Design of new public amenities at Vamo Drive Park underway, with county staff hoping to restore historic two-story lodge

Second historic structure to be partitioned from park site and put up for sale as single-family home

Editor’s note: This article was updated at midday on June 11 to feature more photos provided by county staff.

This graphic shows potential plans for the Vamo Drive Park site. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Planning for new public amenities at the Vamo Drive Park are proceeding as the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources (PRNR) staff works in collaboration with the Libraries and Historical Resources Department on the future of two historic structures on the site, The Sarasota News Leader learned this week.

During a May 5 Zoom session for people interested in the park’s potential, PRNR Director Nicole Rissler explained that the site on Little Sarasota Bay is just north of the historic Bertha Palmer estate The Oaks, as well as Historic Spanish Point.

On Oct. 9, 2018, the County Commission voted unanimously to approve the payment of $2,725,000 for 2.79 acres at 1710/1700 Vamo Drive, which included 226 linear feet of direct waterfront access, to create what staff described as a passive park.

The money — plus $709,650 in closing costs — came out of the funds generated by the voter-approved 0.25 mill ad valorem tax imposed countywide for the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Acquisition Fund and the Neighborhood Parkland Acquisition Program.

The county’s small Vamo Drive Park was next to the property, then-Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out.

Using a PowerPoint presentation during the May 5 Zoom community meeting, Rissler also talked about maintaining a passive park approach to the site, to prevent traffic congestion that would change the nature of the area. She noted the potential for a canoe/kayak launch on the water, fishing opportunities, addition of picnic tables and benches, construction of a playground restrooms and the creation of public parking spaces, based on outreach to residents in the neighborhoods.

A graphic shows the location of Vamo Drive Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

An existing dock on the bay, she said, “is in poor condition,” so it would not be usable.

Some residents also have requested that the park be designated dog-friendly, Rissler noted.

During the past year, she continued, staff received a small, matching state grant that enabled the county to hire a firm to undertake a feasibility study for the property and to analyze the two historic structures on it. Both the single-story Mediterranean Revival house and a two-story lodge on the site are located in flood hazard areas, she pointed out. Neither has been designated a historical structure, Rissler said, though such action could enable the buildings to remain in place without being elevated to conform to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regulations.

This is the county Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources sign at Vamo Drive Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The analysis of the Mediterranean Revival house standing at 1710 Vamo Drive showed that “minor improvements are needed,” Rissler said.

Based on the consultant’s findings, she continued, staff had focused on re-establishing the structure as a single-family residence that could be partitioned from the rest of the park property, declared surplus and then sold. The goal, she emphasized, would be to ensure through deed restrictions that it could not be demolished.

Then, the funds the county received from the house’s sale could be put back into the county’s Neighborhood Parkland Program.

The other building, a two-story former lodge standing at 1700 Vamo Drive, would need extensive renovations before it could be used for any purpose, Rissler explained. However, she pointed out, it is located within two FEMA areas of concern, including what is called a “high velocity” flood zone. That means it would be subject o higher winds and waves during large storm events, she added.

The feasibility study suggested demolition for both buildings, Rissler told the approximately 60 participants in the workshop, but “Sarasota County is not considering this option at this time.”

Among the next steps for staff, she said, would be to complete the concept plan for the park and then begin the design and permitting processes.

The future of the historic structures

An aerial map shows a close-up view of the property the county purchased in 2018, outlined in red. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During a June 7 telephone interview with the News Leader, Rissler explained that when the county purchased the Vamo Drive property in 2018, staff wanted just the open land. However, she continued, though staff asked about that potential, the owners refused to split the sites of the houses from the rest of the property.

“Our biggest interest was the water access,” she pointed out.

If at all possible, Rissler said, staff avoids acquiring property where it plans parks, if structures are on the sites.

One reason staff has proposed partitioning the portion of the Vamo Drive parcel with the Mediterranean Revival house on it, she said, is that that structure does not have as much historical value as the former lodge. Moreover, she noted, the lodge is in the middle of the site; therefore, logistically, it makes far more sense to try to sell the single-family home.

Rob Bendus, manager of the county’s Historical Resources Division, added, “The lodge is probably 20 to 30 years older.” It was built around the turn of the 20th century, he said. The Mediterranean Revival house was constructed about 1924 or 1925, Bendus noted.

“The overwhelming feedback that we received” from the public, Rissler pointed out, was to keep the lodge. “The lodge was the most important piece.”

This is the historic two-story lodge on the park grounds. Image courtesy Sarasota County

That view aligned with the consultant’s report, she said, and with a recommendation provided by the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation.

(During the May 5 presentation, Rissler noted that the Alliance held a virtual charette in February with a focus on the historic structures on Vamo Drive.)

This is a view of the front of the two-story lodge. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Asked whether the initiative had begun to win historic designations for the two structures, Bendus told the News Leader on June 7, “That’s kind of a lengthy process.” Much more research will be needed, he added. Staff will have to ensure the lodge and the house meet the criteria outlined in Chapter 66 of the County Code for historic designation, Bendus noted.

(Along with staff’s regular responsibilities, Bendus pointed out, the Historic Resources Division has been engaged in a number of extra activities to mark the county’s Centennial this year.)

The process also would necessitate approval of that status after a review by members of the county’s Historic Preservation Board and the County Commission, he said.

Nonetheless, he added, “I think there’s a lot of interest in getting [the lodge] designated.”

This graphic shows the Mediterranean Revival house. Image courtesy Sarasota County

He also pointed out that the Florida Division of Historic Resources’ preservation staff has made an official determination that the building is eligible for national designation as an historic structure. “That really helps with the FEMA [situation],” he explained.

Referring to the fact that the lodge is a wooden building, Bendus added, “Not a lot of those that are left. It’s kind of a preservation miracle,” especially because it has stood so close to the water for decades.

This is a view of the water from the park site. It was presented to the County Commission in October 2018. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Rissler also noted that staff has no funding source at this time to pay for restoration of the lodge. On the other hand, she continued, funds for the new Vamo Drive Park amenities are available through the Neighborhood Parkland Program.

Staff will work with the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation on funding options for the restoration of the lodge, she said.

PRNR staff has worked for about 15 years to try to restore the historic farmhouse on the Phillippi Estate Park grounds, Rissler pointed out.

More than 100 people registered for the May 5 Zoom workshop on the Vamo Drive Park plans, Rissler told the News Leader, and staff has heard from only one participant who is concerned about the plans to sell the Mediterranean Revival house.