At Commissioner Smith’s suggestion, county staff to explore use of County Code variance to construct Siesta Village restroom

Discussion ensues during latest budget workshop

Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce leaders have proposed that a public restroom facility be constructed next to the gazebo, which is a focal point in Siesta Village. File photo

At the conclusion of the Sarasota County Commission’s most recent discussion about the proposed construction of public restrooms in Siesta Key Village, Commissioner Mark Smith — a long-time Siesta resident — won the support of his board colleagues for county staff to pursue a new approach.

As County Administrator Jonathan Lewis summed it up at the end of the commission’s May 15 budget workshop, staff will review the County Code to determine whether staff can grant a variance for the project.

Prior to his November 2022 election to the commission, Smith had represented the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce in advocating for the restrooms. The designated location would be adjacent to the gazebo at the four-way stop in Siesta Village. The owners of Beach Bazaar had agreed to donate a portion of their property for the structure.

Yet, even with the support of then-Commission Chair Alan Maio’s in June 2022 — and Siesta business owners’ pleadings to the commissioners in August 2022, in regard to how badly a restroom facility is needed in the Village — nothing happened.

In the summer of 2022, the Siesta Chamber even undertook a survey with a single question: “Do you support the chamber’s efforts to encourage Sarasota County to fund, implement and maintain public restrooms in Siesta Key Village?”

As The Sarasota News Leader reported, 87% of the respondents were in favor of the initiative. In fact, leaders of the Chamber — whose office in the Village serves as a visitors center, as well — have emphasized the fact that, through the years, volunteers and staff of the organization frequently had fielded the question, “Where is your public restroom?”

Then, in February 2023, following his election, when Smith raised the topic once again, stressing to his fellow commissioners, “There’s a tremendous need for these toilets.” As he had in the past, he emphasized that the goal was to use a “very simple” design.

When he sought their support for a board assignment on the project — the county term for directing staff to undertake research on an issue and report its findings to the commissioners — Smith won it.

In the resulting report, staff concluded that constructing a facility with the standard design used for new restrooms at Legacy Trail trailheads would cost at least $15,000. Additional funding likely would be required for site-specific improvements, including grading, paving, utility connections “and any other necessary upgrades,” the report said.

During the board’s regular meeting on April 11, 2023, Smith characterized the staff design as “a little more elaborate than I was thinking.”

He did not give up on the idea that a more reasonably priced structure could be built.

On May 15, as the commissioners were considering a variety of proposed and planned county projects, as part of their 2025 fiscal year budget discussions, Spencer Anderson, director of the county’s Public Works Department, talked again about the Village restroom initiative.

“Everything, as far as we can determine with permitting regulation, [shows] there isn’t a way to building an open structure,” Anderson said. He alluded to the fact that the Siesta Key Village location is within one of the county’s most vulnerable floodplains, Zone AE.

“The only way we can do it,” Anderson said of the project, “is by ‘dry floodproofing’ the structure.”

He showed the board members photos illustrating what he meant by “dry floodproofing.”

These are examples of ‘dry floodproofing,’ as depicted in a slide presented to the commissioners on May 15. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“These are all removable-type structures,” Anderson noted of the facilities in the photos. Door and window coverings are put in place, he explained, “when you’re expecting a flood event to occur.”

His slide described the process thus: “Only option to allow for at-grade construction of a restroom in the Village is to provide dry floodproofing up [to] the [required Federal Emergency Management Agency] flood elevation.

  • “Majority of structure would be filled block construction; any openings would have to be protected by removable dry flood protection.”

The dry floodproofing measures would be removed when no flooding was expected, Anderson noted.

“I’ve actually done some floodproofing projects,” Commissioner Smith responded, “and I could have gotten you some better pictures.”

The possibility posed by the Code

Commissioner Mark Smith asks a question during the Sept. 27, 2023 board meeting. File image

Then Smith said he had information he wanted to share with his colleagues. He read from Article 16, Chapter 54, Section 518, of the County Code:

“The Sarasota County Building Code Board of Adjustments and Appeals (‘Board of Adjustment’) is hereby authorized to grant Variances to allow New Construction and Substantial Improvements to be built below the Base Flood Elevation as delineated on the adopted Flood Insurance Rate Maps … Variances shall only be granted prior to proposed New Construction, Substantial Improvement, or any other Development when based upon competent, substantial evidence presented by the applicant that a Hardship, as defined in this Article is found to exist, and the following considerations are evaluated …”

Smith then noted a couple of those considerations. No. 4 says, “The importance of the services provided by the proposed Development to the community.” No. 6 adds, “The compatibility of the proposed Development with existing and anticipated Development.”

After reading from the Code, Smith said, “I would request that staff review this.” He added, “It seems to me … that this project would fall under the variance criteria, because of the hardship, because of the size of the land, because of the need.”

He prefaced his next remark as a “somewhat semi-humorous comment,” given that he has been working for the past 18 months as a commissioner to try to get the structure built. That comment was a quote from Section 45-518 (l) of the same part of the Code from which he had been reading. It says, “A request for variance is authorized to be heard and decided by the Assistant Director of Planning and Development Services …”

“So apparently,” Smith added, looking directly at Anderson, “I’ve been going too high,” as Anderson is a department director.

Smith then asked for his colleagues’ permission to consult with staff “at a future time to pursue the variance option. I believe that we can make [the restroom facility] happen.”

Smith did stress, “I’m not going to give up on this. I’ve done floodproofed structures.” He called Anderson’s latest design option “overkill for this particular project. … We’re talking about two toilet stalls next to the gazebo. … It shouldn’t be this hard.”

He acknowledged, though, that he was not certain whether he needed his colleagues’ consensus to meet with staff “to move this thing forward.”

Commissioner Neil Rainford thanked Smith for his remarks. In looking at the photos Anderson had shown the board members, Rainford said, “It’s like gates to a throne. It’s wild.”

Then Rainford told Smith, “I couldn’t agree with you more. … Siesta Key needs this [facility] …”

Rainford indicated that he likely would be in favor of using the variance option.

Commissioner Joe Neunder. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Commissioner Joe Neunder, who represents the southern half of the barrier island as part of his District 4 territory, added, “Well done, Mark Smith, sounding like an attorney down there at the end of the table.”

Neunder told his colleagues, “I can fully support, you know, any movement forward to investigate [this option]. … I think it’s a good project .. because when you got to go, you got to go.”

(This reporter heard at least one chuckle from another commissioner after Neunder’s last remark.)

Chair Michael Moran looked at the other board members before telling staff that he saw no indication that anyone wanted to make further comments on the topic.

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