Bars and restaurants in ‘South Bridge Area’ of Siesta Key win county approval to lower number of parking spaces required for patrons

New county regulation allows for low-speed vehicle parking on all of Siesta Key

Thanks to a recent, unanimous vote of the Sarasota County Commission, the parking regulations for the “South Bridge Area” of Siesta Key — the business district south of the Midnight Pass Road/Stickney Point Road intersection — have been modified to require fewer spaces for restaurants and bars.

Additionally, the amendment to the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC), which contains all of the land-use and zoning regulations, will allow parking space credits for low-speed vehicles all over Siesta Key.

Originally, the latter proposed modification called for credits for golf cart parking. However, following a county Planning Commission discussion, the amendment was revised to substitute low-speed vehicles for golf carts.

A definition of low-speed vehicles was provided, as well, in the UDC amendment, a July 12 county staff memo said: “For the purpose of this section, a Low Speed Vehicle (LSV) is defined as a street legal vehicle that has a minimum speed of 20 mph and a maximum speed of 25 mph, and may include golf carts, scooters, scoot coupes, etc.”

The ordinance that the county commissioners approved says, “A credit of one parking space for every one LSV [low-speed vehicle] parking space is permitted for an individual commercial business or multi-business plaza, up to a maximum of four parking spaces or 25 percent (25%) of the required parking, whichever is greater.” Each LSV parking space must measure 6 feet in width and 18 feet in depth, the amendment adds.

The Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD) zoning regulations already contained parking credits for bicycles and motorcycles at businesses, the staff memo noted.

As explained in that memo, which was included in the July 12 agenda packet, the parking calculation that had been in effect in the South Bridge Area called for one parking space per 50 square feet of indoor and outdoor patron area for restaurants and bars. The UDC amendment increases that one space per 75 square feet.

Earlier this year, the County Commission authorized the Planning and Development Services Department staff to process the amendment, at the request of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce.

Mark Smith, chair-elect of the Chamber, presented the proposal to the Planning Commission on May 5, during that board’s public hearing. Owners of restaurants in the South Bridge Area asked the Chamber leaders for the parking space reduction, he said.

“During the pandemic,” Smith pointed out, restaurant owners “had taken a good deal of the seating outside, either on the sidewalks or onto their parking spaces, because their patrons didn’t feel comfortable going into their restaurants.”

County staff, with the approval of the County Commission, was “very generous” in allowing those arrangements, he noted, even when restaurants had not applied for and received the Temporary Use Permits that staff was processing for that purpose.
Since the pandemic has waned, Smith continued, Code Enforcement staff no longer is “looking away” from outdoor dining arrangements that violate county regulations.

Given the fact that many condominium complexes are located within half-a-mile of the restaurants and bars in the South Bridge Area, Smith added, “We believe [the adjustment in the parking-space requirements] is the prudent thing to do to help the businesses down there.”

He also pointed out that he had requested that owners of restaurants and bars in that part of the Key keep track of how their patrons arrive. “What we found is that the number of folks that drove to that area was between 54% and 62% of the total,” Smith told the planning commissioners. Another 16% to 26% of patrons took the Siesta Key Breeze trolley or a free ride service to the businesses, he continued, while 12% to 30% of patrons walked or biked there.

He acknowledged the range in those statistics, attributing that to the fact that he had received the data from a number of businesses.

Then Smith noted that the Siesta Key Overlay District zoning regulations for restaurant and bar parking called for one space per 50 square feet of indoor and outdoor patron floor area.

Donna Thompson, director of the county’s Zoning Division, told the planning commissioners that “patron floor area” includes any space used for eating, drinking and waiting for tables to open up. That includes patios, decks and other outdoor areas, she added.

Thus, Smith said, the UDC amendment would reduce by one-third the number of parking spaces needed. That jived with the statistics indicating that less than two-thirds of the patrons drive to the bars and restaurants, he pointed out. The proposed amendment, Smith said, “shouldn’t burden the existing parking …”

As for the proposed golf cart modification to the Siesta Key Overlay District, Smith noted that two regular parking spaces could be combined to create space for three golf carts.

“We’ve got an increasing number of golf carts on Siesta Key … but what we don’t really want is them parking in real parking spaces,” he added.

The Chamber had asked that businesses get a credit up to 25% of the total number of spaces they would have to have if they created parking areas for golf carts, Smith continued. The maximum number of spaces allotted by that credit would be four, he pointed out.

If the amendment were approved, Smith said, golf cart drivers would be able to park in their own spaces.

Thompson then noted that emails staff had received from organizations on the Key had called for the a revision of the golf cart provision, to ensure that it would apply only to golf carts considered “street legal” under Florida law. The relevant section of the Florida Statues requires headlights, for example, and licensing of the vehicles.

“Mr. Smith said he doesn’t have a problem with that,” Thompson told the commissioners.

Concerns raised about the consequences

Planning Commissioner Andrew Stultz was the first member of that board to note that the Key has all sorts of low-speed vehicles, including those with three wheels. “Would [those] count as a golf cart?”

Planning Commissioner Kevin Cooper — who served as executive director of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce years ago — added that he understood from an email sent to the Planning Commission that leaders of the Siesta Key Association wanted to make certain that the amendment would not encourage the use of illegal vehicles. However, Cooper said he was not certain who would be responsible for making sure “that street-legal vehicles are actually parking [in the spaces provided for golf carts].”

The Zoning Division staff is “certainly not going to go out there and regulate what’s parking in there,” Thompson responded.

As the discussion ensued, Cooper noted, “In my experience, I think the golf carts are parking in the regular spots today because they have no other alternative. … Hopefully, [this amendment] will create pressure relief on the regular vehicular spaces.”

In regard to the issue of reducing the number of patron parking spaces, Chair Teresa Mast voiced concern that if the Planning Commission were to recommend that the County Commission approve the UDC amendment, that would result in public perception “that those on the island would have preferential parking …”

She wanted to be certain that the board showed concern for all county residents, Mast added.

“How do you justify [the] request?” she asked Smith.

He replied that he lives on Siesta. “I know better than to drive. I’m taking the trolley or riding my bike,” which is what he said he expects most island residents do, instead of driving to destinations on the Key.

Chamber leaders feel the amendment would not harm anything, Smith said.

Still, Mast told him she feared that the Planning Commission would hear complaints about the loss of regular parking spaces.

Smith responded that he presented the Chamber proposal to leaders of the Siesta Key Association and the Siesta Key Condominium Council before submitting it to county staff for consideration as a UDC amendment. The primary concern of leaders of those organizations, he continued, was that only street-legal golf carts would be allowed to use the spaces.

Smith also pointed out that no one from either organization — and no other residents — were there for the Planning Commission hearing to protest the proposal. (No one asked to address the County Commission during the July 12 hearing, either.)

Following further discussion, Smith suggested that the proposed language for the second part of the amendment be modified to call for “street-legal” vehicles. “We don’t want a Mini Cooper parked [in one of the spaces].”

Finally Planning Commissioner Stultz made a motion, recommending that the County Commission approve the proposed amendment, and Cooper seconded it. The board members did agree to suggest a tweak to the golf cart language to ensure that only street-legal vehicles could park in the smaller spaces.

The vote in favor of the motion was 8-1, with Jordan Keller casting the “No” vote. Keller had expressed concern about reducing the number of regular vehicle parking spots.

A Sarasota resident, he is among the newest members of the board, having been appointed to it in August 2021.