County crew clears out more vegetation than called for to create new parking spaces along Ocean Boulevard in Siesta Village

County engineer says replacements will be provided if needed after project completed

This is the look of the landscaping area in front of Whispering Sands, along Ocean Boulevard, after the county crew had completed clearing on Oct. 27. Photo courtesy of Mark Smith

In early September, Sarasota County Engineer Spencer Anderson offered an update to Siesta Key Association (SKA) members about plans for the creation of 22 new parking spaces on the northern end of Ocean Boulevard in Siesta Village.

Although he earlier had told The Sarasota News Leader that he expected the project to get underway before the end of September, he explained to the SKA members that he had no specific timeline. The reason? “We’re still trying to acquire the pervious system that’ll go in.”

The pavers that will be used are much thicker and wider than those people walk on in Siesta Village, he said. “We’re not adding any additional impervious pavement to that area.”

Still, Anderson continued, he expected the initiative to get underway this fall.

About six weeks later, on Oct. 27, Anderson sent an email to the News Leader and other interested parties. In it, he wrote, “I just wanted to let you know that county staff will begin some of the preliminary work on the parking spaces today with removal of the vegetation along the north side of Ocean Blvd.”

This is the schematic that Siesta Key architect Mark Smith showed the County Commission in October 2020, with parking spaces indicated in the rights of way on Ocean Boulevard on the northern end of Siesta Village. Image courtesy of Mark Smith

Siesta Key architect Mark Smith was one of the recipients of that email. Not only was Smith the person who created the original schematic for the parking plan, which he presented to the County Commission in October 2020, but he also is a director of the Siesta Key Village Maintenance Corp., which represents all of the property owners who are assessed an annual fee for the upkeep of Siesta Village. Smith works with county staff on projects that will beautify what the county calls the Siesta Key Public Improvement District.

Further, Smith is a long-time leader of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, and he served for years as the president of the Siesta Key Village Association, before the Chamber took over that business organization at the end of 2016.

During a Nov. 3 telephone interview with the News Leader, Smith said that he and other Chamber leaders recently met with Commission Chair Alan Maio on a variety of topics. During that discussion, he added, Smith brought up the fact that the new parking spaces on Ocean Boulevard had yet to be constructed.

Essentially, he told the News Leader, he conveyed to Maio, “It just seems to be taking forever” for the project to get underway.

Maio promised to look into the situation, Smith said.

After all, as Smith pointed out during his Oct. 6, 2020 presentation to the commissioners, he had worked with Maio in 2015 — after Maio first was elected to the board — to discuss how best to expand parking options in the Village. Maio confirmed those discussions to his colleagues during the October 2020 meeting, noting that county staff surveyed the area along Ocean Boulevard and found the spaces would be in the public right of way.

However, Maio continued, the county did not have funding in 2015 that could be contributed to the project.

On Oct. 6, 2020, the commissioners unanimously directed County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to work with County Engineer Anderson and Anderson’s staff on a report with details about how the parking could be configured. After the Public Works Department staff completed that assignment, the commissioners approved the plans and the estimated $250,000 expense.

This is the most recent draft of the parking space project plans provided to the News Leader for the northern end of Siesta Village. Image courtesy Sarasota County

After the discussion with Maio, Smith told the News Leader, he learned of the reason for the delay in the start of the project: “It’s supply,” just as Anderson had explained to the SKA members

For one thing, Smith continued, the pervious pavers county staff wanted to use for the new parking spots could be found from only one source, which had led to a more intensive Procurement Department process than usual.

Then staff had asked him which color of paver he preferred, Smith added. Given a choice of a charcoal gray or a lighter shade, he pointed out, his preference was the darker color. Parked cars are notorious for oil leaks, he said, so he figured the darker shade of paver would hide more of such stains.

Staff subsequently reported to him that the darker shade was not available. As a result, he said, he acceded to the lighter color.

Finally, Smith continued, county staff came to the Village and “staked out where the limits were” for the 18 new parking spaces in front of the Whispering Sands condominium complex.

