Commission directs county administrator to ask Public Works Department staff to analyze Siesta Chamber proposal and work out cost estimate
It took only about 15 minutes on Oct. 6 for the Sarasota County commissioners to lay the groundwork for 22 new public parking spaces on Ocean Boulevard on the northern end of Siesta Key Village.
They unanimously directed County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to work with Public Works Director Spencer Anderson and Anderson’s staff on a report with details about how the parking could be configured, as well as the expense.
However, both the Siesta Key Condominium Council and the Siesta Key Association (SKA) have indicated their disapproval of the plans, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.
Siesta architect Mark Smith, who pointed out that he was representing the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, stepped to the podium during the Open to the Public period of the board’s regular meeting on Oct. 6 to talk about the Ocean Boulevard proposal. Smith noted that discussions began about five years ago with Commissioner Alan Maio, who then was the solitary board member representing the Key. (Since redistricting in November 2019, Commissioner Christian Ziegler shares the Key with Maio.)
Smith added that, in 2015, he and Maio “got together with other Village businesses” to discuss how to expand public parking in the Village. “Recently,” Smith continued, “this has come back to us.”
Smith showed the board members a concept he had created, which allows for 18 spaces on the west side of Ocean Boulevard, across from the Old Salty Dog restaurant. The spaces could be created in public right of way between cocoanut palms and street lighting fixtures, Smith noted.
Another four spaces, Smith said, could be placed in the public right of way in front of the former Lofino Building, which is located at 5011 Ocean Blvd., next to the Old Salty Dog.
Therefore, Smith said, the total number of new spaces would be 22.
“Parking is a premium on Siesta Key,” Smith pointed out, “and this, we believe, is a good solution … What we’d be removing is palmetto and cabbage palms.”
As a member, too, of the Siesta Key Village Maintenance Corp. — which represents the Village property owners who pay for the upkeep of the shopping and dining area — Smith further noted, “We have concerns over safety” in the area where the spaces could be created. Because the palmettos “got rather large,” he said, “you lose visual contact with the street” along the sidewalk.
Moreover, he continued, “We’ve had incidents of homeless camps showing up in [that part of the right of way].”
Given the fact that the Whispering Sands condominium complex’s wall is next to the sidewalk, and landscaping covers the right of way, Smith said, the situation can get “a little spooky at night when you’re trying to go down the sidewalk.”
Smith wrapped up his comments by asking that the commissioners consider directing county staff to analyze his proposal. “We have met with Spencer Anderson and Jonathan Lewis out there,” he noted. “They need your direction in order to proceed, so you can work it into your budget. … We would greatly appreciate you helping us out here.”
Then Commissioner Maio explained that Smith was correct in explaining that the initial discussions about the parking spaces arose five years ago. The county did survey the area, Maio continued; that work determined that the spaces indeed would be in the public right of way.
“The test is across the street,” Maio added, referring to Smith’s proposal for angled parking in the right of way. Angled parking also exists in front of the Old Salty Dog, Maio said, “and it has not impacted anything.”
“I’m fully in support of this,” Maio told his colleagues.
Then Commissioner Ziegler noted that he also went to the Village to take a look at the site. (An email the News Leader obtained through a public records request shows that Siesta Chamber leaders invited Ziegler to meet them at the Old Salty Dog on Sept. 14. Along with Chamber Chair Mason Tush and Smith, Chamber leaders Eric Fleming, an attorney who is the immediate past Chamber chair, and Chair-Elect Steve Cavanaugh of Tropical Sands Accommodations also were to be present, the email said.)
“I don’t see any issues with this,” Ziegler said during the Oct. 6 discussion.
In regard to concerns about motorists having to back out of the spaces, he noted that the Chamber leaders had reminded him of the angled parking on Main Street in downtown Sarasota. Moreover, Ziegler said, “There’s plenty of room to back out” without encroaching on the other lane of traffic.
He added that Davidson Plaza is just south of the site, so the spaces could serve customers of the shops and dining establishments located there, too.
“Five years for a couple of parking spots,” Ziegler said: “Government at its best, I guess.”
Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out that Smith had called and spoken with each of the board members in advance of the Oct. 6 meeting. “As somebody who’s a fan of good government,” she said, “we always talk about local control. But what’s better,” she continued, is a situation in which members of the public are aware of a problem and bring it to the commission with a potential solution. “I think this certainly seems plausible,” Detert said of Smith’s proposal.
“This is great,” Commissioner Charles Hines added.
A few years ago, Hines said, leaders in the city of Venice were struggling with finding more public parking spaces. They even talked about building parking garages, Hines noted. Then they started looking for ways to create more parking spots in the downtown area. “I probably have the numbers wrong,” Hines said, but “they found 60 to 70, maybe 80 parking spots. It affected no one and made a big difference.”
Hines suggested Smith and other Siesta Chamber representatives confer with City of Venice leaders about how that initiative worked. Addressing Smith, Hines said, “Maybe expand [the Ocean Boulevard proposal] in other areas of the Key. You might find [spaces], maybe four or five at a time.”
Chair Michael Moran offered his approval of the idea, as well.
Noting what he believed was a board consensus, Moran asked County Administrator Lewis how Lewis wanted to proceed.
Lewis replied that if the commissioners directed staff to undertake a board assignment, he would ask Anderson of Public Works “to put the framework together.” Staff can complete that within 30 days, Lewis added. Then the board could decide on the next steps.
Maio made that response into a motion, which Ziegler seconded.
Five years ago, Maio pointed out, “We didn’t have the money for this.” Five years later, Maio said, “We’ll find the money.”
The other view
After word began circulating during the summer that the Siesta Chamber was reviving the parking proposal for Ocean Boulevard, leaders of the Siesta Key Condominium Council (SKCC) sent an Aug. 12 email blast to their members. It contained a letter that the Council had sent to Anderson of Public Works and to the commissioners.
The letter pointed out that Council, “with approximately 100 Siesta Key Condominium members,” had learned of “interest in adding 18 parking spaces on Ocean Blvd. across from Salty Dog and next to Whispering Sands Condominium.”
SKCC Vice President Diane Erne had spoken with Commissioner Maio and Anderson, the letter added, “to express significant safety and aesthetic concerns about this possible expansion.
“A typical day in this area experiences slower, frequently backed up traffic as drivers and bicycles share the roadway as they enter the Village from the North,” the letter continued. “The bike lane has ended. Now imagine cars and bikes negotiating around backing up cars on both sides of Ocean Blvd.
“Now they encounter a bus stopped just after the angled parking ends on the Whispering Sands side. They try to go around the bus and there is a refrigerated truck parked in the center lane. Besides the obvious safety issues, the lush green space is removed and replaced with asphalt.
“The SKCC loves the [Siesta Key Breeze] trolley,” the letter said, and its members “applaud the county’s efforts to have a consultant find ways to make the [Siesta Key] roadways safer for all who use them.”
However, the letter pointed out, “This parking space increase is a dangerous backward step. The Siesta Key Condominium Council by this is on record as against this idea or plan and recommends this be dropped from consideration.
“Please let us know if there are any plans to implement this expansion,” the letter concluded.
Leaders of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) also object to the proposal, President Catherine Luckner told the News Leader during an Oct. 6 telephone interview. “There’s going to be a rousing ‘No,’” she said, noting that she had been unaware Smith was planning to address the commissioners that morning.
That part of Ocean Boulevard, she explained, is “a calming area” for traffic.
The right of way abuts the Whispering Sands complex, Luckner pointed out, which could lead to disruptions for residents of that community. The spaces would be next to their points of ingress and egress, Luckner noted.
She also voiced worries about people having to back out of the spaces, calling that situation “very dangerous.”
Moreover, Luckner said, the affected section of sidewalk is one of the few wide enough for pedestrians and bicyclists to share with ease, “and we need to keep those wide spaces.”
She expressed disappointment that the Chamber leaders did not choose to present their proposal first to the county’s Traffic Advisory Council and seek comments on it from the Sheriff’s Office, as well.
“I think that we will send letters of grave disappointment,” Luckner added, referring to communicating the SKA’s views to the commissioners.