Commissioner Smith’s effort to achieve creation of detailed Siesta Key transportation model fails

Proponents have called it a necessary tool for understanding how new development would affect the barrier island

In September, when tourism typically is at one of its lowest levels on Siesta, vehicles are stacked up on Beach Road in the evening as they approach the Ocean Boulevard entrance to Siesta Village. This 2020 scene also shows a section of the parking area for Beach Access 5. Contributed photo

For years, when Sarasota County commissioners have considered land-use changes on Siesta Key, island leaders have implored them to take into account how the unique characteristics of life on the Key affect traffic.

In the wake of the commission’s 2021 approval of two high-rise hotels on Siesta Key, representatives of island organizations began calling for the county to use a more refined transportation model — in lieu of the national and state transportation engineering standards typically employed. Siesta leaders have stressed that such a model would provide far greater detail about how a specific project would affect the barrier island’s transportation network.

After his November 2022 election to the board, Commissioner Mark Smith — a decades-long island resident and architect — began advocating for the development of such a model.

This week, Spencer Anderson, director of the county’s Public Works Department, addressed aspects of the proposal.

Yet, approximately 30 minutes after Anderson began his presentation, Smith and Commissioner Joe Neunder, who represents the southern portion of the island, were the only board members to support Smith’s motion calling for staff to begin taking the steps that could lead to the development of the model.

The $500,000 estimated expense of the undertaking — plus the cost of ongoing maintenance of the resulting product — was the reason Commissioner Ron Cutsinger cited in announcing that he could not support the process.

Cutsinger also noted that state law limits the ability of local government bodies to require developers to pay for transportation improvements.

The “concurrency” standards changed in 2011.

This slide, presented during the discussion, addresses the ‘concurrency’ issue. ‘OCA’ refers to the Office of the County Attorney. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During his presentation, Anderson did explain that that law allows a local government to require improvements only if they appear to be necessary, given the site of the project. Further, he said, they could be installed generally only within a quarter-mile of the access points to the site.

For example, Anderson said, if the model showed that a development built at the intersection of Stickney Point Road and Midnight Pass Road would cause a problem at the intersection of Beach Road and Midnight Pass Road, the commissioners could not demand that the developer construct the transportation improvement or deny the application on the basis of the potential that the problem would arise.

Yet Commissioner Smith stressed to his colleagues, “The quarter-mile doesn’t, in my opinion, apply to Siesta Key, because it’s a large U turn.” The route from south Stickney Point Road to Turtle Beach, Smith added, is “maybe the longest dead-end in Sarasota County.”

In an exchange with Commissioner Neunder, Anderson did point out, “No one in the nation uses a microsimulation model for regulatory purposes [in regard to new construction],” based on what he had learned during his discussions with representatives of “two major manufacturers” that could create such a model.

“What would be the advantage of doing something this costly,” Cutsinger asked, “without that big of a benefit long-term?”

Anderson said that while the type of Siesta traffic model proposed “will likely tell us things we already know … it would be a tool to better define those things and see where those hot spots are at.”
Still, he added, “I’m not sure that it will provide us with anything substantially greater than we have today, that would help us make improvements.”

Further, he explained, while the Siesta roadways are constrained, no opportunity appears to exist to widen them; construction of a third drawbridge to the island also is unlikely.

(He has pointed out in the past that property owners on the Key have proven unwilling to give the county any of their land to make a road-widening initiative possible. Anderson also has indicated that the use of eminent domain to acquire the necessary property would be a difficult process.)

Anderson did say on Jan. 30 that county staff could use the type of model proposed for Siesta Key as a planning tool for the overall county road network.

Getting to the ‘very granular’ level

At the outset of his presentation, Anderson explained that he and other members of the Public Works Department had met several times with Siesta Key stakeholders, who had requested that the county “implement a transportation microsimulation model for regulation of development.”

They have pointed out, he said, that traffic functions differently on an island with a popular beach than it functions on the mainland. For example, Anderson referred to the fact that the peak driving times on the mainland are considered to be those when people are heading to and from work. On Siesta Key, he added, the stakeholders have talked about heavier traffic as people head to the beach in the mornings and leave the beach late in the day.

Spencer Anderson addresses the commissioners on Jan. 30. News Leader image

In May 2023, he reminded the commissioners, they asked for a formal presentation on the proposed model, including what such a tool is and how it could be implemented.

A microsimulation model, Anderson pointed out, “goes very granular on the function of automobiles and pedestrians within the roadway network. It gets down to a vehicular basis and treats them somewhat individually,” he added, “based on the randomness of driver behavior, which is programmed into the modeling platform.

“This is slightly different from what we normally do,” Anderson continued, “which treats most vehicles of a certain type — a truck, a passenger vehicle, a semi — … in a similar way and routes them in various ways based on the input in the … platform.”

That is a more generalized approach to transportation modeling, he noted.

Debate over the return on investment

Commissioner Neunder acknowledged that the $500,000 expense “is kind of shocking.” Nonetheless, Neunder also cited his view that the commissioners need to do what they can to enhance the health, safety and well-being of the Siesta residents “in a meaningful way.”

The traffic model, as proposed, is supposed to do that, Anderson said, “but I don’t have enough information to say it can.”

(County policies call for the board members to put their focus on the health, safety and well-being of their constituents in considering proposals, including applications for construction projects.)

“Is this $500,000 set in stone?” Neunder asked Anderson.

Anderson responded that, based on his and his staff’s experience and expertise, that figure is their best estimate.

