Proposals for four hotels on Siesta Key cited as ‘tipping point’ for launch of island incorporation effort

Summary of feasibility study provided to Legislature offers details about expected revenue and expenses

This is a rendering of the 80-foot-tall, 170-room hotel planned on Calle Miramar, on the edge of Siesta Village. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The “tipping point” that launched the new effort to incorporate Siesta Key occurred in 2020, when Sarasota County Planning Division staff began reviewing the first of four hotel proposals for the island, a summary of an incorporation feasibility study explains.

Each of those hotels would have more than 100 rooms. Two would encompass up to 170 rooms, and both of those would be in the environs of Siesta Village.

Those “giant hotels … are not consistent with the Sarasota County Comprehensive Plan policies for the barrier islands,” the Save Siesta Key summary says, “or with the Siesta Key Overlay District zoning regulations.”

Siesta residents and three nonprofits representing those residents — the Siesta Key Coalition, the Siesta Key Association and the Siesta Key Condominium Council — “have expressed nearly unanimous opposition to these projects,” the feasibility study summary for Save Siesta Key continues.

“However,” the summary adds, achieving “change politically in unincorporated Sarasota County is almost impossible. The 6,955 voting residents of the proposed Town of Siesta Key are divided between [County Commission] Districts 2 and 4. Therefore, the interests of the voting residents of the proposed Town are completely outweighed by the interests of mainland Sarasota County voters, both within Districts 2 and 4, and also within the [County Commission] as a whole.”

These are the Sarasota County Commission districts approved on Nov. 19, 2019. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The incorporation effort is focused just on the portion of the Key within Sarasota County’s jurisdiction. The northernmost section of the island is part of the City of Sarasota.

About two decades ago, John Davidson, founder of his eponymous drug stores and the owner of much property on the Key, launched an incorporation effort. After that prompted more engagement of county leaders with Siesta leaders, the initiative was put on hold, Davidson has said.

John Davidson. Image from the Save Siesta Key website

Davidson is the chair of Save Siesta Key.

In delving into the details of how the Town of Siesta Key would function, the feasibility study discusses finances and the composition of the proposed municipality’s governing board, among other facets of self-rule. The full study was part of the materials that Save Siesta Key provided to the Florida Legislature before Sept. 1. That date was the deadline for the delivery of documents regarding any incorporation initiative to be considered during the 2022 legislative session. The summary has been made available on the Save Siesta Key website.

Revenue and expenses

As for funding island services: The summary points out that the average value of a residential unit on the Key is $440,602. It references data released by the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office in June 2021. (That was when the staff of Property Appraiser William Furst provided the preliminary property values for this year; the final data was reported to state officials in July, as mandated by state law.)

With a $50,000 homestead exemption, the summary says, the owner of a residence with that average value would pay $6,521.77 a year in county taxes and assessments, including those imposed by the Sarasota Memorial Hospital District and the Sarasota County School Board.

The feasibility study determined that a tax rate of 0.25 mills should be imposed for the Town of Siesta Key’s first year — which would be 2023, if the initiative succeeds. Therefore, the owner of property under the circumstances described above would pay an extra $97.65 per year in taxes to the new town, the summary points out.

“A major goal of the incorporation effort is to minimize increases in fees and ad valorem taxes,” the summary notes.

This is the chart showing taxes and assessments for an average Siesta Key homeowner for the 2022 fiscal year. It is included in the summary of the feasibility study. Image courtesy Save Siesta Key

With property expected to be valued at more than $5.9 billion in the 2023 fiscal year, the feasibility study summary adds, revenue generated by the 0.25 mills, “along with electric franchise fees and the shared sales surtax for infrastructure,” the Town of Siesta Key would have sufficient money to serve the residents.

The revenue derived each year from a 1-cent sales tax approved by voters is allocated to the county, the Sarasota County School District and the municipalities on the basis of population, county Office of Financial Management staff has explained.

The ‘government lite’ approach explained

In accord with the “government lite” approach that Save Siesta Key leaders have touted, the nonprofit envisions a council with five elected members, “one of whom will serve as the ceremonial mayor.” No compensation would be provided for those elected officials, the summary adds, though reimbursement for necessary expenses would be allowed.

Further, the town would have the following full-time employees in its first year: a town manager with an annual salary of $180,000; a finance director ($130,000); a town clerk ($80,000); a town planner ($120,000) and an hourly employee ($50,000 per year). “Fringe benefits are budgeted at 45% of annual salaries for the Town employees,” the summary adds.

The town leaders would contract for legal and professional planning services, the summary points out. The latter is projected to have “a baseline [expense] of $200,000 in Year 1,” with an annual inflation escalator of 2%.

The estimate for legal services in the first year would be $200,000, the summary notes, but the figure would be expected to drop to $150,000 in the second year. A 2% annual escalator also has been planned.

The attorney would need to focus that first year on implementing “a Code of Ordinances, a Comprehensive Plan, Land Development Regulations, and other legal documents,” the summary says.

These are the projected revenues for the Town of Siesta Key in its first five years. Image courtesy Save Siesta Key

Further, no structure would be acquired or built for town government purposes, the summary notes. Instead, “[T]he Town will rent office space within its borders at the prevailing market rate,” which, the summary says, is $30 per square foot.

Further, the town would have more than $1 million available for infrastructure improvements at the outset; that would grow to more than $2.2 million by the fifth year of the municipality’s existence, the summary notes.

As for services: Most of those within the proposed incorporation area are provided by Sarasota County, the summary points out. The town would continue to use those, the summary adds, as the new municipality “will benefit from the economy of scale provided by Sarasota County services.”

Moreover, Sarasota County Sheriff Kurt A. Hoffman already has agreed to provide law enforcement services “at the same level” without extra expense, the summary notes.

Later, the summary indicates, the town would inter into new agreements with Sarasota County or negotiate contracts with other service providers. “Until citizens vote to incorporate,” the summary explains, no legal entity exists that can represent the proposed Town, so the exact terms and conditions of interlocal agreements are undetermined at this time.”

“The focus of the community is planning, zoning and code enforcement,” the summary adds. Initially, the county also would continue to provide building inspections, planning, zoning and Code Enforcement Division services to the new town, the summary points out.

The Florida Legislature’s 2022 session will begin on Jan. 11. The entire Sarasota County Legislative Delegation will have to approve the Siesta Key incorporation request for it to have a chance of success. Photo by Michael Rivera via Wikimedia Commons

Then, as soon as the new town adopts a Comprehensive Plan, the summary continues, “[T]he intention is to assume control of planning and review, zoning, and code enforcement functions, while continuing building inspections by Sarasota County …”

Yet another section of the summary discusses the Siesta Key Town Charter, noting that such a document “defines the organization, powers, functions and essential procedures of the city government. The charter is the most important legal document of any city,” the summary adds.

This is a summary of benefits of incorporation for Siesta Key. Image courtesy Save Siesta Key

Article 3 of the Charter says, “This section ensures that the town will not lose ownership or control of its public properties or public rights-of-way without the consent of the residents by referendum, either in a regular election or special election.”

On Sept. 30, Save Siesta Key representatives are scheduled to present the feasibility study to the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation. The nonprofit will need unanimous support of the state Senate and House members for a local bill, which the Legislature would have to approve, for incorporation to become a reality. Gov. Ron DeSantis would have to sign that bill, and then a majority of voters in the defined area of the Key would have to approve incorporation through a referendum, Save Siesta Key board members have pointed out.

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