Save Siesta Key director works to make the case for island residents to be allowed to govern themselves
On Sept. 30, the chair of the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation made it clear to leaders of the Siesta Key incorporation initiative that he has significant concerns about the undertaking that began early this year.
“It seems like at some level, the Legislature’s getting asked to mediate a couple of zoning issues that are going on between Sarasota County and the area of Siesta Key,” state Rep. Will Robinson Jr. told the audience during the delegation’s meeting that morning at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota.
Incorporation, he pointed out, “is a pretty big step. … It’s a very long, complicated process.” Robinson added, “It’s not done often in the Legislature.”
For Siesta Key to become its own municipality, all the members of the delegation will have to vote to approve the filing of a local bill calling for incorporation.
The Sept. 30 session served as an opportunity for City and County of Sarasota representatives, as well as leaders of a variety of organizations, to make formal requests regarding issues that they would like for the Legislature to address in its 2022 session, which will begin on Jan. 11.
Robinson noted twice during the meeting that the delegation had invited the Save Siesta Key group to make a brief presentation that morning. If the members of the delegation reach the point where they see the need to vote on supporting a bill for Siesta Key incorporation, Robinson explained, that vote would be conducted during another public meeting. “This is merely informational for the delegation members,” he added.
“I frankly have a lot of concerns about the feasibility study,” Robinson continued. He was referring to the formal document laying out how the Town of Siesta Key would function for its first five years, with details about its projected revenue and expenses as well as plans for the form of government. Such a study is one of the mandates in the Florida Statutes for any community wishing to incorporate.
Save Siesta Key had to meet a Sept. 1 deadline to file the document with the Legislature. Robinson noted that the study is under review in the Florida House and, potentially, in the Florida Senate, as well.
“It’s tough, personally,” he said, “to add a layer of government and probably new taxes.”
Yet, Robinson reminded the audience members, “We’re just at the beginning of this process.”
Robinson, R-Bradenton, was not the only delegation member to indicate that he thus far is not in support of Siesta incorporation.
State Rep. Fiona McFarland, R-Sarasota, also indicated on Sept. 30 that she is not convinced incorporation is necessary.
“What I’m trying to understand, as the representative of Siesta Key, is what you feel is broken and how incorporating as a city might fix that,” she told Harry Anand, a member of the board of directors of the nonprofit Save Siesta Key.
The feasibility study shows Siesta residents’ satisfaction with county services, McFarland continued, including solid waste collections and the work of the Sarasota County Fire Department and the Sheriff’s Office. “Many of your concerns fall to the zoning and enforcing … of zoning,” she told Anand. “I’m wondering if there are other avenues to solve your concerns.”
She asked Anand whether the leaders of the nonprofit had considered petitioning the County Commission to amend the Siesta Key Overlay District, which governs the land-use and zoning regulations on the island.
Further, McFarland said, “I would like to hear a little bit more” about the option of the entirety of the island becoming part of the city of Sarasota.
Only the northernmost area of Siesta Key is within the city’s jurisdiction. From the outset of their efforts, the leaders of Save Siesta Key have focused on incorporating just the portion of the island that is within the county’s jurisdiction.
McFarland acknowledged that Save Siesta Key can make the argument that the island has so few residents, compared to the county as a whole, that those residents feel they do not have adequate County Commission representation. (Anand had pointed out that the Key is split into two County Commission districts — 2 and 4. He also had talked about the fact that the county has close to 440,000 residents, while the Key has fewer than 7,000.)
“If you incorporated into the city,” McFarland told Anand, “you’d have a stronger voting block” with which to elect city commissioners.
Nonetheless, McFarland did compliment the Save Siesta Key leaders for proposing what she called “far and away the lowest millage rate” of any of the barrier islands in the state that have incorporated. For that matter, she indicated, the proposed rate of 0.25 mills would be lower than that of many other municipalities.
(Anand said the feasibility study showed that 39% of the municipality’s budget would go toward expenses and salaries; 36%, to infrastructure; and 25% to reserves. The owner of the average home on the Key would pay an extra $97.65 each year in taxes to the town, he added.)
