Fire chief talks of plans to replace building next to Siesta Public Beach
A new two-story building for Fire Station No. 13, a means of tracking the movements of the Siesta Key Breeze open-air trolley and illegal short-term rentals were just a sampling of the topics senior Sarasota County staff members covered during the Feb. 19 meeting of the Siesta Key Condominium Council.
In 2018, when Sarasota County Fire Chief Michael Regnier appeared before the Condominium Council members, he took questions about the fact that the department had to evacuate its personnel and equipment from the Siesta station before Hurricane Irma was expected to strike the area in September 2017.
Having a new structure in place will not eliminate the need for such evacuations, just because Siesta is one of the areas in the county most vulnerable to storm surge, Regnier said on Feb. 19. However, if the County Commission ultimately approves a redesigned facility for Station No. 13, he added, “we [will] have a place to come back to” if a storm does inflict significant damage on the Key.
The existing building, he said, dates to 1973-74. Anyone who has been inside, he continued, knows how small it is.
Regnier explained that staff has been working with an architect on a design similar to that of the new two-story fire station at the intersection of Bee Ridge Road and Murdock Avenue. The façade of the Siesta Key structure “will probably be very different,” he added, so it will blend into the beach community atmosphere. (Station No. 13 is next to Siesta Public Beach on Beach Road.)
Staff will have “a lot of interaction” with the public, he pointed out, before decisions about the appearance of the facility are finalized.
As for the timeline: Regnier said he is hopeful that the Fire Department might be able to break ground in October. Still, he cautioned, “That’s a guess.”
In response to a Sarasota News Leader request for more details about the project, Ashley Lusby, the media relations officer for the county’s Emergency Services Department, explained in a Feb. 20 email that a discussion about a new building for Fire Station No. 13 will be on the County Commission’s March 13 agenda. “At that time,” she continued, “the board will consider an architect and construction manager for the project.” The groundbreaking is “tentatively scheduled for the end of this year,” she added.
As for the location of the structure: Lusby wrote, “The new fire station will be rebuilt in the same location as the current station.”
Another primary reason for a two-story building, she noted, is the size constraint of the property.
A second county speaker at the meeting, Rob Lewis, serves as both the interim director of Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) and director of governmental relations. The latter position, he explained, involves working at both the state and federal levels on legislation that would be of benefit to the county.
In discussing SCAT, Lewis pointed to the popularity of the Siesta Key Breeze, the free trolley service that circulates between Turtle Beach and Siesta Village.
Ridership on the Breeze from Dec. 22, 2018 through Jan. 31 was 77,812, he noted. In its first year of operation — from March 2017 to March 2018 — the Breeze transported its 250,000th rider, Lewis said.
Explaining that he uses the Breeze, Condominium Council President Frank Jurenka reminded Lewis that when the Breeze was launched, SCAT staff indicated that a mobile app would be available at some point to enable passengers to track the trolley’s route over the island. That way, they would not have to waste time waiting for it.
“[That] would be especially beneficial,” Jurenka added.
A new firm won the contract last summer to operate the Breeze for the county, Lewis explained, and that company has equipment on the vehicles it operates that will enable riders to follow the trolley online on a real-time basis.
SCAT staff expects the launch of the tracking system “sometime in the next month,” Lewis added.
“It’s not a mobile app” that a person downloads from the Apple store, for example, Lewis pointed out. Instead, a person will be able to visit a specific SCAT website on a smartphone, an iPad or a laptop computer to check on the trolley’s location.
The internet address is https://scattrack.scgov.net/bustime.jsp.
Lewis promised to let Jurenka know when the app goes live for the Breeze, so the Condominium Council can alert its members.
All county buses have GPS devices, Lewis noted, so riders can track them, as well.
Siesta resident Michael Shay also asked Lewis about the potential for extending the trolley’s route to the northern part of the island.
“The constraint is finding an adequate place to turn around,” Lewis replied. With the current route, he continued, the trolley comes up Canal Road, behind Siesta Village, and then stops at Morton’s Siesta Market before heading southbound on Ocean Boulevard. “It has the ability to turn around at Turtle Beach.”
Staff has been exploring options on the northern part of the Key, Lewis added.
“What about the streets up here?” Shay asked, referring to Gleason Avenue, where Siesta Key Chapel is located. (The meeting was taking place in a room at the church.)
For that matter, Shay continued, what about having the trolley turn around on Siesta Chapel’s property?
“We have to limit our turnarounds … to public roads,” Lewis responded. However, he added, “I don’t want to rule anything out.”
He recently had been talking with County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, Rob Lewis said. “We just keep breaking things till we find the right way to fix [a problem].” Therefore, Rob Lewis told Shay, he would look into options involving Siesta Chapel.
When another person suggested the trolley continue to Nora Patterson Bay Island Park, which is just west of the Siesta Drive drawbridge, Rob Lewis also explained that the further the trolley runs, the greater the expense for the county.
The short-term rental woes
Shay also took the opportunity during the meeting to ask County Administrator Lewis about ongoing problems with Code Enforcement on the island, especially in regard to illegal rentals of homes in single-family neighborhoods.
The County Commission is looking at a stiffer fine, Lewis explained, but, under the guidelines of Florida law, “You have to be able to establish a violation and due process,” and anyone who violates the county code has to be given the opportunity to “cure” the situation.
The transient accommodations issue, Lewis acknowledged, “is a big [one] for any beach area, and I think it’s going to continue to grow” as more people come to Florida.
Even if county Code Enforcement staff establishes that a violation continues occurring, Lewis said, the staff member has to present the case to a Special Magistrate. It is up to that court official, Lewis added, to decide how to proceed, and the decision may be to give the offender 30 more days to clear up the problem.
Last year on Longboat Key, Lewis noted, the Town Commission approved the implementation of a civil citation process for violations of the town’s short-term rental regulations. “Word got out with the rental community,” Lewis added, “so people just don’t answer the door” when a town representative tries to issue a citation.
“We’re still trying to figure out what the legal options are,” he said. Ultimately, Lewis continued, the County Commission may agree to implement new procedures, and some of them “may have to be tested in court, I think.”