John Davidson the chair of Save Siesta Key
A new organization has taken over the leadership of the effort to incorporate Siesta Key as its own municipality — Save Siesta Key.
The chair is John Davidson, the founder of Davidson Drugs who also headed up a similar undertaking in the 1990s.
Siesta resident Mike Cosentino launched the latest initiative in February, but he has stepped away from it, he told The Sarasota News Leader in a May 13 email.
“From the beginning, my goal was to build a Board to handle the effort to incorporate Siesta Key,” Cosentino wrote. “I’m pleased to have a long-time family friend, Mr. Davidson, lead that effort.
“As a major stakeholder of our island’s limited commercial property, his decades-long opposition to high-density hotels defines community spirit,” Cosentino pointed out of Davidson. “His selfless desire to protect our island’s character and charm is truly inspirational. We should all be grateful that Mr. Davidson sees Siesta Key as ‘home,’ not just an investment opportunity.”
On May 6, during monthly meeting of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), one of the Save Our Siesta Key board members, Tracy Jackson, talked about the new organization and encouraged SKA members to take a survey Save Siesta Key has posted on its website.
“All of our board members are residents or business owners here on Siesta Key,” Jackson said. “So we are very involved in the community.”
In explaining the impetus for the incorporation effort, she pointed out — as Cosentino and his supporters had — that island residents have been frustrated about decisions the Sarasota County Commission has made in regard to the Key in recent years. For example, Jackson referenced the commissioners’ approval of the mixed-use Siesta Promenade project in December 2018; agreement with the Florida Department of Transportation on plans for a roundabout at the intersection of Midnight Pass Road and Beach Road; and the commission’s unwillingness to protect Big Pass from dredging for the Lido Key Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction Project, which was completed earlier this month.
As approved by the commissioners in December 2018, Siesta Promenade would encompass 414 condominiums/apartments, a 130-room hotel, 133,000 square feet of commercial space, and 7,000 square feet of office space on about 25 acres near the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road.
Moreover, Jackson told the SKA members, “We support the [Siesta Key] Coalition and its fight against the proposed high-density hotels.”
She was referring to projects announced over the past year, including an eight-story hotel on Calle Miramar and a seven-story structure on Old Stickney Point Road.
Over the seven years she has lived on Siesta, Jackson added, County Commission land-use decisions affecting the island have “probably been the biggest issue … I’ve seen us fight a lot of battles and, unfortunately, not win.”
In other words, she indicated, island residents no longer feel they have responsible county representation. Many believe they are getting too little in return for the taxes they pay the county, she added.
“We are not anti-visitor; I want to make that very clear,” Jackson stressed of Save Siesta Key leaders. “Ours is very much a long-term solution to what we see as repeated problems within our community.”
The many facets of the process
The state has 412 municipalities, she pointed out. Siesta Key is the largest barrier island in Florida that has not incorporated, Jackson added.
The primary reason John Davidson’s previous effort did not succeed, Jackson said, “was because of the divide between the businesses and the residents. Part of our goal is to bring them together.”
Moreover, she pointed out, the new group is focusing just on the part of the island that is within the county. The northern section of Siesta — including Bay Island — is within the City of Sarasota’s jurisdiction. “It would be just too difficult to try to get the city and the county to give us [their] blessing … or not try to block [the incorporation initiative].”
Additionally, Jackson said, “We as a board agreed on one thing: that the “government light” model is the one to pursue. “We’ve been working with the Florida League of Cities,” she continued, about structuring a charter for the new municipality. That document can be as short as 8 pages at the outset, Jackson noted.
“What’s really great,” she pointed out, is that the charter could be expanded later to encompass sections devoted to environmental protection, for example, and businesses. “It really gives us much more control over our destiny.”
She acknowledged that all members of the county’s Legislative Delegation will have to agree to incorporation for it to succeed, adding that she could not adequately stress the importance of that.
During a March 18 meeting that Cosentino hosted on the grounds of St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church on Midnight Pass Road, guest Joe Mazurkiewicz of BJM Consulting in Cape Coral put it this way: “If your local delegation is not interested in helping you, [incorporation] is DOA …”
“We contacted our two representatives,” Jackson told SKA members on May 6, as well as state Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota. The leaders of Save Siesta Key “are working hard,” Jackson added, to schedule meetings with those legislators. She noted that the 2021 legislative session did not end until April 30. (The legislators are back in session this week to consider a new gaming deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.)
