County Commission splits 3-2 on decision
With Sarasota County Commissioner Neil Rainford having stated that he was “totally against preserving this building, and Commissioner Michael Moran questioning the potential of other options, the board members recently ended up voting 3-2 to grant a county historical designation to the approximately 90-year-old cottage standing at Beach Access 7 on Siesta Key.
Commissioner Mark Smith, who lives on the barrier island — and who is an architect — made the Oct. 24 motion, having contended that the designation would enable county staff to install a restroom in the structure without having to make certain the building complied with modern requirements for construction in floodplains.
Rainford cited the need for more parking for the public to reach the beach, which long has been one of the county’s top tourist destinations. However, Smith noted the high demand for public restrooms, as well. “It would be a big, believe me, a huge plus,” Smith pointed out, if county staff could include restrooms in the cottage. “We don’t have bathrooms at any of the beach accesses,” he added. The only public facilities are at the county’s beach park, he noted, though he has been working since before his election to the board in November 2022 to achieve county construction of public restrooms in Siesta Village.
Rainford responded that he is in favor of additional public restrooms on the island. However, he told Smith, “I would rather put a sustainable bathroom at a flood elevation [in compliance with modern building standards] connected to … a sewer system and so forth,” instead of granting an historical designation to the cottage, which has been proven to contain asbestos.
Answering a question posed by Commissioner Joe Neunder, Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), said that an investigation had determined that asbestos is present in the floor, ceiling and shingles of the cottage. When renovations were undertaken after the county purchased the building in 2008, she said, staff had to deal with asbestos mitigation.
“Was [the expense] astronomical at the time? No,” she added.
Noting that “half of Siesta is in my district,” Neunder agreed with Smith and Rainford about the need for more public restrooms. If granting the historical designation to the cottage would help, Neunder continued, he would support the staff proposal for the designation. He called that “a creative fit for a problem.”
As long as asbestos is encapsulated, Smith explained, which is what happens after it has been painted, the asbestos does not pose a problem. Therefore, Smith said of the cottage, “As long as we keep it nicely painted, we should be safe.”
At the outset of the 20-minute discussion, Josh Goodman, manager of the county’s Historical Resources Division, pointed out that, when the county’s Comprehensive Plan was updated in 2016, Historic Preservation Policy 1.1.13 said, “Nominate eligible County-owned archaeological and historical resources to the Sarasota County Register of Historical Places and/or National Register of Historic Places.”
Then, in early 2018, he continued, the Historic Resources staff put additional focus on identifying and designating county-owned historical resources.
“To date,” Goodman told the commissioners, “23 county-owned historic properties have been officially designated.” The Access 7 cottage, he noted, was one of the final two properties considered for that action. (The other one, the Snook Haven Lodge in Venice, also won historic designation on Oct. 24, on a 5-0 vote.)
Details about the cottage
In late March, Goodman added, the members of the county’s Historic Preservation Board recommended that the County Commission approve the historic designation for the Access 7 building, which formally is known as the Curione Family Beach Cottage; it stands at 5404 Calle de la Siesta. The record of that action said the building “possesses six of the seven attributes of integrity as listed in Section 66-114(b) [of the County Code of Ordinances:] location, design, setting, materials, feeling and association …”
The county staff report on the building says it “is a rare surviving pre-World War II beach cottage on a coastal lot along Siesta Key’s Crescent Beach. Nearly all structures built prior to 1950 in that area have been demolished. The cottage exemplifies the type of simple wood-frame structures built on Sarasota’s barrier islands during their first phase of development between the 1920s land boom and the beginning of World War II. It also exemplifies the type of simple Craftsman Bungalow-style residential buildings constructed in the early 20th century in Sarasota County, particularly on the barrier islands.”
The structure was built around 1932, Goodman said. “It retains a high degree of historic and physical integrity, meaning it has had few alterations over the years,” he pointed out.
It was family-owned for decades, serving as a vacation home and a rental property, Goodman noted.
