County ‘closest [it has] ever been’ in negotiations over swap of River Road to the state, with county taking control of Siesta Key roads

Commissioner Charles Hines broaches need for political pressure to conclude the deal

Editor’s note: This article was updated in late morning of March 2 to clarify the timeline for the Atlanta Braves to move their Spring Training games to a new stadium complex in the West Villages. Then it was updated on March 12 to correct the date of the most recent County Commission discussion.

A graphic shows investments made in River Road as of the spring of 2017. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The news first was aired publicly on Sept. 13, 2017, during the regular Sarasota County Commission meeting in Sarasota: County staff was in discussions with staff of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) about potentially assuming ownership of roads on Siesta Key in exchange for the state taking control of River Road.

That swap, then-Sarasota County Administrator Tom Harmer explained, would enable FDOT to put much more focus on the improvements to River Road that the county has worked so hard to accomplish over the past years.

Commissioners have talked repeatedly about the need for upgrading River Road, as it is a major hurricane evacuation route for residents of Englewood, the Cape Haze Peninsula, Boca Grande and part of North Port.

During the County Commission’s Dec. 12, 2017 meeting, Chair Nancy Detert said that because of the current state of River Road, “a crisis [would have resulted] if [Irma had been] a Category 5 [storm].”

More recently, commissioners have pointed to the increasing development in the area the road serves, as well as the fact that the Atlanta Braves will be moving their Spring Training operations to a new complex under construction in the West Villages. The team plans year-round activities there, after the complex opens in the first quarter of 2019. However, the Braves are not expected to play their first game there until the end of the 2019 Spring Training season because of a delay in the construction schedule.

As recently as January, the president of the Bay Island Siesta Association told Siesta Key Association (SKA) members that the Make Siesta Drive Safer committee of his organization had talked with new County Administrator Jonathan Lewis about the timing of the road swap. If Siesta Drive and Higel Avenue became designated “local roads” under FDOT guidelines, Pat Wulf said on Jan. 4, then FDOT would be able to lower the speed limit, as Make Siesta Drive Safer has urged for that stretch of road.

An aerial map shows State Road 758, mostly on Siesta Key. Image from Google Maps

After the SKA meeting, Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester responded to a Sarasota News Leader request for an update on the roads. In a Jan. 8 email, Winchester wrote that as of Jan. 5, “there was nothing new to report regarding the potential swap. Negotiations remain ongoing with FDOT.”

This week, however, Commissioner Charles Hines emphasized the need, as he put it, to “close the deal.”

During the Feb. 27 commission meeting, he pointed out to his colleagues that in the past couple of weeks, staff discussions with FDOT’s District One staff “have got us closer than we’ve ever been to having a resolution on River Road. … I don’t want to miss this window of opportunity.”

He commended Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham and Spencer Anderson, the county’s interim public works director and county engineer, for handling the discussions.

District One Secretary L.K. Nandam speaks to Siesta Key Association members in September 2015. File photo

However, Hines continued, this might be the time for political pressure, for the commissioners and other county leaders — and the Braves organization — to call Gov. Rick Scott, who, in turn, could tell FDOT Secretary Mike Dew to call L.K. Nandam, the District One secretary, and get the deal closed. The secretary, Hines added, “gets his marching orders from the governor.”

“Whatever you need,” Hines told Cunningham and Anderson.

Fine-tuning the deal

“We’re bringing a lot to the deal,” Hines stressed. In the past, he continued, commissioners kept asking their legislative delegation members and FDOT staff to allocate money to the River Road projects. “We’re in a different position now,” Hines said on Feb. 28. “We’re gonna take some roads back, and we also have some cash coming into this deal. We’re taking over some responsibility.”

To Cunningham and Anderson, Hines said, “Close [the deal], guys.”

Hines did not return a message from the News Leader for further comment on the issue. However, in response to a query from the News Leader, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester provided the following in a Feb. 28 email:

  • County staff and FDOT are continuing discussions on terms of a plan to fund construction of River Road from U.S. 41 to I-75.
  • This includes discussions of a road transfer between the County and FDOT for portions of River Road in exchange for portions of State Road 758 west of U.S. 41. Limits of the exchange have not been determined.”

State Road 758 includes Siesta Drive, Higel Avenue and Midnight Pass Road to the intersection of Stickney Point Road.

During the Feb. 28 County Commission discussion, Commissioner Paul Caragiulo offered one further detail of the latest deal: “At least we’re not talking about bridges …”

That had been a concern early on in the negotiations with FDOT, then-County Administrator Harmer indicated last year. Siesta Drive has a drawbridge.

Last fall, Harmer also had noted the potential of part of Stickney Point Road to be included in the swap. That route, too, has a drawbridge leading to Siesta Key.

The drawbridge on Siesta Drive opens for boat traffic in June 2014. File photo

During the Feb. 1 meeting of the Siesta Key Association, former long-time County Commissioner Nora Patterson — who lives on Siesta — told members that in years past, county leaders had conducted discussions with FDOT about taking control of Siesta roads from the state, but county leaders did not want the responsibility of maintaining the drawbridges. Winning that point, she said, had been “tough to do.”

Prior to this week, the most recent County Commission discussion of the potential swap had taken place during the Dec. 12, 2017 meeting, when state Sen. Greg Steube of Sarasota addressed the board about potential ways to fund improvements to River Road.

If the road swap were to occur, Steube said then, he understood that it would happen “in the next year.”

During the Feb. 28 meeting, Hines told his colleagues, “I believe all leverage that we have at this point needs to be put on [FDOT] District One.”

He told Anderson and Cunningham, “Close this deal before we have a new governor,” as Scott will be leaving that position after this year as a result of term limits. A new governor most likely will mean a new FDOT secretary, Hines added.

He hoped the rest of the commissioners had been briefed on the status of the negotiations, he said. “This is the closest that we have ever been,” he stressed, noting that the deal is “pretty fair.”

“I’m completely in support of the idea,” Commissioner Caragiulo replied.

At the end of the Feb. 26 Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting, Commissioner Alan Maio said, Nandam of District One “pulled me aside for 15, 20 minutes” to talk about the negotiations. “It’s a different deal that’s now being offered.”

Maio added that he, too, had had a one-on-one discussion about it with Cunningham and Anderson. “There are still some wrinkles,” he noted, but “I think [FDOT] is trying to deliver” in response to pressure from the Sarasota County legislative delegation. He concurred with Hines: “This is the time to push it.”

Maio added that the county already has invested close to $60 million in upgrades to River Road.

During the December 2017 discussion, state Sen. Steube noted the $43-million estimate for the improvements from U.S. 41 to I-75.

“So we need to close,” Chair Detert said on Feb. 28.