Residents of nearby condominium complexes express opposition to public’s use of the facility, fearing trespassing on their private property, crime and late-night partying
What originated as a proposal by business leaders for a public parking lot at 6647 S. Midnight Pass Road on Siesta Key morphed this week into a potential plan for a parking lot leased by south Siesta Key business owners for their employees.
After listening to comments from residents who live in the immediate area — who strongly asserted their opposition to the creation of a public parking facility — Commissioner Alan Maio was the first board member to put forth an alternative concept for the county-owned property.
“Is it absolutely out of this world for us to lease [the lot] to the businesses [to the north of the parcel]?” Maio asked. “And they’re required to put a key-card gate up.”
Commissioner Charles Hines reminded his colleagues that when they initially discussed the idea of designating the site for parking, he suggested that the most likely users would be employees of the surrounding businesses.
The property, Hines continued, “needs to be a parking lot.” If he and his fellow board members approved the Special Exception necessary for the facility to be constructed, he said, “We’re not hindered from [leasing it] down the road.”
Moreover, Hines noted, if employees used the lot, that would open up spaces closer to the businesses on Old Stickney Point Road, including restaurants.
Referencing comments from members of the public during the June 3 hearing, Hines stressed, “The public access to the beach from this location is not good.”
Although the county has two beach accesses in the area — Accesses 12 and 13 — neither is close to the 6647 S. Midnight Pass Road parcel.
Several speakers expressed concerns about public use of the private-access Sarasea Circle — which is directly across from the property — to reach a private beach area for condominium residents who live on that circle. They also voiced worries about the potential for late-night partying and vandalism if the public parking lot were created.
Dr. Neal Schleifer, president of the Paradise Cove Condominium Association, told the commissioners that if they felt they had to go ahead with plans for the lot, he and his fellow residents at 6600 Peacock Road urged them to allow people in the facility only from dawn to dusk. A gate should be erected, he said, to ensure no lingering beyond those hours.
On the opposite side of the issue was Mason Tush, whose family owns CB’s Saltwater Outfitters on property located between Stickney Point Road and Old Stickney Point Road. Tush told the board members, “This is a rare opportunity that we have to add public parking on county-owned property directly next to a business district,” which includes four restaurants.
Even though Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive orders during the COVID-19 pandemic have limited business operations, Tush added, “I watch people drive up and down [Old Stickney Point Road], searching for parking.” Two lots offer paid parking options, he said, but “We still don’t have enough spaces.”
If the county ended up leasing its lot to businesses, Hines told his colleagues, then the income could be used to support the operation of the free Siesta Key Breeze trolley, which runs between Turtle Beach Park and Siesta Village.
“I bet a collection, consortium of the business owners would figure out a way to lease that from us, divide up the parking places, put a gate on it,” Maio responded. “Then shame on them,” he said, if problems arose. That situation would allow the county to break the lease.
Maio made the motion to approve the design for the 43-space parking lot, with landscaping buffers and bollards that will provide illumination after dark. At the suggestion of County Engineer Spencer Anderson, Maio included in his motion the deletion of the word “public” from one of the clauses in the board resolution, to make the leasing proposal a possibility.
Assistant County Attorney Joshua Moye concurred that that would be a necessary change in the document to permit the type of scenario Maio and Hines had described.
Commissioner Nancy Detert then seconded the motion. “We need as much parking as we can possibly get [on the Key],” she said. “I would hope the employees would get first dibs [on the new spaces],” she added. “Anything we can do to relieve the parking problem and the traffic problem on Siesta Key, we need to do that ASAP.”
The plans, the opponents and a path forward
County Planner Carlos Gonzalez described the facets of the parking lot design to the commissioners at the start of the public hearing. Along with 41 regular parking spots, he said, two would be marked for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance, and bicycle and motorcycle spots would be denoted, as well.
The site is zoned Residential Multi-Family, which would allow 6 dwelling units per acres, he continued. However, public parking would be allowed by Special Exception in that zoning district, Gonzalez added.
On the eastern, 1.29-acre portion of the parcel, a county Public Utilities Department building houses a water tank, staff and commissioners noted. County Administrator Jonathan Lewis also pointed out that numerous pipelines run beneath the parcel.
