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The Redevelopment of the Sonesta Beach Resort Key Biscayne into Both
 Hotel Condo Units and Residential Units Becoming an Issue
 with City Staff and Residents
By David Smiley and Patricia Mazzei, The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Nov. 26, 2006 - Developers who want to turn the Sonesta Hotel on Key Biscayne into a new, ultra luxury resort with both residential and hotel condo units have said their new plans are acceptable under the village's current zoning codes.

Not so, says a report the village received last week from an independent third party hired to examine the Key's zoning regulations.

After meeting with developers, village staff and residents who oppose the project, design firm Wallace Roberts & Todd concluded that hotel condos aren't currently permitted with today's zoning on the Sonesta property.

The report also recommended that any portion of a building within 100 feet of a single-family home be capped at 35 feet in height.

Both recommendations, if adopted by the Village Council, could reduce the scope of the controversial project.

But Vice Mayor Jorge Mendia said he would not propose any new laws recommended by the report until after a public workshop in January.

"It's too early and there's a lot of different things we need to consider," he said.

He will lead the council on the issue. Mayor Robert Vernon and Councilman Enrique Garcia -- employees of developer Fortune International Realty -- recused themselves from the issue last spring.

Mendia said he was surprised to read in the report that the property could have been more densely developed if the village had not separated from the county in 1991.

"As much as they're asking, it would have been more [dense] prior to incorporation," he said.

Developers have submitted several site plans since their first concept drew widespread criticism because it required a change in zoning for the hotel. The most recent site plan, submitted in late October, shows four buildings up to 14 stories tall about 50 feet away from Holiday Colony.

While nearby residents have worried about the potential increase in density and the burden on infrastructure, much of the recent opposition has focused on the inclusion of hotel condo units.

Hector Formoso, part of the Preserve Our Key Biscayne group that has rallied against the project, drafted a paper stating that the developers are calling their project a hotel condo in order to build a residential condominium with looser density restrictions.

"I'm for a fair level of playing field," Formoso said, adding that no ordinances should be enacted for the project.

Carter McDowell, the Sonesta's attorney, denied Formoso's claims about the hotel units and said he is still reviewing the report's implications for the project.

According to the report, for a condo hotel to exist on the Key, the council would have to adopt regulations to enforce the use of the units and how they are run. An example given: Pompano Beach allows a condo hotel unit owner to stay no more than three times within one year, for a maximum 30 days each time.

The firm was hired in September at the suggestion of former Mayor Robert Oldakowski, who said the Key needed an unbiased third party to review the plans in the face of feuding residents and developers.

"I'm very optimistic," Oldakowski said after reading the report. "[They] listened to a lot of the concerns expressed by the community and looked at relationships, density and other considerations."

Oldakowski said the report's height recommendations make sense, but that whether the code permits a hotel condo is still open to legal interpretation. If the Council adopts some of the recommendations, he added, it would be a quick process.

The report also contains recommendations on setbacks, design and distance between buildings -- all of which may affect the plans.

Members of Preserve Our Key Biscayne said they were also buoyed by the report.

"They confirmed a lot of things that we've been saying all along," said the group's Michael Kelly, adding that height caps make sense.

'That says, 'You know what? This is a residential neighborhood.' "

Julio Padilla, whose house borders the Sonesta property, said he was pleased with some of the recommendations on height restrictions, but is still concerned about the size of the project.

Padilla said his group isn't against the project, but wants the resort to be built in a way that respects Key Biscayne's small-town, family ambience.

"Sonesta needs Key Biscayne more than Key Biscayne needs the Sonesta," he said.

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Copyright (c) 2006, The Miami Herald

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