Walton commissioners OK hotel project in Miramar Beach, taking 'common-sense approach'

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

MIRAMAR BEACH — Walton County commissioners unanimously approved the development of two hotels in Miramar Beach on Tuesday, with one of those approvals coming reluctantly under the duress of a prior decision by the county's Zoning Board of Adjustments to reduce the number of required parking spaces.

Commissioners made short work of the first of Tuesday's two approvals, voting to issue a development order for a 116-unit Staybridge Suites hotel on 2.39 acres on U.S. Highway 98 at Ponce de Leon Street.

Previous coverage:Staybridge Suites, TownePlace Suites hotels get closer to coming to Miramar Beach

The Staybridge Suites project is being pursued by Destin Sandestin Hospitality LLC, a Kentucky-based company with offices in St. Petersburg. It encountered little concern as it made its way through the county approval process, with stops at the Technical Review Committee, the Design Review Board and the Walton County Planning Commission before Tuesday's decision by the County Commission.

The only hiccup came when the Design Review Board asked that the corporate color palette — Staybridge Suites is a brand of the International Hospitality Group, which includes Holiday Inn brands — be modified, and also that tile instead of stone be used on some exterior areas.

This 65-unit Quality Inn and Suites on Scenic Gulf Drive in South Walton County will be replaced by a 100-unit TownePlace Suites hotel under terms of a unanimous decision by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners. Although concerned about parking at the site, commissioners were bound by a parking variance approved by the county's Zoning Board of Adjustments.

Parking was a brief issue Tuesday with the Staybridge Suites proposal until an engineer with the project told the commissioners that the developer has an agreement with The Blake, an assisted-living residence adjacent to the hotel, to handle any needs for overflow parking.

On the other hand, the TownePlace Suites project, a 100-unit hotel coming to a tight 1.53-acre lot off Scenic Gulf Drive at the edge of U.S. 98 — the current site of a 65-unit Quality Inn & Suites hotel set for demolition — found commissioners fuming over a parking variance allowed by the Zoning Board of Adjustments (ZBA).

Toughening up on parking: Walton County to consider getting tougher on parking regulations, boosting fines

Prior to the project coming to the County Commission, the ZBA granted the developer, Banyan Investment Group — an Atlanta-based hotel investment and management company that operates Marriott-, Hilton- and Holiday Inn-branded lodgings — a variance from a county code requirement that hotels have 1.1 parking spaces for each room.

Banyan had originally asked that the Marriott-branded TownePlace Suites be allowed to have 0.9 spaces per room for what was originally to have been a 103-room property. But as the project spent months in the county approval process, the developer eventually asked for and was granted a variance allowing for just one space per room for a 100-room project, 10 fewer spaces than the county code would have otherwise required.

County review process

On Tuesday, Commissioner Danny Glidewell was incredulous that the ZBA was allowed under the county's review process to make such a monumental decision before the issue got to the County Commission.

"How does this get to the ZBA before it gets to us?" Glidewell asked Steve Hall, the county's land-use attorney. "... Before they're turned down here, they get to go to the ZBA and get a variance. That doesn't make any sense. That's sort of like putting the cart before the horse. It should come to us first."

Hall told Glidewell that the county's current process allows for exactly that to occur, saying simply, "That's the way the process works."

Later, Hall added that the county now is "bound by that ZBA decision in terms of what the minimum space required (for parking) will be." The developer, Hall added, "took advantage of the process that we have and they ended up with a little bit of a break out of it."

South Walton County:Two new hotels coming to Freeport? Proposals get design review in Walton County

Hall added that the county's planning staff recommended against granting the variance at the ZBA meeting.

"There is no way this makes any sense," Glidewell said before asking the county staff to "bring back a fix to that."

Developing that solution, which could include changes to hotel parking requirements, will involve Hall meeting with each commissioner to understand their specific concerns. 

Parking requirements

During discussion of the TownePlace Suites project, Commission Chairman Mike Barker pleaded for a more realistic approach to parking requirements in the county code.

"I would think that we need to take a hard look at the code and revamp it based on a little more common sense," Barker said. "The common-sense approach really needs to play a large part in our code."

More immediately, however, Glidewell and other commissioners wondered exactly how a 100-space parking lot would adequately serve TownePlace Suites and its staff. As a prelude, Hall told commissioners the county standard of 1.1 spaces per room is based on regularly updated data from the Institute of Traffic Engineers, which provides research and expertise in ground transportation issues, and whose work is widely used as a governmental standard.

"They study existing hotel operations specifically...," Hall told the commission. "They gather 100 or 200 ... case studies together and come out with an average to come up with that parking space minimum requirement."

But Glidewell and Barker argued that it was difficult to believe that on holiday weekends and likely at other times during tourist season that hotels close to the beaches aren't fully occupied.

Occupancy rates were an issue as the TownePlace Suites proposal moved through the county's planning process. Representatives of the project indicated that the hotel would routinely have less than 100% of its rooms in use.  

"Somebody's trying to tell me that ... a hotel two blocks from the ocean is going to be 75% booked?" Glidewell asked Tuesday. "That don't pass the barn (smell) test, I'm telling you."

Previously:Proposal for Tru by Hilton hotel off Highway 98 reviewed by Walton County planners

Barker noted that guests might not be the only people coming to the hotel, and visitors coming to be with hotel guests likely would park along nearby residential streets.

"And I'm still not satisfied where employees are going to park," Barker said. "The math don't compute."

Glidewell argued that, just as a developer has rights with regard to his property, so do a development's neighbors. With regard to the TownePlace Suites project, Glidewell asserted that guests, visitors, and staff "are going to be parking in the next door neighbor's yard or ... whatever. This is infringing on their property rights. ... We're basically saying, 'Go ahead, park in the neighbor's yard. It's all right.' Well, that's not what the law says. They have property rights, too, and they have the right to keep (those people) off their property."

County regulations 

Interestingly, commissioners got some sympathy Tuesday from Miramar Beach resident Lori Echols. A frequent critic of county zoning, land use, and development decisions, Echols noted that county regulations and processes often place commissioners in untenable positions.

"Y'all are stuck with the position of having to continue putting things through that you know are not right," Echols said. "That's not fair to y'all, it's not fair to your people, and it's not fair to the taxpayers to continue letting developers come in and get whatever they want."

Eventually, Commissioner Tony Anderson moved the commission toward what turned out to be a unanimous, if regretted, vote in favor of the TownePlace Suites project.

"I make a motion we approve," Anderson said. "I don't like it, but I think this is one of those situations where we're caught and we don't have a choice."