County administrator recounts discussions with Siesta incorporation leaders about various responsibilities town would have to take over from county

Lewis stresses county’s neutral stance on island residents’ push for their own government

Although the Sarasota County Commission has taken no stand on the potential incorporation of most of Siesta Key, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis told The Sarasota News Leader this week that he had explained to leaders of the island initiative a variety of factors that they should consider, in regard to county services and county policies.

Among those, he said during a March 9 telephone interview, were the facts that the county would not be able to continue providing Code Enforcement services, building inspections or review of construction plans, for examples, if the Town of Siesta Key were created.

Lewis noted that the leaders of incorporation have stressed that their goal is to establish a “government light” model for the new municipality, partly to keep expenses as low as possible. However, Lewis pointed out, “You need to be realistic about these numbers,” referring to how much town responsibilities actually will cost.

In January 2022, after members of the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation called the town’s proposed millage rate too low at 0.25 mills, Tim Hensey, chair of the nonprofit incorporation organization Save Siesta Key, announced this year that he and his fellow board members had agreed to raise the figure to 0.5 mills. Hensey has maintained that, given the value of property on the island in 2022, that rate should be more than sufficient to raise the money the municipality would need to operate.

Additionally, Lewis pointed out to the News Leader, one of the benefits a municipality enjoys is the ability to handle a wide variety of government responsibilities as its elected leaders see fit.

The County Commission’s votes in 2021 to approve two high-rise hotels on Siesta Key were a primary impetus for the incorporation effort, Save Siesta Key leaders have said.

Further, as the News Leader reported last week, Lewis said he told representatives of Save Siesta Key that they needed to be aware of the expectation that the town no longer would have the protection of the county’s short-term vacation rentals regulations.

“I encouraged them to look at the many board assignments [on that topic],” Lewis added, referring to commissioners over the years asking staff to investigate potential tweaks to the county ordinance because of complaints from residents about visitors’ activities in their neighborhoods. County staff members have explained on numerous occasions, in public meetings, that they have to be careful about any amendments to that ordinance. Their fear is that it could be rendered null and void by ultimately proving to be in conflict with state law.

Among the top concerns residents of the Key have cited with illegal short-term rentals have been late-night partying with loud music and loud guests; garbage piled up for days before Waste Management makes its weekly collections on the Key, with that trash drawing rodents and emitting nauseating odors; and multiple vehicles parked on the streets and in yards.

Lewis added that his recommendation to the Save Siesta Key representatives was that “they should talk to their legal counsel” about how incorporation could render moot the county’s protections through its ordinance.

Tim Hensey, chair of Save Siesta Key, told the News Leader during a March 1 telephone interview that he and the other member of the organization’s board who had met with Lewis did not recall such comments. Lewis was out of the office much of last week, so the News Leader was unable to check with him for details about his discussions with Save Siesta Key directors.

Media Relations Officer Brianne Lorenz had confirmed with Lewis’ assistant that Lewis had met in-person with representatives of the nonprofit on two occasions and that he had had one other conversation with them via an alternate means of communication. Lewis said on March 9 that he believed the third discussion took place by phone.

Commissioner Mark Smith of Siesta Key, who was elected in November 2022, told the News Leader that Lewis had mentioned to him the topics Lewis had addressed with Save Siesta Key leaders, including the short-term rentals issue.

Lewis did note on March 9 that he did not meet alone with the Save Siesta Key representatives. County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht had joined him, he said. His reason for including Elbrecht, Lewis added, was that even though Elbrecht could not represent the nonprofit in any way, “I just thought it would be helpful to them if they had questions.”

Lewis added, “We’re not here to fight with people.”

“I’ve known Tim a long time,” Lewis also told the News Leader, as Hensey worked for decades with the Gilbane Building Co. — a fact Hensey himself has noted. That firm, Lewis continued, handled projects in many places where Lewis has worked.

Lewis has been the county administrator since January 2018.

“Professionally,” Lewis said, “I’ve always had the greatest respect for [Hensey].”

Lewis added that he realizes that, in discussions covering many topics, people can “misinterpret things.”

The county’s ordinance governing short-term vacation rentals was grandfathered in when the Florida Legislature approved a bill several years ago to pre-empt regulation of such rentals to the state, Lewis reminded the News Leader.

As Siesta Key Association President Catherine Luckner noted in a March 1 telephone interview with the News Leader, after years of members complaining about problems related to short-term rentals in single-family residential districts on the Key, the assignment of a new county Code Enforcement officer to the island in late 2021 had resulted in what Luckner described as “getting more traction” with legal remedies for violations.

The county ordinance allows a single-family home to be rented no more than once every 30 days. Brian Loughrey, the county’s chief deputy property appraiser, searched office records to determine for the News Leader that the 2022 tax roll showed 2,381 single-family homes in unincorporated Siesta Key.

Solid support for home rule

Lewis also emphasized that county leaders have not engaged in activities designed to thwart the incorporation effort. “The biggest thing is we’ve tried to stay out of it.”

Yet, writing to supporters and other interested members of the public, the Save Siesta Key Board of Directors alleged the following in a November 2022 email sent out before Giving Tuesday: “Sarasota County officials have engaged lobbyists to oppose and politicize our efforts. To counter this, the Board of Save Siesta Key has had to hire our own team of lobbyists and consultants.”

The board was urging supporters to use the occasion of Giving Tuesday to contribute funds to Save Siesta Key’s efforts.

After learning of that email, newly elected Commissioner Smith contacted Lewis via email on Nov. 30, 2022, the commissioners’ email folder shows. “This is the first I have heard of this,” Smith wrote. “Is it true?”

Lewis replied in an email, “No.”

At several points during the March 9 interview, Lewis stressed, “Nobody believes in home rule more than I do.” Therefore, he added, if the Legislature approves the Siesta Key incorporation bill in the session that began this week, and then Gov. Ron DeSantis signs it and island voters approve the creation of the town during a November 2024 referendum, “Nobody’s going to respect [Siesta’s home rule] more than I will.”

Status of the incorporation bill

As the News Leader also has reported, on Feb. 17, state Rep. Fiona McFarland, R-Sarasota, filed the local bill for the incorporation of the portion of Siesta Key within the county’s jurisdiction.

Legislative records show that on the opening day of the 2023 session, March 7, the bill had its first reading in the House.

On Feb. 28, the bill history noted, it was referred to two committees — Ways & Means and State Affairs — and one subcommittee, Local Administration, Federal Affairs & Special Districts.

As of noon on March 9, the bill was under review in the subcommittee.

If the Town of Siesta Key is established, the bill says, the first town commission meeting would be conducted no later than early April 2025.