Pine Shores Estates resident led charge for public response
Yes, they definitely want a hearing.
Before 11 a.m. on Dec. 3 — hours before the deadline — more than 200 people had emailed a member of the District One staff of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to seek a formal opportunity to be heard on plans for the state to transfer jurisdiction of Siesta Key roads to Sarasota County.
The Sarasota County Commission unanimously signed off on the road swap on Oct. 8, almost literally helping pave the way for improvements that county leaders have sought for decades on River Road.
By taking control of River Road from the county, FDOT staff could put a high priority on widening that major route from U.S. 41 to Interstate 75 in South County.
However, to make the deal work, Sarasota County had to assume authority over State Road 72 — Stickney Point Road — from U.S. 41 to the Midnight Pass Road intersection, along with State Road 758 west of U.S. 41 and north of the Stickney Point Road/Midnight Pass Road intersection.
Sura Kochman, leader of the Pine Shores Alliance, and officers of the Siesta Key Association and the Siesta Key Condominium Council all have voiced worries about the potential loss of FDOT influence over traffic adjustments involving the U.S. 41/Stickney Point Road intersection. The mixed-use Siesta Promenade development is planned in the northwest quadrant of that intersection, on the site of a former mobile home community.
As a long-time resident of Pine Shores Estates — the mostly single-family-home neighborhood adjacent to the Siesta Promenade site — Kochman spent years fighting Benderson Development’s plans for a project that Kochman has contended will greatly exacerbate traffic on Stickney Point Road. She and her supporters have used Facebook as a forum in recent years to publish photos of traffic gridlock, as vehicles try to head west to Siesta’s beaches through the U.S. 41/Stickney Point Road intersection. The situation has worsened over recent years during the height of tourist season, Kochman and others have stressed.
Siesta Promenade has been designed with 414 condominiums/apartments; a 130-room hotel; 133,000 square feet of retail space; and 7,000 square feet of office space. (See the related article in this issue.)
Last week, Kochman learned of a formal notice from FDOT, indicating that it might not conduct a public hearing on the swap of Siesta roads, though it tentatively had scheduled one for the evening of Dec. 11. Persons interested in the hearing needed to email an FDOT District One staff member before the end of Dec. 3 to let him know that, the notice said.
Kochman began alerting all her followers, as well as organizations on Siesta Key. The Siesta Key Condominium Council was the first to notify its members about the situation, via email blast on Nov. 27 — the day before Thanksgiving. The Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce and the Siesta Key Association followed suit.
In its communication to members, the Siesta Key Association (SKA) pointed out, “The Florida Department of Transportation has indicated that there are ‘… growing safety and operational concerns related to the intersection of US 41 and SR 72. The department has a responsibility to provide a safe and efficient roadway for our residents and the thousands upon thousands of visitors and tourists that come to our great state each year.’ This quote is from a letter dated 7/25/16, from Keith Slater, FDOT, Traffic Services Program Engineer. FDOT’s oversight of this segment of SR72 (Stickney Point Rd.) should not be relinquished.”
Including the name cited in the FDOT notification, the Siesta Chamber urged its members, with emphasis, “Email firstname.lastname@example.org and indicate that a hearing should be convened Dec. 11 and that you’re interested in attending.”
The Chamber’s alert carried the subject line, “Time sensitive info, Dec 11 FDOT meeting.”
On the morning of Dec. 3, The Sarasota News Leader emailed Brian Rick, spokesman for FDOT’s District One, to check on the status of the hearing plans.
At 10:45 a.m., Rick responded: “Yes, we received over 200 requests, so we are holding the meeting as advertised.”
The hearing will begin at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 11, at Siesta Key Chapel, which is located at 4615 Gleason Ave. The Chapel is close to the Out-of-Door Academy, on the north end of the island.
A news release Rick issued on Dec. 4 said the event would end at 7 p.m. “The formal hearing begins at 6 p.m.,” the release added.
“FDOT will hold this hearing to give interested people the opportunity to review displays and talk one-on-one with staff,” the release pointed out, noting in bold type, “This public hearing will only address the transfer of jurisdiction of the roadways. Future plans for the roadways will not be on the agenda.”
Underscoring the seriousness of the situation
Asked for a comment about the success of her effort to ensure a hearing would be conducted, Kochman wrote the News Leader in a Dec. 3 email, “I’m glad we have the opportunity to voice our concerns that FDOT should be the controlling voice as to what is feasible traffic-wise on the Stickney Point approach to Siesta Key. The fact that 200 people felt the urgent need to request the meeting, in the middle of the holiday weekend, speaks volumes about the importance that proper, independent oversight be given to this already congested roadway.”
In response to the News Leader’s request for comments, SKA President Catherine Luckner wrote in a Dec. 3 email, “We’ve been assured by FDOT Staff the River Road transfer will not remove oversight by the FDOT as it’s required for any modifications of the roads involved in the ‘swap’ [her emphasis].
“We have confidence that ‘best practices’ and standards will be implemented with FDOT providing that next level of oversight and approval.”
Luckner pointed to another factor that creates concerns for Siesta residents: Access to the island is via two drawbridges, which will remain in FDOT control.
“When a traffic problem exists at one bridge (crash, backups, special events) drivers are directed to use the alternate road and bridge,” Luckner continued. “With only two roads leading onto Siesta Key, life-saving improvements and access must be fully supported by any traffic management actions taken along Stickney Point Road between US 41 and Midnight Pass Road on Siesta Key,” she added, with emphasis again.
The News Leader also contacted Sarasota County staff, asking whether any Transportation Department representative would attend the hearing. Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester responded in a Dec. 3 email that County Engineer Spencer Anderson plans to be present on Dec. 11.
Anderson is the county staff member commissioners have credited for making the road swap a reality.