A double gate can be unlocked on the eastern end of the site to permit entry of emergency vehicles from Peacock Road, Gonzalez said. Otherwise, that gate would stay locked.
The Binding Development Concept Plan for the parking lot calls for a 6-foot high vinyl privacy fence, 290 feet long, to be erected with no landscaping on the southern boundary, next to the Sea Winds Condominium complex, Gonzalez told the commissioners.
The chain link fence on the northern boundary would remain in place, he said, but a landscaping buffer would shield it from the commercial properties on that side of the parcel.
Ken Stokes of the county’s Public Works Department provided further details about the proposal, as it was county-initiated.
He noted that the Siesta Key Breeze routinely picks up and offloads passengers at the Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) stop outside the parking lot.
Following the staff presentation, Schleifer of Paradise Cove was the first member of the public to speak.
The parcel, he told the board members, “faces a dark alley. … In the back are woods. There’ve been … problems with crime, vagrancy, vandalism and drugs,” he continued, among people gathering in that area.
Even though county staff has set up pylons and even larger barriers to keep people out of the parking area that remains on site for Utilities Department staff use, Schleifer said, people have moved those structures out of the way so they can access the parking lot.
If the commission approved the public parking lot design as presented, he added, the facility would become “a nightmare for property owners and taxpayers,” and Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office personnel would be busy handling calls about incidents there.
The second speaker, Richard Ulrich of the Ulrich, Scarlett, Wickman & Dean law firm in Sarasota, represented the Sea Club V Condominium Association. The time-share complex, he said, is at the westernmost end of Sarasea Circle.
His clients are “very opposed” to the parking lot plans, he pointed out. Nonetheless, if the county proceeded with the project, the Sea Club V owners wanted the strongest language possible on signage in the lot to make it clear that the Sarasea Circle access to the beach is private and that members of the public using it could be charged with trespassing. “The shortest distance to the beach is where everybody’s going to try to go.”
Representing another group of condominium owners on Sarasea Circle, Tom Shepardson concurred with Ulrich’s assertion that patrons of the parking lot most likely will try to walk down Sarasea Circle to the shoreline. Yet, to warn people away from using the private drive, he added, “Signage that would be impactful would be ugly, frankly, I think.”
The only other supporter of the project to address the board during the June 3 hearing was Siesta architect Mark Smith, who long has been a leader of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce.
He appeared before them about three years ago, Smith reminded the commissioners, “to convince you to set aside this property to make sure it didn’t go into private hands [and so it] could be used for a parking lot.”
Smith then joked, “I had a brilliant scheme that apparently didn’t work with the environment or utilities,” which showed 182 parking spaces could be created on the site.
As for the Sarasea Circle residents’ concerns that members of the public would not make their way from the lot to either Beach Access 12 or Beach Access 13, Smith pointed out, “Folks park across the street from my office [near the northern end of Siesta Village] and hoof it a half-a-mile with their beach gear to the water. … With proper signage, we can direct them away from the public accesses, and we can all live happily ever after.”
The commissioners also received several public comments filed with staff in advance of the hearing. Given the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, county staff is continuing to take precautions with social distancing in the Commission Chambers at the Administration Center in downtown Sarasota. Members of the public have been encouraged to file statements for hearings so they do not have to attend them.
The Sarasota News Leader counted three sets of comments in opposition to the parking lot or facets of its design.
After the speakers concluded their testimony, Commissioner Maio explained that, three or four years ago, leaders of the Siesta Key Village Association (SKVA) — which later was absorbed into the Siesta Chamber — broached with him the idea of a public parking lot at 6647 S. Midnight Pass Road. (Mark Smith served for a number of years as president of the SKVA, which represented Village merchants and other business owners.)
At the time, Maio said, he was not even aware of the property, with had a Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office training facility on the westernmost portion of it. The commissioners later directed the Public Works staff to demolish that structure, after the Sheriff’s Office no longer needed it, he continued.
“It took a while, a long time,” Maio said, to get to this point. “We’re not going to solve the parking problems on Siesta, ever,” he continued. However, Maio concurred with Tush of CB’s about the insufficiency of parking spaces on Old Stickney Point Road. Maio said he had toured the street with county staff to see the situation for himself.
That fact, he said, underscores “how badly this [parking lot] is needed …”