Charlotte County Commission inks pact with Sunseeker resort

April 5th, 2018

By Greg Martin - Sun Correspondent

22-acre Charlotte Harbor plat to become major resort

The Charlotte County Commission unanimously approved Tuesday vacating a 22-acre portion of the Charlotte Harbor community’s plat, including 4.5 acres of public road rights of way, to allow Sunseeker Florida Inc. to turn a key area near the U.S. 41 bridges into a destination resort.

The commission also unanimously approved a developer’s agreement with Sunseeker calling for the developer to widen Main Street in exchange for the rights-of-way vacation.

“This is the first step,” said Rob Berntsson, attorney for Sunseeker. “Until we have ownership, we can’t apply for permits (to develop in the waterfront).”

Sunseeker ultimately plans to build up to 940 condominium units, 275 hotel rooms, 15 bars and restaurants, a 1,000-foot swimming pool, two marinas and a public river walk, according to its website.

Tuesday’s pact calls for Sunseeker to keep open a sidewalk along Bayshore Road even though the road is now closed, until Sunseeker constructs a sidewalk along Main Street, as an alternative for pedestrians to walk from Bayshore Park to the U.S. 41 bridge.

The commission had to vote on the pact twice Tuesday, once as the Charlotte Harbor Redevelopment Agency and a second time as the County Commission. That was because both boards had some jurisdiction over the pact.

During the public hearings, comments were mixed, with most expressing concerns about specific aspects while supporting the general concept of the project.

“I’m not opposed to development,” said Darlene Stallard. “It’s the overall scale of this. It just doesn’t seem to fit our little Port Charlotte area.”

She also said Bayshore Live Oak Park, which is under consideration as the site for a parking deck associated with the project, should be preserved.

“I walked there this morning,” she said. “It’s peaceful, it’s natural beauty, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Several commissioners said they welcomed the input, because it gave them a chance to clarify confusion over what has been proposed in recent months, and what was approved Tuesday.

A month ago, Sunseeker and the County Commission signed a letter of interest proposing the county consider swapping a 4.9-acre park site at Melbourne Avenue on the east side of U.S. 41 in exchange for Sunseeker building a seawall around the entire site, a pedestrian bridge over U.S. 41 and the parking deck in Bayshore Park.

However, none of those components were included in Tuesday’s agreement.

County Economic Development Director Lucienne Pears told the commission Sunseeker “hit pause” on the Melbourne swap to perform “due diligence.” Sunseeker has not withdrawn from the letter of interest, she said. If Sunseeker decides to move forward, the commission would schedule a separate public hearing for a “sale and purchase agreement,” she said.

Tuesday’s agreements merely allowed Sunseeker to consolidate a couple of dozen lots it recently acquired at the southeast end of Bayshore Road not a contiguous site. The company, a subsidiary of Allegiant Airlines, must go through a site review process to get building permits. If its plans meet the standards of the Charlotte Harbor Riverwalk zoning district, Sunseeker can proceed with construction without coming back before the board, according to county spokesman Brian Gleason. That’s because the plan review process is “administrative,” he said.

However, Sunseeker may need to amend the agreement, and any amendment would be considered in a public hearing, he said.

Commissioner Stephen R. Deutsch pointed out it was the county, not Sunseeker, that proposed the parking garage in Bayshore Park. “That’s a beautiful park,” he said. “But parking is a problem.”

Commissioner Joe Tiseo said the Charlotte Harbor community redevelopment plan, adopted years ago, earmarked the southeastern end of Bayshore Road for tourist-and-commercial, high-rise development.

“If you look at the definition of the CRA you’d probably see Sunseeker as the definition,” he said. He added, however, that no one envisioned the scale that Sunseeker has proposed.

Commissioner Bill Truex said he hopes Sunseeker will decide to accept the Melbourne Avenue site swap. The development of the 4.9acre site would put it on the tax rolls, he pointed out.

He also complained about “constant misinformation” that people have received about the project.

Commissioner Chris Constance pointed out Sunseeker plans to reclaim portions of the site that have become submerged, apparently by building a seawall to the submerged property line and filling in behind it. Also, the plan calls for the parking garage to be located onto what is now Bayshore Road, so that only part of the garage will extend into Bayshore Live Oak Park. By “pushing it back” onto the road right of way, and reclaiming submerged land, the park will regain much of the space to be lost to the garage, he said.

Under the Riverwalk district’s code, developers can build as high as 90 feet if they provide a 12-foot-wide public river walk. The code limits residential density to 24 units per acre. But Sunseeker, which proposes up to 940 condominiums on less than 22 acres, will have no density limits under Tuesday’s agreement. That’s because one clause calls for the condominiums to be considered “motel” rooms for purposes of calculating impact fees and density. Motel rooms are exempt from density limits under the county code. Motel rooms are also charged $300 less per unit than hotel rooms, a county official told the commission.

Sunseeker may be the first condominium project in Charlotte County to get classified as a motel for zoning purposes, but many other similar projects in which condominiums double as resorts elsewhere have been zoned that way, said Berntsson. He pointed out the number of restaurants and waterfront amenities planned within the Sunseeker complex make it more like a resort than a typical condominium.

“It’s a new concept in Charlotte County,” he said.

Constance said he was not briefed on how the zoning designation change would affect impact fee revenues. However, he expressed confidence in the expertise of county staff to do what’s appropriate.

He also expressed enthusiasm for the project. It will bolster the airport, by transforming Charlotte Harbor into a travel destination.

“That airport is the economic engine for the county and we have to do everything we can in the economic interest of that airport,” he said.

The resort will also “finally engage” a nascent waterfront tourism industry that could sprout up, to include water taxis, tour trolleys and shuttle buses, he said.

“I’ve never heard of an airline building a resort in their destination,” he said.

“I’m sure it’s going to improve Charlotte Harbor,” said resident Joan Fischer. “What concerns me the most is the parking garage.”

Resident Dan Chesky said he fears the 90-foottall buildings “are going to totally destroy the view of Charlotte Harbor.” He also feels the parking garage and pedestrian bridge would “only benefit Sunseeker.”

Clark Keller complained, “This is moving at the speed of light and there’s black holes in the due diligence.”

“I want to thank Sunseeker and Allegiant Airlines for bringing this forward,” said Dianne Quilty, a member of a Charlotte Harbor CRA advisory committee. “But I think we have to make sure we remain to be good stewards of our county, keep informed of all the rules and regulations and don’t let anything slip.”

However, Douglas Tucker expressed unqualified support. “I want to thank each one of you for giving us public access to the water,” he said.