Commissioner Smith expresses support for residents in opposition to ‘traffic-calming measure’
With only Commissioner Mark Smith voting “No,” the County Commission this week approved the necessary petitions for the redesign of the Siesta Promenade mixed-use project, including parallel parking spaces on Glencoe and Crestwood avenues in Pine Shores Estates.
On behalf of the developer, Benderson Development Co. in University Park, Christopher Hatton, a registered professional traffic engineer with the Kimley-Horn consulting firm, provided several slides to the board members during the Sept. 27 public hearing. The slides showed sections of documents published by federal agencies, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), and a nationally known engineering organization — the Institute of Traffic Engineers — that cited the traffic-calming effects that parallel parking spaces produce.
Yet, a number of Pine Shores residents contended that the spaces will lead to crashes and potentially serious injuries and deaths.
One resident, Roxanne Goodman, read a letter from a Pine Shores homeowner who could not be present that day, describing a traumatic injury that a friend of the homeowner had suffered while riding a bicycle. A man suddenly opened the door of a vehicle parked parallel to the street that the friend was traversing, striking the friend, who was unable to avoid hitting the door. The friend is permanently disabled, the letter pointed out.
Addressing the commissioners, Pat Norton a Glencoe Avenue resident, said, “I wonder if any of you distinguished people here have ever been down Glencoe … You will find a busy street … that barely holds two cars passing each other.”
“[Homes across from the Siesta Promenade site] are directly on the road,” Norton continued. The parallel spaces will be “directly on the road. … We all have to back out of our driveway,” she said of the residents in that area of Pine Shores. Her expectation, she added, is that homeowners will hit cars in the parallel parking spaces as they try to turn out onto Glencoe.
The same type of situation exists with homes and parallel parking spots on St. Armands Key, Todd Mathes, director of development for Benderson, told the commissioners; yet, crashes are not routine in those areas.
In voicing their support for the Benderson proposal, both Commissioners Michael Moran and Joe Neunder referred to the company’s reputation.
“Anybody that has seen a Benderson Development project in this community — I think they are disingenuous if they are suggesting it is not a benefit to this community,” Moran said.
However, Commissioner Smith referenced comments that speakers had made that afternoon about their expectation that Siesta Promenade will exacerbate traffic congestion on Stickney Point Road, which is the only four-lane hurricane evacuation route for Siesta Key residents.
“As most people know,” Smith said, “I live and work on Siesta Key and experience Stickney Point Road almost on a daily basis, both good and bad, on-season and off-season …” To his Siesta Key voters, he added, “This is the most important road in Sarasota County.”
He especially referenced comments by two speakers who had talked about recent legal rulings in regard to development that would affect Siesta Key residents’ hurricane evacuations.
Smith did ask County Attorney Joshua Moye whether Moye thought those rulings had a bearing on the Siesta Promenade hearing.
Moye responded that, since they involved County Commission approval of two high-rise hotel projects on the Key, he did not see how they could have any bearing on the Benderson application before the board that day.
The Aug. 21 ruling by a 12th Judicial Circuit Court judge in a lawsuit that Siesta resident Lourdes Ramirez filed over the first hotel approval dealt largely with Future Land Use Policy 2.9.1 in the county’s Comprehensive Plan, Moye noted. That policy restricts residential density and intensity to that in place on the barrier islands as of March 13, 1989.
“So I don’t know how that would apply here,” Moye said.
Nonetheless, during their discussion before the vote, Smith told his colleagues, “Do we listen to the attorneys that won those court cases? … The county is 0 and 2 and looking at 0 and 3.” He was referring to the fact that all of the commissioners except him agreed to appeal the ruling in Ramirez’s favor in separate legal action filed with the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) in 2022. The administrative law judge presiding over that case ruled for Ramirez in April.
In a late-August memo to the commissioners, Moye had written about that case and the Circuit Court case, saying he believes the county is facing “an uphill battle” in fighting the DOAH decision and would be doing the same with the Circuit Court ruling.
Smith also pointed out to his colleagues on Sept. 27, “As we like to say, this is taxpayer money. I believe that [approval of the Siesta Promenade application that day] will be challenged. I’d hate to see us waste more money.”
Sura Kochman, the longtime leader of the Pine Shores Neighborhood Alliance, who spent about 10 years fighting the proposed intensity of the project next to the neighborhood, told The Sarasota News Leader in a telephone interview after the vote that she believed the public hearing was flawed. Following the county’s Planning Commission vote in late July to recommend that the County Commission approve the changes to the development, but without the parallel parking spaces, the county Planning Division staff report included in the Sept. 27 hearing packet showed that the parking spaces had been eliminated from the new Development Concept Plan for Siesta Promenade.