Smith contended that the model might not cost that much.

Yet, Anderson noted that the figure could go above $500,000.

“We haven’t put this thing out for bid,” Smith pointed out. It could end up costing only $250,000 or $300,000, Smith added.

Anderson had proposed that the appropriate way for staff to proceed — if that was the direction that the commissioners gave him that day — would be to draw up a Request for Qualifications that would be advertised, so the county could select a consultant’s team to develop the traffic data sets specific to Siesta Key and then create a regulatory manual that could be used to measure the potential impacts of new construction on the island.

“All the barrier islands in Florida are unique,” Smith stressed. Yet, no such model has been created. When he has discussed the potential with representatives of firms that could handle the work, Smith added, he has found them eager to undertake such a pursuit.

Smith also pointed out, “We’re in the solution business, as commissioners. If we can make a situation better, I think it’s worthwhile.”

Commissioner Mark Smith makes a point on Jan. 30. News Leader image

This model, Smith emphasized, would be an instrument to use to encourage property owners to consider other options in regard to intensity of development on the Key. He agrees with his island constituents, Smith continued, that the model would help “try to maintain what we have and then not allow it to become more intense.”

Moreover, Smith talked of the need to comply with two legal rulings in 2023 that went against the county over the commissioners’ approval of a 2021 ordinance that eliminated the counting of hotel and motel rooms for residential density purposes throughout most of the county.

“I believe, legally, we need to [develop this model],” he said, for that reason “and for the life, safety and welfare of the folks on the island, so we don’t continue making a difficult and bad situation worse.”

Further, Smith told his colleagues, “We can’t make the assumption that a future Comprehensive Plan change for intensity of use on the barrier islands won’t go without [legal] challenge.”

Neunder suggested the board members “push [this] forward a little bit,” to see what happens. However, Neunder did acknowledge that Anderson was talking about spending taxpayer money. Neunder indicated that Anderson could come back to the commissioners later with more details about staff progress toward creating the scope of work and Request for Qualifications.

Nonetheless, when Chair Michael Moran called for the vote on Smith’s motion, it failed 2-3.

Understanding the impacts of new construction

Even before Anderson began his Jan. 30 presentation, the president of the Siesta Key Coalition, a nonprofit that has fought against construction of high-rise hotels on the island, and Catherine Luckner, the president of the Siesta Key Association, urged the commissioners to proceed with the development of the transportation model.

Robert Luckner of the Coalition noted that, in late November 2023, the commissioners voted to allow county Planning Division staff members to go ahead and process a series of amendments that Benderson Development Co. has proposed to the county’s Comprehensive Plan, which guides growth in the community, and to the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC), which contains all of the land-use and zoning regulations.

Benderson’s goal is to construct a hotel in Siesta Village that would stand about 85 feet in height, with 147 rooms. The amendments, if approved, would allow the addition of other hotels that developers have proposed.

The type of traffic model the commissioners were going to discuss on Jan. 30, Robert Luckner added, “would allow the county to understand the impacts” of those Comprehensive Plan and UDC amendments on Siesta Key.
The leaders of the Siesta Key Condominium Council also have expressed their support for the development and use of the model. In correspondence sent to the commissioners, they pointed out that the Council represents more than 100 associations and 7,000 households on the island.

This is the logo of the Condominium Council.

“Siesta Key is a unique island and requires a unique Traffic Model that is standardized for its use and fair to all, residents, visitors and developers,” the email said. “Standard traffic models currently used are based on typical 9 – 5 workdays. However, Siesta’s pattern is quite different since activity often occurs at and after sunset and on weekends. It is both beach related and business related, including restaurants and night spots.

“The limited ability to increase the infrastructure, two bridges and road size should also be a major concern, and safety should be a major factor,” the email emphasized.

(During his discussion with the commissioners, Anderson of Public Works acknowledged that whenever one of the bridges is up, “Everything comes to a grinding halt.”)

(Moreover, Smith pointed out to his colleagues, if a situation halts traffic on a road on the mainland, drivers probably have three other options to circumvent the area, to reach their destinations. That is not the situation on Siesta Key, he noted.)

“In addition,” the Condominium Council email said, “traffic is multi-modal, involving vehicles, carts, bicycles and pedestrians. Safety is a large concern, as the population includes many children and seniors.”

1 thought on “Commissioner Smith’s effort to achieve creation of detailed Siesta Key transportation model fails”

  1. Sarasota County had a well-studied and discussed opportunity for excellence in safety. Professionals with exceptional science’ based expertise discussd data-based modeling w staff
    the past three years. The estimates have been less
    than recently reported. Staff would be using the modeling
    program for Siesta Key and other models could be developed for other areas of the County.while there are 3 other unincorporated barrier islands in the county, they are not commercially zoned. Siesta Key has complexity and constrained roads w two access points/ bridges which can’t be modified.
    With significant growth already planned a modeling g program could be used to develop safer traffic/ pedestrian access imother areas of the County .It could eventually perhaps reduce cost and improve the Planning process. In regards to budgeting.,doesn’t the developer pay an application fee? Also, some Tourist Development Tax generated by Siesta Key surely could be applied to keep us all safe ..whether beach capacity issues,transportation or medical services which are impacted by unmanaged/ unanticipated risks with impaired access.
    We can be the BEST Practices example for traffic and planning through modeling program.
    We know our population is increasing in Florida. Planners and Engineers should have the best tools and apply BEST Practices to guide future development. SAFETY IS FIRST.

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