Trolley ridership approaches 50,000 in February; county commissioner asks staff to work on strategies to help Avenida Leona residents seeking parking restrictions; ‘No Smoking’ bill fails in Legislature; short-term vacation rentals bill dies, as well; SKA leaders seeking to help members deal with COVID-19 restrictions; Easter Egg Hunt and Great American Cleanup cancelled; Daiquiri Deck restaurants closed; and quiet beaches could be boon to one group — beach-nesting birds
Call it a “last hurrah,” for the time being: In February, the Siesta Key Breeze had 49,849 passengers, a 30.03% increase from the 38,336 it carried in February 2019, Sarasota County staff told The Sarasota News Leader this week.
County Administrator Jonathan Lewis halted the trolley’s operations as a means of reducing the potential for people to head to Siesta Key’s beaches, after the county ordered those closed as of 6 a.m. on March 21.
Altogether, in January and February, the Breeze had 89,129 passengers. The figure for the number of riders this month, prior to cessation of the service, was not available this week, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester told the News Leader.
Readers will recall that the trolley had more than 350,320 riders in 2019. It remains to be seen, of course, when Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) will be able to put the Breeze back into service.
Help with parking restriction petitions, please
During the March 10 County Commission meeting, Commissioner Alan Maio brought up a constituent’s plea for help in regard to a parking prohibition petition.
As the News Leader reported last summer, residents on Avenida Leona — near Siesta Village — filed a request in late 2018 with the county’s Traffic Advisory Council (TAC), seeking help to deal with what they characterized as a dangerous situation.
Submitted by Dr. Edward Braun, who lives on Avenida Leona, the petition said, “During tourist season, our street is used extensively for parking by visitors. Although Avenida Milano and Avenida Madero, neighboring similar streets, have signs prohibiting parking on both sides of the street, Avenida does not have such signs.”
The petition added, “Cars are constantly parking on both sides of the street endangering pedestrians and bicyclists, making it difficult for our service vehicles to travel, and no doubt obstructing emergency vehicles if such were needed.”
(In late 2012, residents of Avenida de Mayo successfully petitioned the TAC for parking restrictions on their street to deal with visitors blocking traffic flow. At that time, the TAC petition asked only for the signatures of “5 unrelated residents.”)
During his report to his colleagues as part of the regular March 10 County Commission meeting, Maio referenced an email from Braun, who had expressed frustration with a change in county regulations that made it impossible for the TAC to address the Avenida Leona parking petition.
In that March 9 email, Braun explained that in the summer of 2018, “James Stock, then manager of traffic engineering for the county, measured Avenida Leona and found it eligible to be limited to one side of the street parking only, our objective. I was told to submit a petition to the Traffic Advisory Committee with 5 signatures, but at the last moment the number of signatures needed was raised to 61, or 20% of the number of residences within 1500 feet of Avenida Leona. This despite the fact that this parking limitation was not for cosmetic reasons but for SAFETY reasons in keeping with a Sarasota County regulation that Fire Department vehicles shall have an unobstructed width of not less than 20 feet [emphasis in the email]. In addition, during these busy times there are multiple pedestrians on the street, wending their way between the parked cars.”
Braun continued, “The March, 2019 Traffic Advisory Committee meeting, on which I was on the agenda, was cancelled because I was the only item on the agenda. Their next meeting was cancelled as the Committee did not have a quorum. I must say that my enthusiasm for this project waned until several weeks ago when an emergency rescue vehicle was called to our street at night, with the driver telling me that he would not have been able to make it to aid the victim if cars had been parked on both sides of the street.”
Braun added, “Thus, I appeared before the Traffic Advisory Committee meeting again today with the Committee informing me that their hands were tied because of the ruling that 61 signatures, which I feel are unnecessary in this situation, were needed to [ensure] the safety of the 14 residents on our small street. This seems to the residents to be somewhat ludicrous, that signatures from 1500 feet away need to be obtained to [ensure] the safety of the 14 residents of our street.”
Braun then pointed out that, following the TAC meeting,
Becky Ayech, the TAC chair, “advised me that although the members of the Committee felt that one-sided parking on our street was justified, a sentiment shared by Captain John Donovan of the Florida Highway Patrol, what was needed was a ruling by the County Commissioners that in this particular instance the petition rules be altered to allow the signatures of 20% of the residents of our street to suffice on our petition rather than 20% of the residents within 1500 feet.”
(Donovan is a member of the TAC.)
During his March 10 remarks, Commissioner Maio noted that county Planning and Development Services Department rules for public hearings and neighborhood workshops regarding land development proposals call for owners of property within 1,500 feet of the affected sites to be notified. That is an effort to ensure those property owners have an opportunity to offer comments. He indicated that he felt the requirement for TAC petitions was onerous, especially in a case like the one involving Avenida Leona.
“What do we need to do as commissioners to give our Traffic Advisory Council some leeway in this signature rule?” Maio asked. “We don’t need a fire truck and ambulance not fitting down the street.”
Maio ultimately made a motion to direct staff to look into the issue.
When no other board member spoke up, Chair Michael Moran said he would second the motion, to start a discussion.
“Your motion is to direct staff to come back to us with strategies for this?” Commissioner Nancy Detert asked Maio.
“Yes,” Maio replied.
“OK,” she told him. “That’s fine.”
Then the motion passed unanimously.
A board-assignment tracking document in the agenda packet for the March 25 County Commission meeting noted that the report on TAC petition requirements, regarding Avenida Leona, would be completed by July 7. However, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis suggested this week that, given county efforts to deal with the novel coronavirus pandemic, the report likely would be pushed back a bit.
