Paid parking at Siesta Beach a potential solution to traffic congestion on the island, county commissioners agree

Staff to research practices in other beach communities and bring the Sarasota County board options focusing on using parking revenue for more mass transit options

Newly planted cabbage palms in 2015 frame part of the renovated parking lot at Siesta Public Beach Park. File photo

Given continuing frustrations of residents and visitors trying to find parking spaces at Siesta Public Beach, the Sarasota County Commission this week directed staff to work on proposals, including charging a fee, whose revenue could be used to provide more mass transit options.

County Administrator Tom Harmer said staff would look at how other beach communities handle parking demand, and then staff will propose some recommendations regarding how the Sarasota County commissioners might proceed in addressing the situation on Siesta.

“Paying is a very touchy issue,” Chair Paul Caragiulo pointed out, “but it is all in the approach.” If people understand how the money is used, they are more likely to accept a charge for parking, he added. “I think it’s a conversation we need to have.”

In fact, Caragiulo continued, whenever he talks with people about the situation at Siesta Public Beach, they generally end up asking him why the county does not charge visitors.

Commissioner Charles Hines suggested that residents would be allowed to purchase stickers that would allow them to park at the beach without any charge.

Commissioner Alan Maio raised the topic of the demand for parking on Siesta as he gave his board report during the July 11 regular meeting of the commission, held in Venice. Members of the public have accused the board of having “done nothing to fix the [situation] on Siesta,” he said. However, just within the past two years, the county added 143 spaces to the lot at Siesta Public Beach and 34 at Turtle Beach Park.

Siesta architect Mark Smith created this concept of a parking lot with a trolley turnaround facility on South Midnight Pass Road. Image courtesy Mark Smith

“We now are moving forward as time and permits allow” on creating an extra 140 to 150 spaces in a new lot on property the county’s Utilities Department owns on South Midnight Pass Road, he continued. When Sheriff Tom Knight ceases using a training facility on that parcel early this fall, Maio added, work can begin in earnest on a design for that space — as the board has discussed during recent budget workshops. (The parking lot also would encompass a turnaround area for the Siesta Key Breeze open-air trolley, as envisioned by commissioners and Siesta leaders.)

“So that’s 178 [new parking spaces] done in the last two years,” Maio pointed out, plus the free Siesta Key Breeze open-air trolley.

As for the latter, he noted, “Its worst month [May] — which exceeds everybody’s expectation — [saw] 600 [riders] a day. If one considers the average vehicle on the Key has at least two passengers, he added, that meant 9,000 fewer vehicles on the island’s roads.

Then Commissioner Hines told his colleagues that he drove his daughter and some of her friends to Siesta Public Beach on July Fourth, so they could meet other friends who had gone to the island earlier that morning. “I took [them] up there at 10 [a.m.], and the parking lot was closed,” he said. (Sgt. Jason Mruczek of the Sheriff’s Office told Siesta Key Association members on July 6 that the lot was full at 8:15 a.m. that day. See the related story in this issue.)

Adding more parking spaces is “not going to fix the problem,” Hines stressed. “We have to quit creating more parking. All more parking does is bring more cars.”

Since late August 2011, signs in the traditional parks style used around the state have announced Siesta Public Beach’s status as No. 1. File photo

With Siesta Public Beach having been named No. 1 in the United States again this year by Stephen Leatherman — Dr. Beach — the expectation is that the beach will continue to draw large numbers of visitors, Hines added. “We have to figure out a way to encourage people not to drive onto the Key and make it painful to drive onto the Key, make it convenient and free to park your car someplace else and get on a trolley or public transit, and expand that service …”

He pointed out that on July Fourth, vehicles “were backed up all the way over the [Stickney Point Road] bridge, because the parking lot [at the beach] was literally barricaded.”

Hines told his colleagues he saw cars making U-turns at the entrance to the beach parking lot, and a number of them headed into nearby neighborhoods, where he expected they ended up parking on the grass. (Sgt. Mruczek has explained that it is illegal for motorists to leave their vehicles on county rights of way.)

Adding parking spaces on Siesta, Hines continued, is “never going to be enough, unless you want multiple parking garages all over the place, which no one on Siesta wants. Parking’s free. That’s another whole issue,” he added, drawing chuckles from some of his colleagues.

