Responding to neighbors’ concerns, County Commission tweaks plans for Blackburn Point Park

A Sarasota County aerial view shows Blackburn Point Park. The section on the far left, referred to as the Western Node, is connected to Casey Key by Blackburn Point Road.

As president of the Casey Key Association, Dennis O. Doughty had addressed the Sarasota County Commission on Sept. 28, 2011, about various aspects of plans for Blackburn Point Park that were worrisome to his group and other neighbors of the property.

He addressed some of those concerns again in an April 2 email to Commissioner Jon Thaxton, noting that residents still were opposed to plans for a sidewalk along the north side of Blackburn Point Road from the swing bridge to the Dryman Bay bridge.

That email followed a second stakeholders meeting about the park design, which county staff had held March 2, in response to a request the County Commission had made on Sept. 28.

“The motivation for eliminating this sidewalk is to remove the possibility that people parking along that stretch of Blackburn Point Road could create a bottleneck that would interfere with access/egress from the North end of Casey Key,” Doughty wrote.

“We only have two ways on and off our island community — separated by some 5 miles,” he added. “If parked cars (legally parked or not) make one of these access points essentially one-lane, we believe we will have a major problem — not only for residents and the general public, but for essential services and emergency vehicles.”

On May 23, the County Commission responded to those concerns by eliminating that sidewalk from the park plan.

The vote was unanimous.

“By building this sidewalk beyond this park,” Commissioner Jon Thaxton said, “you’re literally building a sidewalk to nowhere …

“I don’t know why we would want to even spend the money [for a sidewalk that] connects to nothing,” Thaxton added in making a motion for a variance to the county code to exclude the sidewalk past the developed area of the westernmost part of the park, called the Western Node.

In seconding the motion, Commissioner Carolyn Mason referenced Thaxton’s comments: “He said it all.”

However, Commissioner Joe Barbetta questioned the need for a sidewalk to go further than a planned semi-circular parking area near the entrance to the Western Node.

“I think you’re providing adequate sidewalk within the park,” Barbetta said before seeking to amend Thaxton’s motion to eliminate the sidewalk in front of the park along the entire Western Node.

Thaxton seconded the motion for that amendment, which passed unanimously.

“I think they took very prudent action,” Doughty told The Sarasota News Leader May 30.

Parallel parking concerns

A third motion, by Commissioner Nora Patterson, directed county staff to review the possibility of providing some parallel parking along the right of way of the road through the Western Node “where it’s practical,” and for curbing to be indented to allow the vehicles to be as far off the road as possible.

Thaxton seconded that motion as well, saying, “I think that it is true to characterize this area as congested.”

Referring to use of that right of way by customers of the nearby Casey Key Fish House, Thaxton called the restaurant, “wildly popular” and added, “we’ve never been able to cure the parking problems with our restaurants.”

Barbetta voiced opposition to continuing to allow parking on the right of way. “The fact is that we’re creating a huge hazard there,” he said. “This is not the city. … This is not Siesta Key. This is a rural, narrow road.”

When Chairwomen Christine Robinson asked County Administrator Randall Reid whether Patterson’s use of “staff” in the motion would encompass Emergency Management Services staff in a review of the situation, Reid responded affirmatively.

“I agree with Commissioner Barbetta,” Robinson said. However, she added, the indented curbing Patterson had suggested would help.

That motion passed on a 4-1 vote, with Barbetta in opposition.

After further discussion of the parking situation, Thaxton agreed with Robinson that “there’s places where parallel parking is happening today [in the Western Node], which is probably not appropriate.”

He made another motion to direct staff to bring the board a recommendation on where parallel parking should and shouldn’t be allowed in other sections of the Western Node.

Patterson seconded that motion, which passed unanimously.

More signs

Thaxton also directed staff to work on signage to make certain that park users understood they would have no public beach access on Casey Key except at Nokomis Beach and North Jetty Park, at the south end of the key, as the Casey Key Association had requested. “I think it would serve the people well,” he added.

When Project Manager Curtis Smith responded that staff was working on a plan for kiosks in the park that would provide that notice and other information, Thaxton responded, “A kiosk is not something that is visible to the motoring public.”

Smith then said he understood that other signage would be needed.

Smith pointed out earlier in the discussion that signs also would be erected to advise drivers that motorized boat-trailer traffic would be prohibited west of the swing bridge on Blackburn Point Road.

Doughty had expressed appreciation of that staff plan in his April 2 email to Thaxton.

Doughty and other residents also had sought an extension of the planned left-turn lane into the East Node of the park, noting it “would be an enormous help in easing traffic congestion.”

However, Smith explained to the commissioners that, because of a number of physical constraints, the turn lane could not be lengthened. Nonetheless, Smith said, “This configuration allows us to provide for some queuing of boat traffic in the park.”

In his April 2 email, Doughty wrote, “… we appreciate the measures that County staff have incorporated into the design for trailer queuing within park boundaries” to ease concerns about the design of the left-turn lane.

Following up on the May 23 commission votes, Doughty wrote another email to the board, dated May 24. “Modifications to the original [park] plan introduced by County staff over many months, and your actions yesterday, will result in a safer, more useable park while recognizing the constraints imposed by existing roads, bridges, and wildlife habitat,” he wrote.

He told the News Leader May 30 that, “overall, the county staff and the commission were willing to listen throughout the whole planning process.” He added, “I think we’re on our way” to seeing the park plans turn out well.

The first phase of the park project is scheduled to get under way in the fall, with an estimated construction timetable of 18 months, according to the county staff presentation on May 23. That first phase tentatively includes the construction of facilities on the East Node, pedestrian connections from one node to another along Blackburn Point Road and the replacement of the boat ramp in the Western Node.