The debate over the designation
After Goodman completed his remarks, Commissioner Rainford was the first board member to address the proposal. He said he visited the cottage on one of his tours of county facilities after Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed him to the board in June, to fill out the term of the late Commissioner Nancy Detert, who passed away in April.
Although county staff members leading the tour explained the cottage’s historic significance, Rainford continued, “The first thing I did was look at it and say, ‘This is an asbestos-built building, and Siesta Key lacks significant amounts of public parking.’ So, to my mind, this wants to be parking. This is not the Ca’ d’Zan,” he added, referring to the former waterfront home of John and Mable Ringling, on the grounds of The Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota. “This is not the Phillippi [Estate Park] mansion,” referring to another county historic structure.
The request, Rainford continued, was to “protect a house that’s a non-conforming house in the flood zone that we argue about all the time when developers are here.”
(“Non-conforming” is a reference to the fact that a building does not comply current building standards, including facets of construction.)
Rainford also contended that the cottage would “require an extreme amount of maintenance,” and it is subject to hurricane damage.
While Smith responded that he appreciated “Commissioner Rainford’s structure review,” he said he also wanted to point to the financial advantage of the historic designation. County staff could add restrooms to the structure without having worries about violating the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) 50% Rule, which requires that when renovations to a structure in a flood zone will cost more than 50% of the property’s value, the structure must be modified to comply with the modern building standards for flood zones.
Smith noted that he has been inside the cottage. “It’s very tight,” he added of the space. Still, he said, the historic designation would give county staff some leeway, as well, in complying with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines for restrooms in the interior.
As for its potential destruction during a hurricane: Smith called the cottage an anomaly. “Of all the storms we’ve had, this thing’s still standing there. … But if it gets wiped out, it gets wiped out.”
When Smith asked Rissler of Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources whether staff could use the cottage for a public purpose, she explained that a concept plan was created in advance of the purchase of the building, as required by county regulations. At that time, she continued, Sarasota Audubon leaders were “very involved” in discussions with staff about the potential use of the facility as an interpretive center, because of the seasonal appearance of endangered snowy plovers on that part of the Siesta Beach.
Subsequently, Rissler noted, the colony of plovers disappeared from that area, and Sarasota Audubon shifted its focus to the construction of a Nature Center on the county’s Celery Fields regional stormwater project in the eastern part of the county. That land has become an internationally known bird-watching destination.
Nonetheless, Rissler added, county staff did make some improvements to the Access 7 cottage that allowed for a small meeting space and a few offices for employees who work on Siesta.
“Honestly,” she told the board members, “we were waiting for the historical designation to be able to [work on the addition of restrooms].”
As for Rainford’s comments about the need for more public parking spaces, Rissler showed the board members the concept plan for the property created in conjunction with its purchase. Staff has not taken the time yet to analyze the potential for more spaces on the site, she said. “The footprint of the cottage is pretty small.”
She put the concept plan on the overhead video screens so the commissioners could see it.
An outbuilding and a boardwalk were removed from the property years ago, she explained, so it is possible that more spaces could fit into the area where those structures were located.
When Commissioner Moran asked whether staff had looked into the potential of moving the cottage to another site, Rissler replied that she had no knowledge of such a discussion.
Adding that he, like Rainford, was “struggling with [the proposal for the historic designation],” Moran suggested that, “Other folks might want to buy it, take it, move it.”
If it was the will of the commission for staff to explore such a possibility, Rissler told him, staff would do so.
“I don’t see … the use the taxpayer is going to get out of going into this little shed,” Rainford pointed out. “It’s not much bigger than a shed, quite frankly. Just pulling in there to look at it, you’re just blocking parking to the beach.”
Then, addressing Commissioner Smith, Rainford said, “I think your constituents out there might like the additional parking, maybe.” He chuckled. “I don’t know; I could be wrong.”
At one point, Chair Ron Cutsinger asked Goodman of Historic Resources if the commissioners could vote to demolish the structure in the future, if they awarded it the historic designation.
Goodman responded that they could, but he indicated that a number of steps would be required to take that action.
Finally, when Cutsinger called for a motion, Smith made it, calling for approval of the historic designation, and Neunder seconded it.