The county needs a long-time funding source for the trolley, Hines pointed out. Yet, people have been reluctant to talk about the county’s charging for parking at the beach.

“I agree completely with Commissioner Hines,” Maio responded.

“The trolley was a magnificent idea those folks [on Siesta] thought up,” Maio added. If the county could create parking options off the island and extend the trolley’s route to pick up those drivers and passengers, he said, that would be a solution. However, he continued, “If anyone wants to build several large parking structures [on the Key], they will witness my demise, proposing that. No one wants [parking garages] next to their house.”

The Siesta Key Breeze pulls to a stop in front of Siesta Market on Canal Road. File photo

“I agree with all of that,” Chair Caragiulo replied.

In response to questions from The Sarasota News Leader about the County Commission discussion, Harold Ashby, president of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), wrote in a July 11 email that he was unable to comment on behalf of the nonprofit, because the directors have not discussed the topic since he joined the board last year. “I am aware that the topic is being actively discussed among leaders in the [Siesta Key] community,” Ashby added. “In due course SKA will address the topic and make its position known.”

Mark Smith, chair of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, declined to comment when the News Leader spoke with him about the commission discussion.

Then and now

In early February 2014, the issue of paid parking at the beach arose at an SKA meeting: A woman in the audience asked then-County Commissioner Nora Patterson why the county continued to let everyone park at the beach for free.

“I’m not the proper spokesman,” Patterson replied. “I was on the other side of this issue.”

Then-County Commissioner Nora Patterson addresses members of the Siesta Key Association during their annual meeting on March 1, 2014. File photo

In 2008, Patterson was part of a 3-2 board majority that did approve fees for parking at county beaches. Subsequently, Shannon Staub, then the chair, changed her mind about the plan, and the commission scrapped the idea.

In response to a News Leader survey after that February 2014 SKA meeting, only Commissioner Hines — in his first term on the board — and then-Commissioner Carolyn Mason said they would be willing to discuss the issue of paid parking at the beaches. Then-Vice Chair Christine Robinson was dead set against the idea. Commissioner Joe Barbetta, who — like Patterson — was in his final term on the board, told the News Leader he did not feel county taxpayers should have to pony up money to use their own beaches. He added that the only way he would support a paid parking plan would be if county residents were issued stickers making it clear they could park for free.

On July 11, Commission Chair Caragiulo told his colleagues he had spoken over the weekend with a friend who had recently attended a major beach volleyball tournament in Clearwater. Caragiulo voiced shock at what the friend said he had paid to park at that beach.

Hines responded that his daughter played in that tournament a couple of years ago, and he recalled the fee being $12 a day.

“It’s $17,” Caragiulo replied.

Paid parking, Hines said, is an issue that “our community has just forever pushed … off.”

“I’ve been to the beach more in the last two years than I have in my previous 30,” Caragiulo told his colleagues, “and the sheer volume of people is astounding,” even at times he had not expected the park to be that busy.

“I know it’s a dangerous conversation to have about people paying,” he continued, but he added that he believes that if the county started out with just a small area where a fee was charged, over time, people would realize that paid parking is the only solution to the traffic congestion.

County Commission Chair Paul Caragiulo. File photo

“The place is such a great success,” he added of the Siesta Beach Park, which the county renovated at an expense of about $21.5 million, completing the work in early 2016. “It’s well-designed; it’s well operated,” Caragiulo added. Visitors remark often on the beauty of the new buildings, he said. Yet, the parking “does cause some aggravation.”

“I just think this is an incredibly productive conversation,” Commissioner Moran responded. Perhaps a hybrid approach might work, he continued, with the county creating a permit-parking area for employees and, as Hines had suggested, “intense public transit.”

The key for visitors who are used to the freedom personal vehicles provide them, Moran pointed out, is making certain they can get back to those vehicles quickly if they use a mass transit system to reach the beach.

When Moran asked County Administrator Harmer whether Harmer believed Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) Director Rocky Burke and Carolyn N. Brown, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, should spearhead the research into the possibility of paid parking at the beach, Harmer replied, “I’ve got a couple of ideas that I can share back with the board” on how to proceed.