County commissioners review broad range of proposals to ameliorate parking problems at Siesta Public Beach
When it comes to a paid parking approach for Siesta Key Public Beach, the director of Sarasota County’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department summed it up this week: “It’s complex.”
On Oct. 11, in response to County Commission direction on July 11, Carolyn Brown reported to the board on the research staff members had pursued, offering a wide variety of options.
It took about 50 minutes of discussion before the commissioners agreed to have staff come back to them soon with more details on a plan that would create a total of 56 public spaces on property the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office will be vacating at the end of the year at 6647 Midnight Pass Road. The land is owned by the county’s Public Utilities Department.
Spencer Anderson, interim director of the Public Works Department, had provided the board an estimate of $507,000 for a shell lot on the site or $530,000 for an asphalt lot, adding 39 spaces to the 14 already available.
Both Commissioners Alan Maio and Charles Hines indicated their surprise at the figures. Maio asked that Anderson and his staff undertake further work on the proposal, acknowledging that utility lines underground are a factor to be considered in any design.
Staff should be able to get back to the board quickly on that plan, Administrator Tom Harmer responded.
Additionally, at commissioners’ request, Harmer said staff will contact other nearby counties that have paid parking programs at their beaches to ask for information about the consultants they used and the expense of hiring that outside help.
Brown made it clear to the board that no one in her department or Public Works has the expertise to handle the design of a paid parking program for Siesta Public Beach.
“Parking management is a very highly specialized industry,” she pointed out.
Maio suggested that staff’s coming back to the board more frequently on ways to tackle “smaller bites” of the array of options Brown laid out this week would be advisable. “We could likely change your direction,” he told her, after initially indicating that Brown could make her next presentation in six months.
“Definitely before the next budget cycle,” Chair Paul Caragiulo said of Brown’s timeline.
The new fiscal year began on Oct. 1; typically, the board begins its budget workshops in February.
If a paid parking program at the beach is introduced ineffectively, Caragiulo pointed out, “you’ve now poisoned the well for an awful long period of time.” If the board does choose to put a payment system in place, he added, “it should be some sort of tiered system.”
Furthermore, Caragiulo noted, “People need to know exactly where the money’s going, because that affects their behavior very much.”
A survey of the Siesta Key Association’s members in August and early September — which netted 693 responses — found that 59.52% of respondents believe all the proceeds from paid parking at the beach should be invested in transportation and parking projects for Siesta Key, Brown noted. The board of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce voted in August, Brown added, to voice the view that all proceeds be used on the island, as well.
When Commissioner Michael Moran asked about the potential for public/private partnerships, Brown replied, “We received a couple of calls.” However, she noted, staff limited those conversations out of caution that they could hamper a future county bid process to hire a parking management firm for the beach lot.
Hines suggested that owners of property near the beach think about ideas they could offer the commission. For example, he said, Benderson Development Co. still is at work on the proposed Siesta Promenade project at the northwest corner of the U.S. 41/Stickney Point Road intersection. The last concept provided to county staff, in June, still included a hotel. Benderson could build an extra couple of levels in a parking garage for that facility, Hines said, and charge people to park there and then take a trolley to the beach.
Brown noted in her report that the free Siesta Key Breeze open-air trolley operates seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., between Turtle Beach and Siesta Village. The free service is funded through the 2018 fiscal year, with an annual cost of $863,700.
Although grant funds are covering much of the cost, commissioners acknowledged that revenue from a paid parking system at the beach could pay not just to continue the Breeze’s operations after this fiscal year but could add other legs to the route.
For another example, Hines said, the county has a Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) transfer station in the Gulf Gate shopping center near the Stickney Point Road/U.S. 41 intersection. Perhaps the county could build a parking garage on the mall site, he added, so people could leave their vehicles there and then use a mass transit option to reach the beach.
Although Brown and her staff had researched park-and-ride sites at schools such as Southside Elementary and Phillippi Shores Elementary — with the Sarasota County School Board having expressed interest in that potential — Hines pointed out that people want easy access to the beach. Those schools, he said, are just too far from Siesta Key.
Pay or not?
“My stumbling block is what is the point of paid parking?” Commissioner Nancy Detert told Brown. Is the purpose to create revenue for a new parking lot, she asked. Is it to try to encourage people to leave the beach sooner, opening up spaces for other visitors? Is it to enable property owners to incur less expense — through the allocation of permits at lower or no cost — so they can access the beach more easily?
“I think you’ve hit the nail on the head [with all of those potential results],” Brown responded.
The money could be reinvested in maintenance of the beach park and in management of the parking area to create a more orderly process, for examples, Brown said.
“The purpose of paid parking is to provide an opportunity for the parking [at the beach],” Caragiulo said.
Yet, both Detert and Commissioner Moran voiced opposition to making the public pay for parking at any of the county’s beaches.
“[Free beach parking] is one of the few amenities that is so special to Sarasota County,” Moran said. From the wealthiest people to fixed-income senior citizens to growing families — all can go to the beach for free, he stressed.
Other potential options
Along with the county property at 6647 Midnight Road, Brown told the board, part of the 4.4 acres at 5200 Oakmont Place will be available sometime after the decommissioning of the Siesta Key Wastewater Treatment Plant.
One disadvantage to turning part of that property into a parking lot, however, she continued, is that the access to it is through Oakmont Place in the Siesta Beach subdivision or Shadow Lawn Drive in the Siesta Isles subdivision.
Scott Schroyer, director of the county’s Public Utilities Department, said the demolition of the structures no longer needed on the site would come no earlier than the summer of 2019, Brown added.
When Detert asked whether Brown had undertaken an assessment of how many spaces could be created there, Brown replied that no further analyses had been done because the amount of available area was uncertain at this point, and no funding has been designated for a project there.
Maio joked that Schroyer probably would shoot him later if what he had to convey was incorrect, but Maio said that his understanding is that about two-thirds of the property could be used.
Commissioner Moran asked Brown whether any discussion had taken place among staff members about the feasibility of relocating the fire station that stands next to the public beach, so more parking could be added on that site.
“No, sir,” Brown responded with a smile. “No discussion at this point.”
Two other options for transportation to the beach involve bicycles, Brown continued. A sharing program — typically implemented for trips ranging between half-a-mile and 3 miles — entails the picking up and dropping off of bikes at multiple sharing sites. Automated kiosks and racks are installed for customers, she said. County transportation planning staff is evaluating that program for Siesta Key, Brown added.
Residents also have told staff that they would use their own bikes to reach the beach if they had better ways to secure the equipment at the park, she continued. Therefore, staff plans to implement a pilot program through which it will install two bike lockers that can store two bicycles each, she said.
Bike racks also might be a good addition to the beach accesses on the island, Maio told Brown.
As he has in the past, Hines noted “no appetite whatsoever” for parking garages on Siesta Key for beach access, and if the county built one, that would just lead to more vehicles on the island’s roads.
“Our community’s growing,” Hines said, and one of the big reasons for that is the fact that people love the beaches.
“We’ve all sat there and driven that circle at [Siesta Public Beach], waiting for that parking spot to open up,” he added. The board’s goal should be how to provide means for people to reach the beach without “creating all the problems” that come with backed-up traffic.
Having served on the County Commission since 2012 — longer than any of his colleagues — Hines pointed out of the discussion, “This is new territory for Sarasota County.” In the past, he said, whenever mention was made of the potential for paid parking at Siesta Public Beach, the board always received “major pushback.”
He added that the board needs to continue to work with Brown and other staff members to narrow down what the best options will be.