A failure to follow the plan

This is another view of the damage to the landscaping area along Ocean Boulevard. Photo courtesy of Mark Smith

On the morning of Oct. 27, Smith said, he was driving out of the Village for an appointment. “Out of the corner of my eye,” he added, he had a glimpse of the landscaping beds in front of Whispering Sands. It appeared, he said, that the crew members had “gone too far.”

When he returned from his appointment, Smith continued, he had time for a closer look. Indeed, he found that the work had exceeded the staked limits. He was especially upset that palmetto palms had been cut down, he said, and that the crew had “trimmed the heck out of the strangler fig” in the landscaping bed. He had done his best, he explained, to try to keep the vegetation intact from the fig north.

“You could see the mangled stumps” he added of the palms.

Just as visible, he noted, were the orange flags marking the limits of the area to be cleared.

This is a strangler fig in the Big Cypress National Preserve. Photo by Gzzz via Wikimedia Commons

He took photos of the damage, Smith told the News Leader.

After returning to his office on Calle Minorga, he emailed County Engineer Anderson; he provided the News Leader a copy of that note:

“It appears that the guys went overboard with the trimming today,” Smith began.

“See attached photos.

“In the photo along the sidewalk you can see the orange ribbon on the stake where they were supposed to stop.

“Fortunately the Palmetto Palms will grow back.

“Please do not have them remove the stumps.”

He told the News Leader that he also has asked county staff to save as much of the strangler fig as possible.

The county’s response and timeline update

Even before learning of the landscaping situation, the News Leader had tried to obtain new information from Anderson about the latest timeline for the project, especially since Anderson had reported to the SKA members that the four new spaces on the east side of Ocean Boulevard — in front of the former Lofino Building — would be constructed first, followed by a pause and then the return of workers to start on the west side of the street.

After hearing of the excessive trimming of the landscaping, the News Leader also asked for comments on that issue.

Finally, on Nov. 3, Anderson wrote in an email, “The vegetation removal was performed on 10/27 and extended further north than originally planned. Some of this would have been necessary to ensure proper sight distances along the road. Ultimately, if we need to replace, reinstall or allow future growth of any vegetated areas that did not need to be removed, we will.”

As for the timeline, he noted, “If everything goes perfectly, we could be done by the end of November. Early December is more likely. We are being extremely careful excavating along the west side due to very little available information on several buried utility lines. Our initial plan was to start laying the block on the smaller area on the east side then move to larger west side. This plan is in flux as conditions warrant. Regardless you may see some activity on both sides as we do work in preparation of the block placement.”

Mark Smith. File photo

Smith told the News Leader that he had met with the county crew on the site on Nov. 2. He was eager to try to save cocoanut palms planted in the area, as well, he explained. Nonetheless, he said, “One won’t make it.”

“They went overboard,” he summed up the situation, “but it’s not the end of the world.”

Smith also told the News Leader that Whispering Sands residents are upset about the look of the landscaping area. He added that he understood some of them had called and emailed county commissioners about their distress.

Yet, Smith pointed out, residents of the condominium complex were upset about the parking plan from the outset, when he showed them his design for it more than a year ago.

One of those residents, Bernette Hoyt, pleaded with the county commissioners during their regular meeting on Oct. 20, 2020 not to proceed with the parking plans. She voiced numerous concerns about the dangers in that area of the Village, with drivers coming from the north often failing to slow to the 20 mph speed limit until they are opposite the Circle K convenience store, which is just south of the Calle Minorga intersection.

She also talked about the delivery vehicles that routinely park in the center turn lane, so their drivers can take supplies into the nearby businesses, including the Old Salty Dog restaurant.

Hoyt has repeated her worries during SKA discussions since then, and she has found that other SKA members share her concerns.

The News Leader was unsuccessful in reaching any representative from the Whispering Sands Condominium Association to comment on the landscaping situation prior to the publication’s deadline this week.

During the telephone interview with the News Leader, Smith said he knows more plantings can be added to the landscaping area after the parking space construction has been completed. “We’ll be able to make it lush again …”

Thinking back on the scene before him on Oct. 27, he said, “I couldn’t believe it.”

Yet, acknowledging his generally optimistic nature, he added of the parking space project, “It’ll be great when it’s over.”