Cape Coral attorney discusses process outlined in Florida Statues necessary to achieve the goal
For about two years, Siesta Key resident Mike Cosentino has been working on plans to launch a new effort to incorporate Siesta Key, he told approximately 20 island residents during a meeting conducted Feb. 17 at the Siesta Key Public Beach pavilion.
“We have 7,000 voters here on the island,” he pointed out. It is time that residents took control of their government, he added, instead of continuing to have the Sarasota County Commission make decisions regarding their future.
As a first step in the incorporation initiative, Cosentino invited Cape Coral attorney Ralf Brookes to explain how the process has to proceed, in accord with state law.
And Cosentino agreed later during the meeting that he will need about 10 to 12 people to assist him, especially with gathering petition signatures of registered Sarasota County voters who live on the Key.
Siesta’s year-round population is 6,556, Brookes said. Getting “a good percentage” of those people to sign petitions to go to the county’s legislative delegation, he noted, “will be very influential.”
“Let’s get 70 to 80%” of the residents’ signatures, Cosentino said.
Although the state statute that provides guidelines for incorporation does not specify a number of petitions that should be included in what Brookes characterized as a “feasibility package,” the more the better, Brookes indicated.
“I’ve had quite a lot of experience with incorporation from various perspectives,” Brookes explained. For example, he noted, he was a resident of Key Biscayne when its leaders decided to break away from the Miami-Dade County government.
Additionally, Brookes said, he helped residents in both Marathon and Islamorada, in the Florida Keys, incorporate when he was working as an attorney for Monroe County.
A special act of the Florida Legislature is necessary for a community to incorporate, Brookes pointed out.
Florida Statute 165 lays out all the standards that must be met for such an act to be approved, Brookes added.
He suggested Siesta residents interested in the idea engage in what is known as a “SWOT” exercise, explaining that SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
Among Siesta’s strengths, he continued, are the beauty of its natural environment “and sense of place.”
As for opportunities: He noted, “You’d have a huge tax base,” and all the town board members would be Key residents. They could be elected from districts or island-wide.
Among threats are the applications that developers file for new construction on the Key. Those developers are interested only in how much money they can make, Brooks indicated.
Another concern will be how to provide services to the residents after incorporation, he continued. For example, the new City of Siesta Key could contract with the Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement, or the town could create its own police force.
At one point during Brookes’ remarks, Cosentino suggested the City of Siesta Key could model its code of ordinances on the municipal code of the City of Miami Beach. For example, Cosentino said, if leaders of that city want to buy, sell or lease property, “the people have to vote. … It’s much more direct democracy.”
Brookes added that many city charters require a super majority of council members — four out of five — to approve a rezoning or a Comprehensive Plan change.
Brookes also told the audience that it would be easy to determine the boundaries of the City of Siesta Key, because the island has two access points — Siesta Drive on the north and Stickney Point Road on the south. (Brookes did not indicate awareness that a portion of the northern part of the Key is within the City of Sarasota’s jurisdiction, not the county’s.)
Cosentino already has demonstrated that he “is fantastic” in his ability to gather signatures, as he and supporters worked to place two proposed Sarasota County Charter amendments on the November 2018 General Election ballot, Brookes pointed out. (The amendments passed, but a 12th Judicial Circuit Court judge ruled them invalid in 2019; they are part of the focus of a Florida Second District Court of Appeal case in which Cosentino is engaged with Sarasota County.)
The feasibility package that goes to the Legislature must have at least three persons’ names on an application for incorporation, Brookes continued. He estimated the expense of putting together all the necessary materials at $40,000.
Further, Florida Statute 165 requires a list of all the current land use designations in the subject area; a list of the current zoning designations; and a “list of all public agencies, such as local governments, school districts, and special districts, whose current boundary falls within the boundary of the territory proposed for the change or reorganization,” as the statute says.
Additionally, Brookes explained, a complex financial analysis has to be undertaken. (The statute calls for “[e]vidence of fiscal capacity and an organizational plan as it relates to the area seeking incorporation that, at a minimum, includes … existing tax bases, including ad valorem taxable value, utility taxes, sales and use taxes, franchise taxes, license and permit fees, charges for services, fines and forfeitures, and other revenue sources, as appropriate,” along with a five-year operational plan that, “at a minimum, includes proposed staffing, building acquisition and construction, debt issuance, and budgets.”)
Brookes also indicated the need for island representatives to set up meetings with the members of the county’s legislative delegation to discuss incorporation. Getting those appointments should not difficult, he said. Legislators generally are not opposed to a new city, he added.