State Rep. James Buchanan, R-Osprey and McFarland both talked of having spoken with Anand about the incorporation proposal. Buchanan asked Anand what feedback the nonprofit had had from the city and the county.
“We have not had any discussions with the City [Commission] members,” Anand replied. However, Save Siesta Key directors had met with County Commissioner Christian Ziegler, who holds the District 2 seat, Anand said. “We had a very open meeting.”
(Commissioner Alan Maio, whose final term will end in November 2022, holds the District 4 seat.)
Ziegler told them, Anand continued, that much of what they had laid out “makes sense,” and he promised to “keep a very open mind about [the proposal].”
Anand also noted that he had met with Sheriff Kurt A. Hoffman. “He thinks that we can collaborate better on some issues if Siesta Key did have [its own] representation.”
The other members of the delegation, who were also present on Sept. 30, are Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota; Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-Sarasota; and Rep. Michele Rayner, D-St. Petersburg. None of them posed questions or offered comments on the issue.
Working to make the case
During his presentation, Anand, a past mayor of the Village of Laurel Hollow, N.Y., told the delegation members, “Siesta Key is the largest unincorporated barrier island in the state of Florida.” He also reminded them that Siesta Public Beach has been named the No. 1 beach in the United States. (Twice over the past decade, the beach has won that recognition from Stephen Leatherman, known as Dr. Beach. Leatherman is a professor at Florida International University in Miami and a consultant worldwide on shoreline issues.)
“Siesta Beach and Siesta Key are the crown jewels of this community,” Anand continued. Anyone who talks with Realtors and developers, he added, hears them say that Siesta is the driver of the region.
When someone asks a newcomer, “What brought you to Sarasota?” Anand pointed out, the most likely response is, “I came to Siesta Beach and fell in love with it” and then purchased a house in the area.
“We must work to preserve [the island] and enhance it,” Anand stressed.
“Siesta Key has a unique island lifestyle,” he added, “and it has needs that may not be properly understood unless you actually live there.”
Therefore, he said, “We believe that the local residents of Siesta Key will be the best stewards for the future of our island.”
“We also want to have responsible growth,” he told the delegation.
If the island were incorporated, Anand pointed out, the residents who would be elected to the town council would be making decisions about parking, pedestrian safety and code enforcement issues “such as illegal hotel houses,” for examples.
(For several years, leaders of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) have been focused on trying to ameliorate problems residents have been experiencing with homes that are marketed — especially through online rental platforms — to sleep 12 or more people. Neighbors complain about loud late-night partying and garbage that piles up at the curbside for days before it is collected by Waste Management workers on their weekly rounds on the Key, for examples.)
Moreover, he pointed out, the Town of Siesta Key would “have a seat at the table” to work with the County Commission.
The incorporation initiative, Anand stressed, “is not in any shape or form a reflection on what the county is doing. The county is doing a wonderful job,” he added, “but Siesta has become a smaller and smaller part of the county.”
As for community outreach: Anand talked about the public meetings that Save Siesta Key has conducted, which also are available for viewing on YouTube, as well as the creation of its website and Facebook Page. Further, he noted, the nonprofit — with help from 25 neighborhood ambassadors — gathered 1,870 petitions from homeowners and business owners who want to make sure residents have the opportunity to vote in a referendum on incorporation. Those petitions were in a big box that leaders of the nonprofit brought to the meeting that morning, he said.
Save Siesta Key also has raised more than $91,000 to cover its expenses, Anand pointed out, “some [in contributions] as small as $20.”
“This was really a grassroots effort,” he emphasized.
Save Siesta Key has met the requirements for the incorporation process as laid out in the Florida Statutes, Anand said. The next step, he continued, is for the legislators to decide whether to let the effort proceed.
“You … are not voting to create another level of government,” he added. “You are not voting to raise taxes. … You are merely checking that feasibility study.”
The people on the Key will make the final decision, Anand said. “All we are asking you is to allow us that opportunity.”
After the exchanges between the delegation members and Anand ended, Rep. Robinson thanked the Save Siesta Key representatives for attending the meeting. Again, Robinson stressed, the delegation would schedule a special session if it were to vote on filing the necessary local bill in the upcoming legislative session.
That bill would have to pass and then be signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis before a referendum on incorporation could be put on a ballot.