Commissioner Smith wins colleagues’ support for that discussion and subsequent report
During the multiple hearings conducted prior to the Sarasota County Commission’s 2021 approval of two high-rise hotel projects on Siesta Key, island residents and a consultant contended that the traffic studies required of the applicants did not take into account all of the relevant information about transportation on the island.
The project teams’ analyses relied on nationally accepted findings about the traffic volumes associated with specific types of development. For example, both sets of applicant representatives talked of the fact that retail establishments that could be constructed on the same parcels would generate far more traffic than the hotels, based on the national standards.
Yet, Bill Oliver, a Tampa traffic consultant, explained that transportation issues are different on a barrier island, such as Siesta Key.
In July 2021 — before the first public hearing was conducted on one of the high-rise hotels — leaders of a nonprofit organization called the Siesta Key Coalition, which was established to fight the projects as proposed — urged the County Commission to call for a comprehensive, island-wide traffic study. The commissioners did not accede to that request.
Then, during the Aug. 19, 2021 county Planning Commission hearing on the eight-story, 170-room hotel planned on four parcels — comprising 0.96 acres — between Beach Road and Calle Miramar, Planning Commissioner Kevin Cooper asked Planner Kirk Crane, who was handling the staff presentation, about the traffic issues.
Cooper is a past executive director of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce.
“There’s congestion all over Siesta Key,” Crane told Cooper, prompting applause from the audience members filling the Commission Chambers at the downtown Sarasota County Administration Center.
Almost every beach resort has congestion, Crane added. Although the county’s Transportation Planning staff was trying to alleviate the situation on Siesta, Crane continued, “The problem will exist.”
Subsequently, Paula Wiggins, manager of the county’s Transportation Planning Division, told the planning commissioners that staff was analyzing Siesta Key’s transportation problems, from the northern limits of the island to the southern boundary.
Oliver, who is a registered traffic engineer in Florida, was one of the speakers who addressed the Planning Commission that night about the hotel project. Acting as a consultant to the Siesta Key Coalition, Oliver testified that a beach community development “just does not fit the standard mold.”
For example, Oliver said, a June 2019 analysis of traffic on Midnight Pass Road north of the Stickney Point Road intersection found heavy traffic throughout the day, with none of the typical morning and afternoon peak drive time periods seen in other locations.
Along with limited road access to barrier islands, Oliver continued, islands have limitations on traffic circulation.
Anderson of Public Works himself has told county commissioners on more than one occasion that the Key’s roadways are constrained. He has reported that owners of property adjacent to the roads are not willing to negotiate with the county over purchases of additional right of way, and he has indicated that using eminent domain to acquire the land would be prohibitively expensive.
This week, County Commissioner Mark Smith, a Siesta resident who was elected to the board in November 2022, asked for his colleagues’ support in directing County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and Public Works Director Anderson to meet with Oliver and south Siesta resident James P. Wallace III to review modeling Oliver has developed that Smith said he believes would be invaluable to current and future commissioners when they are considering project proposals for the island.
The studies used in county land-use hearings, Smith pointed out, “do not take into account all the different aspects” of modes of transportation on the Key. For example, he said, “We’ve got more golf carts on Siesta Key than I see on most golf courses.” Those are part of the mix that includes an abundance of pedestrians and bicyclists, Smith noted, as well as people who use scooters and even skateboards. He also referenced the multitude of crosswalks on the island.
“Sometimes, when I’m on the Key,” Smith said, “I feel like it’s an experimental lab on how people move.”
He further reminded his board colleagues that Siesta Public Beach has been named No. 1 numerous times in recent years, and that the destination is a major draw for tourists. “Siesta Key is unique in that respect,” he added, in comparison to the mainland. “A more in-depth [traffic] model, I believe strongly, needs to be used.”
Both the Siesta Key Association (SKA) and the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce are in favor of the development of such a model for the island, Smith pointed out.
He has been discussing the issue with Oliver and Wallace, Smith said, noting that they had been involved in such modeling “for some time.”
“I think we have an opportunity here,” Smith told his colleagues.
Board members’ responses
Commissioner Joe Neunder of Nokomis, who represents the southern part of the Key in District 4, was the first to respond. “I have no problem with that at all,” Neunder said. However, he sought clarification that if such an in-depth traffic model were created, it would include south Siesta.
“The entire Key would be part of it,” Smith assured him.
Then Chair Ron Cutsinger asked for clarification about exactly what Smith was requesting.
After discussing the issue with Lewis and Public Works Director Anderson, Smith replied, he understood that the commissioners would need to direct Lewis and Anderson to meet with Oliver and Wallace “to talk about this traffic model.”
“Of course,” Smith continued, “everything comes with a cost.” He had learned, he added, that the type of model he was proposing likely would entail the county’s spending $150,000 to $200,000.
Nonetheless, he pointed out, “If this could avoid litigation [over projects the commission approves] on Siesta Key in the future, I think we would probably save at least $200,000 on our county’s attorneys’ fees.”
The model also would take into account the fact that Siesta has only two accesses from the mainland — Stickney Point Road and Siesta Drive, Smith added.
Therefore, Smith reiterated his request for his colleagues’ support for Lewis and Anderson to meet with Oliver and Wallace to discuss the type of model that could be produced.
Lewis told Cutsinger that the county’s Transportation Division in the Public Works Department already has traffic models. Thus, after Lewis and Anderson met with Oliver and Wallace, Lewis continued, the resulting board report about that discussion would include information about those county studies, as well.
Cutsinger then noted that developers must conduct their own traffic studies, as required in county regulations for a variety of land-use proposals. Continuing to call for such studies would save the county the expense of a Siesta Key model, Cutsinger added.
“If we have a solid model” showing how traffic moves on and off the Key, Smith responded, that would give staff the means of undertaking “a real thorough evaluation” of a specific land-use request on the island.
Smith added, “I’ve seen the model. … It’s really impressive,” and it is different from the type of modeling the county already produces.
Then Cutsinger sought clarification that the initial step in the process would be the meeting among Lewis, Anderson, Oliver and Wallace.
Lewis assured him that that was correct. Lewis again said he wanted to make certain that Anderson would include details about normal county traffic analyses in the resulting report.
After checking with the other commissioners — who offered no further comments — Cutsinger gave Lewis consensus to proceed with the meeting and the report.