When she addressed the board during the Sept. 27 hearing, Kochman contended, “This is a classic bait and switch.” Based on the staff report, she indicated, residents had prepared remarks that did not focus on the parallel parking spaces, believing those no longer were an issue. Yet, she continued, “At the last minute, we hear this has risen again from the ashes.”
However, Mathes of Benderson Development told the county commissioners at the start of the hearing that they had the authority to approve the spaces. Mathes provided them copies of alternate, proposed resolutions of approval that included the spaces.
“This was a railroad situation,” Kochman told the News Leader after the hearing.
Speaking first among the project team members on Sept. 27, Mathes pointed out that the “parallel parking would have to be built by our company at our expense [and] there would be no exclusive use [of them] by residents or patrons of [Siesta Promenade].”
Mathes also emphasized that the company had proposed no changes to the maximum building setbacks or heights and no change to the landscape buffers approved by the County Commission seated in December 2018.
(County Attorney Moye did point out to the commissioners that if they did not approve the petitions before them on Sept. 27, Benderson still could construct the development as designed when the County Commission gave it the nod in late 2018.)
Kochman added during the telephone interview with the News Leader, “Corruption abounds yet again in Sarasota County. I am just so, so, so utterly disgusted in the system that does not work for the general public. It only works for the developer. … The fix was in as soon as Todd Mathes stood up there [at the podium].”
Getting to this point
Last year, Philip DiMaria, a project manager with the Kimley-Horn consulting firm, submitted the new application, on behalf of Benderson, to county Planning staff. That did not show the parallel parking spaces. DiMaria indicated only that the company was seeking County Commission approval to formally incorporate into the project site two single-family home parcels in Pine Shores that were adjacent to the approximately 24-acre Siesta Promenade Site.
On Dec. 12, 2018, the development won County Commission approval for 414 apartments/condos, a 130-room hotel, 133,000 square feet of retail space and 7,000 square feet of office space in the northwest quadrant of the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road.
DiMaria described the two new parcels, comprising about 0.78 acres, as “hold-outs” when company leaders were trying to create the design for the project. Therefore, with a Benderson affiliate finally having been able to purchase the property, the company wanted to smooth out the Siesta Promenade perimeter adjacent to Pine Shores and reconfigure the location of the project’s residential buildings.
During his remarks to the board on Sept. 27, Mathes of Benderson pointed out that the added acreage “makes this project less dense,” referring to the number of residential units, as no extra units were planned as a result of the additional property.
It was not until the spring of this year that DiMaria submitted a new proposed Development Concept Plan to county planners, including the parallel parking spaces.
During the Sept. 27 public hearing, Hatton, the traffic engineer, alluded to county planning commissioners having misunderstood aspects of the parallel parking proposal during their July 20 hearing.
He further emphasized that studies had shown that “traffic calming is most effective when different measures are utilized,” which is why the parallel spaces had been included in the revised project design, accompanying other “tools,” as he called them. Among the latter are a roundabout and a raised crosswalk.
He also maintained that, even with the spaces created on the Siesta Promenade perimeter, the company would ensure that the 20-foot width of both Glencoe Avenue and Crestwood Avenue would be maintained, and the 20-foot-wide landscape buffer on the side of the project facing the neighborhood would remain part of the plans.
Further, in showing the board members the slides providing information from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, FDOT and the Institute of Traffic Engineers, he noted the documents’ details about the effectiveness of parallel parking as a traffic-calming measure.
For example, he pointed out, FDOT’s Jan. 1, 2022 Design Manual says, “In addition to providing parking supply and separating pedestrians from the travel lane, on-street parking can be used to manage speeds when the parking lane is located directly adjacent to the travel lane.”
Another slide showed details from a Federal Highway Administration document, which said, “On-street parking can effectively narrow the roadway travel lanes by adding friction to the traffic flow …”
Hatton also maintained that on-street parking “slows vehicles down and makes the street less inviting for cut-through traffic.”
Moreover, referring to the number of distracted drivers in modern society, Hatton said that the presence of parallel parking spaces makes it necessary for drivers to pay attention to the street, which makes conditions safer for pedestrians.
In response to a question from Commissioner Smith, Hatton emphasized the desirability of a mix of traffic-calming measures. “It basically keeps [a driver] guessing.”
“You think it’s an enhancement,” Smith responded, “but the neighborhood doesn’t.”
Commissioner Joe Neunder asked, for clarification, whether people could park on the rights of way of Glencoe and Crestwood, even without any striping delineating the spaces.
“Yes, that is our understanding,” Mathes replied.
When Neunder then sought assurance that Benderson would include striping perpendicular to the travel lane, Hatton replied, “Yes.”
“I also like that your mixing up the type of mitigation for speed,” Neunder continued. “I think that’s very clever, you know, kind of playing on the human psyche in driving.”