Siesta Key Association hears from County Commission chair and county administrator during its annual breakfast meeting
Just as when he addressed members of the Siesta Key Condominium Council in January, Sarasota County Commission Chair Al Maio noted during remarks to Siesta Key Association (SKA) members on March 5 that the future of the property at the northwest corner of Stickney Point Road and U.S. 41 continues to be of utmost concern to Siesta Key residents.
Speaking to about 140 people during the SKA’s annual breakfast meeting at St. Boniface Episcopal Church, Maio said a number of people had brought up concerns as he chatted with them that morning.
“To my knowledge, there is nothing yet filed on Stickney Point [Road] and [U.S.] 41,” he said, referring to an application for any type of permit. At one point, he continued, something was filed, but it had been withdrawn.
The property is owned by Benderson Development, which removed remnants of a mobile home park with plans announced several years ago to construct retail businesses and a hotel on the site.
“You need to be engaged,” Maio told the audience. “Don’t stand there yelling, ‘No.’” He urged the SKA members to ask for a traffic study and details about plans for access to the property.
Regarding the numerous emails he said the county board has received about the company’s plans, he characterized some as telling the commissioners, “I hope you knuckleheads … aren’t going to allow access to the neighborhoods to the north and to the west from this project.”
Others, he continued, have a message comparable to “I hope you knuckleheads are not going to stop the interconnectivity because I don’t want to drive from my neighborhood onto Stickney Point [Road] to make some impossible U-turn to get back to something 400 feet from my road to my neighborhood.”
Maio added, “All I can ask is that everybody stay real calm. … [The project has] a big path [to follow] with county staff,” and then presentations before the Planning Commission and the County Commission, before anything is approved.
Among other topics he addressed on March 5, Maio explained that the county is spending about $55 million on a project that will lead to the decommissioning of the Siesta Key wastewater treatment plant, which will become a master lift station. All the sewage will flow from the island to the mainland for treatment, he pointed out, after the project is completed in 2017.
The plant will be decommissioned at the direction of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), he said, which gave the county a one-year extension from the original deadline of late 2016 to have the work finished.
At this time, Maio noted, no plans exist for any other use of the property, though it will be landscaped, as it is “possibly not the prettiest thing in the world.”
SKA President Michael Shay told the audience that SKA Vice President Robert Stein has been heading up a committee comprising SKA directors and other members of the nonprofit organization to consider ideas for the future of the site.
Regarding the $21.5-million improvements to the Siesta Public Beach Park, Maio explained that a few “punch list” items remain to be completed. He pointed out that he was involved with the project for four-and-a-half years. “I won that … for my firm [Kimley-Horn and Associates] in my prior life,” he said. The firm handled the engineering, planning and landscaping design. “Then I got elected [in 2014], and [the beach park] happens to be sitting right square in the middle of my district.” As board chair, he continued, “I got to do the speech [during the Feb. 20 Grand Opening]. … It was a big day for me. I sprang out of bed that day, absolutely delighted.”
He added that the work came in on time and on budget, crediting staff — including Carolyn Brown, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department — and Jon F. Swift Construction of Sarasota.
Additionally, he noted, the county undertook a $4.6-million stormwater project adjacent to the beach park, which was designed to practically eliminate the possibility of future incidents when polluted runoff into the Gulf of Mexico would cause the Department of Health in Sarasota County to issue “No Swimming” notices.
Further, the South Siesta Renourishment Project was about to get underway, he said.
Weeks Marine of Covington, LA, will dredge about 690,000 cubic yards of sand for the renourishment of 2 miles of South Siesta beach. It was the only bidder for the South Siesta project, winning the $18,101,737.50 county contract in December 2015. The total cost of the project is $21.5 million. Property owners in the affected area will be assessed $3,536,237, beginning in the 2018 fiscal year, to help cover the expense. Another $11,215,500.50 came from Tourist Development Tax revenue.
The first nourishment on south Siesta beach was completed in 2007. The latest project also includes planting about 1.1 acres of native dune vegetation to replace what has been lost in recent years, county documents have explained.
The county manager for the undertaking, Paul Semenec, told The Sarasota News Leader in a March 9 email that dredging began just before 3 p.m. that day. “The contractor is on schedule,” he added, with the work to be completed by May 1, when sea turtle nesting season begins.
Maio also reiterated his comments from the Condo Council meeting about the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) plans unveiled in early 2014 for a roundabout at the intersection of Beach Road and Midnight Pass Road: “We were firmly, completely and openly promised that, right now, it is in a dormant state.” If the project is revived, he said, “we will get notified.”
He won plenty of applause from the audience on that note.
Taking a turn at the podium
Sarasota County Administrator Tom Harmer also addressed the SKA members on March 5, joking that he and Maio had agreed to divvy up the time so Maio would talk for 13 minutes and Harmer would take two minutes.
“Local government is a sausage-making,” he said. “It’s a little bit messy.”
Harmer pointed out the five county commissioners are his bosses, and they do not always agree on how things should be done. Further, the county itself has about 400,000 residents, he pointed out. Sarasota County Government employs 2,200 people in 17 departments, he noted. “I want you to be very comfortable [contacting me].”
Pointing out that he had brought a number of copies of the county’s 2015 Annual Report — the first that encompasses a full year of his work as county administrator — Harmer told the audience that 151 capital projects were underway last year, with 35 completed at a value of more than $150 million. Along with the renovations and improvements at Siesta Public Beach, he said, among those finished were restrooms at the Celery Fields, located off Fruitville Road on the east side of the county; two new fire stations; and the new Emergency Operations Center on Cattlemen Road.
The county has the second lowest millage rate in the state, he continued, and it has an AAA bond rating for general obligation bonds, so it is able to obtain the lowest possible interest rates.
One point about which he especially voiced pride was the 2015 Citizens Survey, which is handled every year by the University of South Florida. The researchers call people randomly until they have spoken with at least 800, he explained, asking them answers to specific questions about county operations.
“That makes me nervous,” Harmer added, because a respondent might have had a bad experience shortly before the call.
In 2014, the customer service marks were high, he continued. Then in 2015, he said, “We had the highest ratings in the history of the 24-year survey.”
Among those marks, he noted, were 97 percent of respondents saying they were treated with respect in their interactions with county employees; 88 percent saying they received the correct information after a request; and 84 percent noting they received a timely response to a query.
“We just need to keep pushing and hold that bar as high as we can,” Harmer told the audience.
The county also recently opened a Welcome Center in the lobby of the Administration Center in downtown Sarasota, he noted. In just the first week after volunteers and staff began manning it, he said, they learned that “seven out of 10 individuals were going to the wrong building [for help].”
As a result, Harmer added, staff had created a “tear-off map” that the Welcome Center makes available, showing the locations of all county facilities.
Finally, Harmer encouraged everyone to take advantage of the help they can receive through the county’s Contact Center. All a person has to do, he noted, is call 861-5000.
In other business …
Before Maio and Harmer began their remarks, SKA Secretary Joyce Kouba, chair of the organization’s Nominating Committee, introduced the officers and directors for the next year. The officers will remain the same, she said: Shay as president, Robert Stein as first vice president, Catherine Luckner as second vice president and Kouba as secretary.
The other directors are Beverly Arias, Harold Ashby, Helen Clifford, Deet Jonker, Dan Lundy, Bob Miller, and Joe Volpe.
Ashby and Miller are the newest members of the board.