“It usually takes about a year-and-a-half from start to finish,” he noted of the incorporation process.
The feasibility package will need to be submitted to the state by September, Brookes pointed out, if the goal is to seek a vote on the special act during the Legislature’s 2022 session.
“We’re going to get this done,” Cosentino told the people assembled for the meeting, eliciting cheers.
Past and present Chamber leaders offer their views
Subsequent to Cosentino’s Feb. 17 meeting — which is shown in a video on a Facebook page he has created — The Sarasota News Leader contacted architect Mark Smith, who was on the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce board for close to 15 years, and new Chamber Chair Steve Cavanaugh of Tropical Sands Accommodations.
Smith told the News Leader during a Feb. 22 telephone interview that he had heard “some rumblings” among island business owners about the incorporation idea, but not about Cosentino’s plans.
Because a Sarasota County Charter amendment that voters also approved in November 2018 implemented a Single-Member Districts mechanism for electing county commissioners, Smith said, “It may not be a bad idea” to explore incorporation.
Under the Single-Member District system, a voter may cast a ballot only for a County Commission candidate who resides in the same district as the voter. Previously, all commissioners were elected countywide. The change went into effect with the 2020 General Election.
“Before Single-Member Districts,” Smith pointed out, “the commissioners paid attention [to every county resident]. … Everybody that came before them was a voter.”
While Siesta Key is represented by two commissioners — Alan Maio, whose District 4 territory includes the southern part of the island, and Christian Ziegler, whose District 2 encompasses the northern portion — “We have to get at least one more [board member] to see it our way,” Smith said, to win approval of a request.
Nonetheless, Smith pointed out, if the island becomes incorporated, “Your taxes are going to go up, and somebody’s going to have to run for office.”
He has a friend who serves on the City Commission in Bradenton Beach, Smith continued. The board members in that municipality “had to get rid of term limits,” Smith added, because not enough people wanted to run for commission seats.
Smith also noted that the City of Siesta Key would have to provide not only law enforcement and fire department services, but also parks and recreation management and road maintenance.
As the point person for the Siesta Key Village Maintenance Corp., Smith said, he has seen first-hand how much work is involved in maintaining the Village, which essentially is a half-a-mile-long strip, he noted. “There’s a lot to it.”
The Maintenance Corp. uses revenue produced by assessments of property owners within the Village Public Improvement District to pay for the upkeep.
Moreover, Smith said, “You’re still going to be paying county taxes.”
City of Sarasota residents long have complained about the double taxation issue, as they have to pay county taxes, too.
“For folks that don’t want anything to happen out here,” Smith continued, “[incorporation] may be the perfect thing.” However, he added, “I’m not convinced it’s the thing to do yet.”
Chamber Chair Cavanaugh told the News Leader he just recently learned of Cosentino’s initiative and had been working to educate himself about the topic. The Chamber board has not discussed the issue, Cavanaugh noted.
When asked if he anticipates the Chamber board will take up the issue, he replied, “I do, absolutely, without question.”
“We would certainly consider [incorporation],” Cavanaugh continued. “It’d be very nice to have a lot more say on what goes on on our island.”
“Obviously, I want to talk with Cosentino,” he added, before putting an item about the topic on an upcoming Chamber board agenda. He wants to discuss the proposal with long-time Siesta business and property owner John Davidson, as well, Cavanaugh said. (Architect Smith told the News Leader that Davidson advocated many years ago for incorporation of the Key.)
The next Chamber board meeting is scheduled for March 17, Executive Director Ann Frescura told the News Leader. However, Cavanaugh cautioned that that might be too early for a discussion about Cosentino’s plans.
One big concern on the island, Cavanaugh continued, is the eight-story hotel proposed just on the edge of Siesta Village plus a seven-story hotel planned for Old Stickney Point Road “potentially destroying the way of life we currently have. … It would be nice to be able to have a say in how these things go.”
The commissioners approved the Siesta Promenade mixed-use development in December 2018, he pointed out, and formal applications already have been filed for those two hotel projects.
Numerous island residents appeared at the Siesta Promenade public hearing, arguing that the commissioners should deny the application from Benderson Development Co. because, they contended, the project will exacerbate traffic problems on Stickney Point Road. That road, which has a four-lane drawbridge, is the southern access to Siesta Key.
“I think we need some progress,” Cavanaugh told the News Leader, “but I think it needs to be structured progress.”
None of the county commissioners lives on the island, he pointed out. Therefore, they do not have to deal with all of the issues that affect residents and business owners, not the least of which, he noted, is traffic congestion.