest on the next vote that we ask the voters to put back the 237 units that were thrown in the trashcan. I think it’s unreasonable to ask this applicant to wait for government which takes forever to come up with a solution to this problem,” said Brown.

Commissioner Jack Daly pointed out there currently was no way to convert the 237 grandfathered units.

“Legally, we don’t have a way to save those 237 units today, that’s clear. I was wanting to ask the developer (Whittall) to accept 145 units instead of 165 to save 20 units in the tourism pool for future use,” said Daly.

Zunz agreed and went even further, “I think that between now and the next meeting we could save 100 units that would be a great accomplishment.”

Gans went back to the 20 units idea of the tourism pool, “I think the legal people can look one more time to see if 20 units can be give up or if some can be converted.”

The commission then voted on the site plan resolution for the St. Regis Hotel, and passed it to second reading in a vote of 5-2 with Spoll and Commissioner Randy Clair dissenting. The second reading of the St. Regis site plan will be held March 16 at 9 a.m. at the Longboat Key Club Islandside.

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