Commissioners offer no response
Representatives of a nonprofit organization on Siesta Key that opposes the development of four proposed hotels — with 100 or more rooms each — have asked the Sarasota County Commission to authorize a transportation planning study for the barrier island, in light of those proposals.
Bill Oliver, a certified professional traffic operations engineer whom the Siesta Key Coalition has hired as a consultant, told the board members on July 13, “I’m going to use a highly technical term: Sarasota County has a traffic mess on Siesta Key. I’ve personally experienced it. Residents and business owners have told me about it,” he added, “and they’re getting tired of it.”
Further, Oliver noted, staff members of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) have communicated concerns about Siesta traffic issues to county employees.
Referencing amendments to the county’s Comprehensive Plan that have been proposed by three of the hotel project teams — regarding changes in residential density on the island — Oliver pointed out that the county has indicated its commitment to considering traffic impacts as part of its consideration of such amendments.
However, Oliver noted, county policies and procedures are written “to address the ‘routine’ condition.” Yet, a document called the 1999 Siesta Key Community Plan, he said, “recognizes that … a beach community is not the ‘routine condition.’”
Standard procedures for determining how many new vehicle trips will be related to new development “do not apply to a beach community,” he added. “There are no directives in the [county] Comp Plan that indicate how transportation will be addressed. If congestion is severe, what will happen to a proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment?”
Referring to the hotel proposals, Oliver asked how the County Commission could allow greater density and intensity on the barrier island without addressing “the existing deficiencies as well as the increased traffic [the hotels would generate].”
The Coalition proposes a comprehensive transportation study that would consider the two gateway accesses to the Key — Siesta Drive and Stickney Point Road — “and circulation on the Key itself,” Oliver added. That study should be pursued with technical analyses “that are more robust and capable than those used for the typical traffic impact study that you see,” he pointed out. “The study should measure the actual trip generation and market area of beach-oriented retail, hotels, and restaurants and their trip lengths, Oliver continued.
It “should also consider the attractiveness of the public beaches to mainland residents of the county,” he pointed out. “Before any increases in development intensity are considered,” Oliver said, “mobility solutions, their funding and implementation schedules should be committed to.”
A second speaker, Rodney Linford, who noted that he is a founding member of the Siesta Key Coalition, as well as its secretary/treasurer, told the commissioners that he lives in the Beach Terrace condominium complex, which stands next to Beach Access 5.
The Coalition has gained the support of 66 condominium associations on the island, which represent more than 6,100 households, Linford pointed out. Further, the nonprofit’s website has more than 900 subscribers, and 450 individuals and organizations have donated to the Coalition’s cause, he added.
County staff is evaluating each of the four hotel project applications separately, Linford told the commissioners. While the Coalition leaders are preparing to participate in the public hearings that will be conducted on those proposals, he continued, the Coalition is urging the county’s staff and the Planning and County commissions to evaluate the combined impact of the projects, with a special emphasis on traffic congestion and public safety.
Those hotels could have up to 560 rooms altogether, Linford noted, resulting in more than 1,000 guests at a given time.
A third speaker, Robert Luckner, spoke in favor of the study on behalf of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), which he serves as a director.
That nonprofit has been in existence since 1948, Luckner pointed out, advocating “for the protection of Siesta Key and its residents. And we’ve always had good working relationships with you,” he told the commissioners.
He reminded the board members that, a couple of years ago, county staff hired a consulting firm, ADEAS-Q, to conduct a study of traffic on Siesta Key. The result of Phase 1 of that effort, Luckner said, was “a pretty powerful presentation.” It was based on the consultant’s discussions with select focus groups on the Key, Luckner added.
However, it had “no real solutions for you,” Luckner said.
A second phase of that study was planned, Luckner continued, but he never heard that the work was authorized. “We still need that.”
(On May 5, 2020, when the commissioners saw the ADEAS-Q presentation on Siesta Key traffic issues, Kwamena Sankah, a county transportation engineer, reported that staff was seeking funding for the second phase of the study. Because of concerns about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on county operations, county administrative staff and the commissioners agreed last year to be more conservative with spending county funds.)
On July 13, Luckner emphasized that Siesta Key already has traffic problems, and it is facing exacerbation of those if the hotel projects ultimately win approval.
He specifically asked the commissioners to endorse an island traffic study that the Coalition consultant, Oliver, could undertake. “He has a good computer model he can show you.”
A fourth speaker, Neal Schleifer, who is vice president of the Siesta Key Condominium Council, also voiced support for the comprehensive traffic analysis, on behalf of that organization.
As is typical during the Open to the Public period for comments, none of the commissioners remarked on what the Coalition representatives told them. However, on some occasions, when a speaker requests specific county action, one or more board members will initiate discussion of the comments with the rest of the commissioners.
A pause before the public comments
Before Oliver began his remarks, Chair Alan Maio turned to County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht. Maio inquired whether it even would be appropriate to allow Oliver to address the board.
Maio has been adamant about not wanting to violate any county policies regarding “quasi-judicial proceedings,” which will be the types of hearings the Planning and County commissions will conduct on the hotel projects. As the phrase implies, those hearings are similar to court proceedings: The commissioners consider the evidence and testimony provided to them as they make their decisions.
The Office of the County Attorney has advised them not to have any discussions before such hearings with any of the parties who will participate in those hearings, so as not to be prejudiced in their views.
After Maio asked his thoughts about allowing the July 13 speakers to proceed, Elbrecht pointed out that it would be more appropriate for them to wait for the public hearings on the hotel projects. (See the related article in this issue.)
“This is a request for a transportation planning study of Siesta Key in light of … those proposed [Comprehensive Plan] amendments,” Oliver told Elbrecht and the board members.
“It’s up to the attorney whether we hear that,” Maio replied.
Then Elbrecht explained that the comments would not be part of the record for any of the public hearings on the hotels.
“Which is fine,” Oliver said, as far as he was concerned.
Then Oliver went ahead with his statement.