Speakers implore FDOT to maintain jurisdiction over Stickney Point Road, citing its necessity as hurricane evacuation route for south Siesta residents

Siesta Promenade also a focal point for complaints about planned road swap, though FDOT project manager advises hearing attendees against focus on future development

Attendees begin to fill up the Fellowship Hall at Siesta Key Chapel for the Dec. 11 public hearing. Rachel Hackney photo

What will happen to one of only two hurricane evacuation routes for Siesta Key after the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) transfers to Sarasota County jurisdiction of Stickney Point Road from U.S. 41 to the Midnight Pass Road intersection?

A number of the 19 speakers who addressed an FDOT project manager on Dec. 11 at Siesta Key Chapel expressed that concern, with one specifically questioning the reasoning for a road swap that will turn over to the state the control of River Road in South County in exchange for the county’s assuming authority over Siesta Key Roads.

Sally Marshall, president of the Gulf Gate Garden Homes Association, pointed to the opening statement Kyle Purvis of FDOT’s District One staff made at the approximately hour-long hearing.

The purpose of the jurisdictional transfer, Purvis said, is “to give the department an opportunity [to improve] a high-priority hurricane evacuation route in South Sarasota County.”

“We certainly care about our South County neighbors,” Marshall told Purvis. Nonetheless, she continued, “It is not a logical or sound reason for the transfer.”

“You can’t get off the south end [of Siesta Key during a hurricane evacuation] without Stickney Point Road,” Margaret Jean Cannon stressed to Purvis.

No transfer of roadway jurisdictions should take place, Cannon added, until FDOT figures out how to deal with the congestion around the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road.

Traffic does not just back up into that intersection, as visitors try to head west toward Siesta Key’s beaches, Marshall emphasized. Her neighborhood is located in the vicinity of the intersection of Gateway Avenue and Stickney Point Road, Marshall explained. “We are terribly impacted during [tourist] season. … We urge that road transfer not to occur.”

Marshall and Cannon were among 85 people who signed in before the testimony began during the public hearing, Kris Cella, CEO of Cella Molnar & Associates of Fort Myers — whose firm was assisting FDOT — told The Sarasota News Leader.

This map shows the portions of Siesta roads that will become responsibility of Sarasota County. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Kafi Benz, president of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA), pointed out in her statement that not only is Stickney Point Road one of the two routes off Siesta Key for emergencies, “but the only one leading to the interstate roadway system. Transfer from existing state designation to county designation is totally inappropriate.”

Benz noted that CONA represents 70 neighborhoods in the county.

Melanie Goddard, president of the Gulf Gate Community Association, which oversees more than 1,500 homes, added that her organization’s residents also “would be dramatically impacted by this swap.”

“Already, we experience hugedifficulty getting through [the U.S. 41/Stickney Point Road] intersection during season,” Goddard added. Residents routinely have to wait through three to four cycles of the traffic signal, she said.

As for the hurricane evacuation issue: Goddard pointed out, “[The roadway] is, for us, very critical,” just as River Road is to South County residents.

An aerial map shows Gateway Avenue intersecting with Stickney Point Road. Gulf Gate neighborhoods are on the south side of the intersection. Image from Google Maps

One of the last of the speakers on Dec. 11, Steve Christophers, who lives on Bispham Road, noted the need for the River Road improvements because of “the mess the county has made of that road.”

Referring to Stickney Point Road, Christophers asked Purvis, “Do you have it on your calendar when you’re going to come back to fix that mess?”

‘The elephant in the room’

During his opening remarks, Purvis also told the audience, “This public hearing will only address the jurisdictional transfer of the roadway.”

Along with Stickney Point Road west of U.S. 41, the state plans to give the county authority over State Road 758, which includes Midnight Pass Road north of the Stickney Point Road/Midnight Pass Road intersection; Higel Avenue; Siesta Drive; Bay Road; and part of Osprey Avenue west of U.S. 41.

The County Commission formally approved the road swap in a unanimous vote on Oct. 8.

“No future plans [along] the roadway will be discussed during this meeting,” Purvis added. “That also includes the elephant in the room, apparently”: Siesta Promenade.

A June 2018 graphic in an updated Kimley-Horn and Associates traffic analysis for Siesta Promenade shows the project area adjacent to Pine Shores Estates. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In spite of that admonition, as the hearing went on, numerous speakers did refer to that project, though not by name.

Benderson Development Co. plans 414 apartments/condominiums, a 130-room hotel, 133,000 square feet of retail space and 7,000 square feet of office space in the northwest quadrant of the U.S. 41/Stickney Point Road intersection.

Concern about the estimated 8,000 to 12,000 additional vehicle trips expected to be generated in the vicinity of that intersection — if Siesta Promenade is completed — was the reason many speakers cited for their decision to make public statements during the Dec. 11 hearing.

In fact, the first person to address Purvis that night was Sura Kochman, leader of the Pine Shores Estates Alliance, which fought the Siesta Promenade plans, as proposed.

Almost exactly a year ago — on Dec. 12, 2018 — the Sarasota County Commission approved the mixed-use development on a series of votes, some of which were split. Kochman filed suit against the county in January, arguing that the board did not follow the applicable county procedures and had ignored county policies in making its decision.

