Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department director provides information to Siesta Key Association members about upcoming County Commission session
The director of Sarasota County’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR) is encouraging all community residents to provide their thoughts on Siesta Key parking and traffic issues in advance of a Feb. 27 County Commission workshop on the topics.
Speaking to about 65 people during the Feb. 7 meeting of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), Nicole Rissler said that the board session has been moved from the Think Tank on the third floor of the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota to the Commission Chambers. “We envision that we will have quite a few people,” she added, explaining the decision to change the location.
The County Administration Center stands at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota.
The session will begin at 9 a.m., Rissler pointed out. “The whole entire morning is dedicated to this workshop to hear the community input.”
When an SKA audience member asked whether city residents would be welcome, as well, Rissler pointed out that even though people who live on the northern part of Siesta Key reside in the city of Sarasota, they still are county residents.
A forum has been provided on the county website, she noted, for persons to provide their comments in advance of the Feb. 27 workshop. “You don’t have to write a huge dissertation. It can be two sentences.”
Nonetheless, she explained, the form staff has created does not limit the length of the comments.
The form does ask for the writer’s zip code and whether the writer is a full- or part-time county resident.
Staff will collect all the responses and print them out for the commissioners ahead of the Feb. 27 workshop, Rissler said. To give staff sufficient time for that process, she added, Feb. 17 has been set as the deadline for forum comments.
Before she left the office on Feb. 7 to head to Siesta, she continued, more than 600 comments had been submitted. The county webpage noted that more than 700 forms had been provided to staff as of Feb. 8.
SKA Vice President Catherine Luckner suggested that members of the nonprofit also could email their thoughts to Commissioner Alan Maio, who represents Siesta Key. “He has been the one that really propelled some of this conversation about what to do about our parking,” Luckner added.
Maio’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, the county website says.
Emphasis on variety of ideas
During the workshop, Rissler explained to the SKA members, each person will have 3 minutes to make comments to the commission, just as people do during an Open to the Public period of a regular board meeting.
When SKA Secretary Joyce Kouba asked whether speakers would be allowed to ask questions and obtain answers, Rissler responded, “I don’t believe that there’ll be a ton of interaction.” Nonetheless, Rissler added, commissioners may ask questions of speakers from time to time.
“Is the purpose [of the workshop] to gather the information?” Luckner asked. Will the commission make any decisions that day, she added.
“Obviously, the board can do what they choose to do,” Rissler responded. However, it is staff’s expectation that no decisions will be made that day, she said, as the board members will be focused on hearing the wide variety of viewpoints.
In response to another audience member’s question, Rissler referenced the fact that “a little bit of misconception” has resulted from the county staff’s advertisement of the Feb. 27 session. This “truly [will be] a workshop about Siesta Key traffic and parking … the entire breadth of what we have been looking at the past 18 months.”
She added, “I don’t envision that it will be limited to the type of paid parking” and related issues. “It’s really the whole gamut” — including mass transit options, she said, such as the free Siesta Key Breeze trolley operations.
During her opening remarks, Rissler reminded the audience that the last time the County Commission heard a staff update on the issues was last summer. On July 11, 2018, Carolyn Brown, who retired last fall as PRNR director, provided the board an overview of the research county staff had been pursuing at the commission’s behest.
For example, Brown noted staff’s discussions with owners of shopping centers within close proximity to Siesta Key, to determine whether the county could use a certain percentage of the parking spaces for visitors who then could take the trolley or a Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) bus to the beach.
Brown also talked about the progress in clearing the former Sheriff’s Office training facility building from a 1.83-acre site the county owns at 6647 S. Midnight Pass Road. Commissioner Alan Maio earlier had broached the idea of making part of the site a free public parking lot and Siesta Key Breeze stop. In July, Commissioner Nancy Detert suggested that perhaps the county could construct a parking deck on the property.
During the SKA meeting, Rissler repeated a comment that County Administrator Jonathan Lewis recently made to the County Commission: If the board members agree to pursue some form of paid parking program at Siesta Public Beach and/or other beach accesses, then staff would recommend the hiring of a consultant with expertise on such initiatives. “[The Parks Department] is certainly not an expert in parking and transportation,” Rissler told the SKA members.
An expert also would be able to provide guidance about off-island parking and mass transit options, she noted.
Already, staff has heard concerns about the fact that people would want to make sure that if they left their vehicles in parking areas near Siesta Key, they would want to be able to get back to those vehicles in a timely fashion, she pointed out.