Watermarke developers withdraw application for comp plan amendment

Project partners pull application in order to preserve right to resubmit it


Moments before a county commissioner could make a motion to deny their application, the developers of the proposed Watermarke resort last week withdrew the application for a comprehensive plan amendment that would allow them to construct a private resort and beach club on Coastal Highway at Vilano Beach.

At the Sept. 20 meeting of the Board of County Commissioners, Commissioner Rachael Bennett concluded nearly five hours of presentations, discussion and public comment by making a motion to approve transmittal of the proposed amendment. When no one seconded Bennett’s motion, however, Commissioner Jay Morris indicated his intention to make a motion to deny the application, prompting the developers’ attorney to request its withdrawal. County Commissioners then voted to accept the application’s withdrawal.

The hearing was but the latest chapter in the proposal to build a resort with 120 hotel rooms, 50 villas, a 39-slip marina and 70,000 square feet of resort amenities on Coastal Highway/A1A approximately 1.5 miles north of Vilano Town Center. The proposal has sparked community opposition, with some Vilano Beach residents forming the group Save Our Vilano to oppose the project.

The Sept. 20 BCC meeting was held before hundreds of residents wearing white, many of whom sported white t-shirts proclaiming their opposition to the resort plan.

“It was clear that, with the numbers of opposition present, we were not going to get the votes needed for transmittal,” Developer Steve Magiera said. “By withdrawing the application, we preserved the option to reassess the plan and potentially resubmit our application in the months ahead.”

While saying that he and his project partners appreciate the passion of the Save Our Vilano members, Magiera said he doesn’t believe the group is representative of the views of the wider community.

“Since the hearing, we have received numerous phone calls, text messages and emails from the working residents of the Vilano area expressing concern that the Save Our Vilano group purports to represent all of the Vilano area,” he said. “Their message to us is that the 150 people that attended the hearing…do not represent the other 3,000 plus Vilano area residents.”

A question of commitment

Much of the Sept. 20 hearing focused on a provision in the developers’ application that would give them the right to revert back to the property’s current Residential C zoning should the resort project fail to move forward. Currently, the property is approved for a 79-unit residential development. That provision didn’t sit well with Morris, who said he’d never encountered such a request in his six years on the board.

“I’ve never seen that put in where you kind of want (to have) your cake and it eat it too,” Morris said. “You’re trying to rezone something, but if it doesn’t work out all right for you, you want to go back to what you had before that you’re trying to get away from now.”

The inclusion of that language, Morris said, caused him to question the developers’ commitment to making the resort a reality.

Magiera disputed that assessment.

“I can tell you that there’s no shortage of dedication to this project,” he said at the hearing. “We wouldn’t have gone through this for seven months if we weren’t dedicated to this project.

“We don’t know where the world is going,” he continued, “and the market for this kind of investment capital could dry up.”

Commissioner Jimmy Johns also expressed concern.

“The recession has made all of us gun shy,” he said. “I share the concern with this ‘we’ll have it one way or the other depending on the economy.’ I’m concerned it’s not been vetted enough.”

Those sentiments were echoed by some of the residents who spoke during the public comment portion of the hearing.

“Watermarke is a conundrum in the fact that their attorney proposed that if it is not a success, then it can revert back to the original Residential C plan,” Vilano Beach resident Linda Doherty said. “Does this sound like a confident, right kind of development plan?”

Other residents focused on the issue of compatibility, saying such a large commercial property would be out of place in their neighborhood.

“A commercial space bigger than the White House… has no business being inserted into our residential community – at least according to our comprehensive plan,” resident Brandy Schmidt told commissioners. “Please vote to keep big commercial development where it belongs.”

Former County Commissioner Mary Kohnke, meanwhile, told the board, “You were elected to represent the interests of current residents. There will always be those who try to lure you with the interest of higher property taxes for new projects, even if they’re not compatible. If these projects were so compatible, they wouldn’t be asking for comp plan changes.”

While Bennett offered the view that a resort would have less impact on the county than a residential development – which would impact schools and other county services – her fellow board members failed to support her motion to approve transmittal of the amendment.

“I’m all for commercial construction…I hope you build this project,” Morris said. “You’re just building it in the wrong location.”

Following the application’s withdrawal, Magiera said the Watermarke team was reassessing its resort proposal “to determine whether a mutually agreeable and financially feasible alternative exists.”

In the meantime, he said, the developers will move forward with the residential option for which the property is already zoned. “We still believe the resort option is the highest and best use for this property,” he said. “The residential plan has always been an option – we just don’t believe it’s the best option. Nevertheless, we will immediately begin to get all necessary permits and file construction plans for the condominiums given the 2018 and 2021 expiration dates for the PUD.”

Bill Nesbitt, a spokesman for Save Our Vilano, said the group has no issue with that project.

“Save Our Vilano recognizes the right of this or any responsible developer to build out the currently in force residential PUD that the land owner requested and was granted in 2007,” Nesbitt said.

Should the resort proposal be resubmitted, however, the group will reassert its opposition.“Save Our Vilano remains vigilant and opposed to any change in the comp plan that would allow higher densities and large commercial projects along A1A,” he said. “The prevailing view across this barrier island of 5,000 residents is to continue as an area of residential neighborhoods along with a vital town center on Vilano Road.”