On Dec. 2, 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Andrea McHugh denied those among Kochman’s arguments that McHugh could address in the type of complaint Kochman had filed. Other allegations in the lawsuit, McHugh ruled, could be included in a new complaint.

An aerial map shows the intersection of Avenue B and C with Stickney Point Road. Image from Google Maps

During the Dec. 11 hearing, Robert Luckner, a director of the Siesta Key Association, read a section of McHugh’s order that referenced plans for a new traffic signal on Stickney Point Road at the intersection of Avenue B and C.

“It is not in dispute that installing a traffic light is subject to approval by the Department of Transportation and that construction of [Siesta Promenade] cannot begin until the signal is installed and the intersection completed,” McHugh wrote.

“After the road transfer,” Luckner asked Purvis, will FDOT “abide by this commitment that was made to the court?”

James P. Wallace addresses Siesta Key Association members on Jan. 10. File photo

Luckner noted that he was submitting a copy of the judge’s order into the FDOT hearing record.

Residents on Siesta Key and in the area around the U.S. 41/Stickney Point Road intersection have expressed worries about plans for that light. They believe it will exacerbate the congestion on Stickney Point Road, especially given the constraints on traffic flow imposed by the drawbridge between U.S. 41 and Midnight Pass Road. (FDOT is retaining jurisdiction over both drawbridges leading to Siesta Key.)

James Wallace, a south Siesta Key resident who raised funds for Kochman’s lawsuit, called the section of McHugh’s order regarding the planned signal “the best news” that came out of her decision. “The court memorialized” FDOT’s involvement in the decision on the traffic light, he added.

During high tourist season, Wallace stressed, south Siesta residents already effectively are marooned in their homes during the busiest travel times of the day.

He used an allusion he has incorporated into remarks on a number of occasions to Siesta Key Association members: With their approval of Siesta Promenade, the county commissioners “created Hotel California,” he said, referring to the Eagles’ 1970s song about a place people never could leave.

This is the first page of Keith Slater’s July 2016 FDOT letter to Paula Wiggins, manager of the county’s Transportation Planning Division. Image courtesy Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller

FDOT “should be the controlling voice as to what is feasible vis a vis driveway cuts and a traffic light at Avenue B and C on the approach to Siesta Key,” Kochman of Pine Shores Estates stressed to Purvis. “Inconsistent transportation management will affect the entire corridor.”

She quoted from a July 2016 letter from Keith Slater, FDOT Traffic Services Program engineer, and from notes another FDOT staff member had taken in discussions with Sarasota County Transportation Planning staff as analyses of the Siesta Promenade traffic proposals were underway. Those FDOT comments underscored the state’s concerns about potential changes on Stickney Point Road proposed by a consultant to Benderson Development, in an effort to mitigate the anticipated extra congestion produced by Siesta Promenade.

Along with the traffic light at Avenue B and C, Kochman pointed out on Dec. 11, the Benderson consultant — Kimley-Horn and Associates of Sarasota — had talked about the prospect of closing the median opening at the Avenue A intersection on Stickney Point Road. In March 2017, Kochman continued, the second FDOT representative — Nathan Kautz — wrote to Kimley-Horn that such action “will need engineering justification …”

If the median ends up being closed, Kochman asked, “What will occur at the [U.S. 41/Stickney Point Road] intersection when drivers are attempting U-turns to head westbound, coming from the area near Avenue A? Just imagine that scenario in tourist season!”

Kochman added, “Fixes that are proposed are not feasible. … This is why FDOT needs to control the intersection across to the bridge.”

Benz of CONA told Purvis that her organization’s members “expect FDOT to put their interests before that of a single property owner and express belief that the county has failed to demonstrate appropriate concern for public interests by initiating this [road swap] proposal.”

Ruth Brandwein, chair of the Neighborhood and Government Relations Committee of the Pelican Cove Condominium Association, also talked about the congestion along the U.S. 41 corridor in the vicinity of the Stickney Point Road intersection.

Her association, she pointed out, represents more than 1,000 residents, most of them over the age of 65. “We use Route 41 every day.”

Ruth Brandwein addresses Kyle Purvis on Dec. 11. Rachel Hackney photo

Since FDOT is keeping jurisdiction over the Stickney Point Road drawbridge, Brandwein added, “I urgently request you maintain jurisdiction” of Stickney Point Road west of the U.S. 41 intersection.

Another Siesta resident, Jeff Fischer, told Purvis. “Please, FDOT, put safety first.”

Other comments accepted through Dec. 20

Kyle Purvis reviews speakers’ cards as Kris Cella, a consultant working with FDOT during the hearing, addresses the audience. Rachel Hackney photo

If anyone would like to comment on the proposed road swap and did not take that opportunity on Dec. 11, Purvis explained at the end of the hearing, comments will be accepted through Dec. 20. They may be emailed to him, he said, at Kyle.Purvis@dot.state.fl.us, or they may be mailed to FDOT at PO Box 1249, Bartow, FL 33831.

They all will become part of the public record, he said.

Comment boxes were provided at the back of the meeting room on Dec. 11, as well, for people who just wanted to offer their views in writing.

On Dec. 12, Kochman — in her role with the Pine Shores Estates Alliance — was urging opponents of the county’s taking control over Stickney Point Road west of U.S. 41 to send in their comments by the Dec. 20 deadline, the News Leader learned.