Although only two of the Legislative Delegation members live in Sarasota — Republican state Reps. Fiona McFarland and Tommy Gregory — three other state House members are part of the group: Rep. Will Robinson, R-Bradenton; Rep. James Buchanan, R-Osprey; and Rep. Michele Rayner, D-St. Petersburg.
Special acts of the Florida House and Florida Senate will be necessary for incorporation, Jackson noted, and then Gov. Ron DeSantis will need to sign the final bill. Finally, a referendum would have to be scheduled, so registered voters on Siesta could mark ballots to show whether they want their own municipality.
The Save Siesta Key board members also have contacted every county commissioner and every county office about the initiative, Jackson told the SKA members. “Our political process has really just started.”
Further Save Our Siesta Key has hired William Underwood for slightly less than $12,000 to undertake the fiscal portion of the incorporation feasibility study necessitated by state law, she noted. (Jackson did not respond to multiple Sarasota News Leader requests for the name of Underwood’s firm and where he lives.) The organization has raised $25,000 of the $75,000 expense of that study, she told the SKA members. (A note on the website as of May 14 said the total was $26,793, which had been donated by 36 people. By late afternoon on May 17, the figure was up to $28,293, thanks to one more donation. However, the website also said the new goal is $125,000. The website does acknowledge that contributions are not tax-deductible.)
Most people who have learned about the incorporation effort have asked whether it would be fiscally feasible, Jackson said. The study will show that, Jackson added. “Until we have someone crunch those numbers,” she continued, no one would know whether taxes would rise, decrease or remain about the same.
The board members also have been working not only with the SKA, Jackson pointed out, but also with the Siesta Key Condominium Council and the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce.
“Transparency has to be a very large part of this,” Jackson said, “and we are doing everything we can to be as transparent as we can.”
Jackson encouraged the SKA members to take the survey on the Save Siesta Key website. “We just started this … a few days ago. … We need to be able to show the [Legislative] Delegation that we have the support that we need.”
Moreover, she said, the organization will be recruiting “ambassadors” to work in every neighborhood on the Key to get signatures of residents.
During the first incorporation meeting Mike Cosentino hosted — on Feb. 17 — attorney Ralf Brookes of Cape Coral, who has assisted communities with becoming towns — told the audience that the island’s year-round population is 6,556. “A good percentage” of the residents need to sign petitions, Brookes added, to show strong support for incorporation.
During her SKA presentation, Jackson called the ambassadors “our foot soldiers,” adding, “You might start seeing them in your neighborhood.”
One SKA member, Bernie Hoyt, a resident of Whispering Sands, off Ocean Boulevard in Siesta Village, told Jackson, “I live in a [condominium] complex that’s very eager to give money.” Hoyt asked how the new organization is working to spread the news of its initiative.
Jackson replied that she had begun working with Frank Jurenka, president of the Siesta Key Condominium Council, to notify his members. (The Council sent out an email blast on May 11, urging members to fill out the Save Siesta Key website survey.)
The SKA was the group’s “first stop,” Jackson continued, in terms of presentations to organizations. “We’ve only been doing this about four weeks.”
Additionally, Jackson said, the board members would be passing out flyers to try to spread the news.
Another SKA member, businessman and property owner and manager Mike Holderness, asked Jackson, “Do you really think more government, more costs, is the answer [to Siesta’s problems]?”
Harry Anand, another member of the Save Siesta Key board, told Holderness that incorporation would not create another layer of government. “It’s more local control,” Anand added. “You end up having more say when you have a local government.”
Anand is the former mayor of the Village of Laurel Hollow, N.Y.
Siesta Isles resident Maribel Figueredo said she believes the county commissioners “see us as a cash cow. … We get screwed. Our money goes to them, and we have no control.” She added of incorporation, “I see this as our only recourse.”
Along with Jackson, Anand and Davidson, the board of Save Our Siesta Key comprises Lisa Choate, secretary; Stephen Lexow, treasurer; Chuck Byrne; Timothy Hensey; and Rick Munroe, co-owner of Sun Garden Café in Siesta Village and Davison’s son-in-law.