No smoking bill ‘indefinitely postponed’ in Florida House
As Florida legislators were wrapping up the work of the 2020 session, a Senate bill that would have allowed municipalities and counties to regulate smoking on beaches and in parks met its end in the House.
A March 14 notation in the history of Senate Bill 630 said the bill had been “Indefinitely postponed and withdrawn from consideration” in the Florida House.
Nine days earlier, the bill had passed the Florida Senate on a vote of 39-1.
‘Died in Rules’
Regular readers also will recall that new efforts were launched in the Florida Legislature’s session this year to give the state more power to supervise short-term vacation rentals. That initiative failed, as well, the News Leader learned.
As the session was drawing to a formal close on March 13 — except for finalization of the budget — a notation in the history of Senate Bill 1128 said it had “Died in Rules” on March 14, referring to the Senate’s Committee on Rules.
The original bill would have “grandfathered in” Sarasota County’s existing regulations, as they were in effect prior to a date included in the bill. Nonetheless, local leaders were worried that an amendment during consideration of the new law would remove that stipulation.
SKA assisting members during COVID-19 crisis
The Siesta Key Association (SKA) has begun sending out email blasts to its members, alerting them to updates from the state and Sarasota County regarding the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.
Additionally, on its website, the nonprofit is listing restaurants providing takeout for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Some dining establishments also are able to deliver food, the website notes. “Please call to confirm hours,” the SKA advises, as most restaurant owners are taking things day-to-day. “Remember these people are literally risking their lives to serve us,” the SKA says on its website.
Further, SKA leaders are reminding their members that the island has three markets — Crescent Beach Grocery, with access on Old Stickney Point Road; Big Water Fish Market on South Midnight Pass Road; and Morton’s Siesta Market in Siesta Village — that have food available for takeout.
Finally, the SKA website points out, “[N]ow, more than ever, restaurant employees are relying on your tips for to go orders and delivery. Please tip as generously as you can.”
Restaurateurs are being asked to send information about their status to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Easter Egg Hunt and Great American Cleanup cancelled
After Sarasota County leaders initially cancelled all county or private events at county facilities with an expected attendance of 250 or more people, the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce announced on March 13 that it was having to call off its annual Children’s Easter Party.
That event had been planned for Saturday, April 11 — the day before Easter — at Turtle Beach Park.
The county cancellation policy went into effect on March 12 and was to remain in effect for 30 days, the Siesta Chamber noted.
Of course, Gov. Ron DeSantis later issued a directive warning against gatherings of more than 50 people. He modified that last week to call for no more than 10 people in one place at one time.
The Sarasota County webpage devoted to cancellations also noted that the Great American Cleanup scheduled for April 4 would not be conducted.
That event, overseen by Keep Sarasota County Beautiful, is coordinated with a national initiative. Siesta Key Association (SKA) President Catherine Luckner had advised members during the nonprofit’s March 5 meeting about how they could sign up for one or more venues.
A hard decision for the Daiquiri Deck
After Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order last week that closed restaurants, a March 23 email to Sarasota Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch let her know that the Daiquiri Decks would not be staying open for takeout and delivery services, as other dining establishments have.
Matt Grover, one of the three Daiquiri Deck owners, wrote, “It is with sadness I report to you that the Daiquiri Deck will suspend all operations and be completely closed as of this morning at all locations. Our attempt to stay open was to support our staff but now it is clear that this is unsustainable. Our remaining perishable inventory will go to charitable organizations that can efficiently supply those in need.”
Grover added that he and his partners — Troy Syprett and Russell Matthes — “feel it is a privilege to do business here. We appreciate the work of everyone at the City of Sarasota and hope the best for all of you and the citizens of Sarasota.”
He signed the email, “In Strength.”
The original Daiquiri Deck stands in Siesta Village. Over the past decade, Syprett, Matthes and Grover expanded the business to locations in Venice, on St. Armands Circle in the city of Sarasota, and on Stickney Point Road.
A happy note for beach-nesting birds, so far
With Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office personnel and county employees working to keep people off Siesta Public Beach, in accord with a county directive, is it possible the endangered snowy plovers might see chicks survive and thrive this year?
As of March 20, the outlook was hopeful.
Kylie Wilson, coordinator of Audubon Florida’s Bird Monitoring & Stewardship Program in Sarasota County, wrote, in a March 13 email to volunteers and supporters, “Already we are seeing Snowy Plovers scraping (the beginnings of making a nest) on Siesta Key!”
She followed that up with a more somber opening in her March 20 email and then offered more good news:
“As many of you may have heard,” Wilson pointed out, “the beaches locally will be closing to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Audubon Staff have been granted permission by the county to continue doing surveys and monitoring for all beaches: Siesta, Lido and Longboat. In accordance with the county we will continue to practice social distancing and are acting according to [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] CDC guidelines. These precautions are being made for public safety and I believe it is the right decision. I also believe this will be a positive thing for our birds as human disturbances should no longer be an issue. I am determined to keep you all updated on what is going on with the birds during this difficult time!”
Then in her Siesta report, Wilson noted, “The count on Snowy Plovers has varied but I would say we have about 10 individuals regularly on the beach and 4 pairs that are actively working on scrapes! One of these pairs includes Ms. Sanibel, our banded beauty and nesting champ from last season. She has already been observed working on a scrape with her mate and is looking pretty plump so hopefully she will be with a nest soon!”
The past couple of years, chicks have hatched on Siesta, but predators have snatched them before they could reach the point of being able to fly, Wilson and Audubon volunteers reported.