Siesta Seen

Featherbed Lane house fire results in significant damage; lower Siesta Key Breeze ridership a direct result of pandemic precautions; no filing yet of site and development materials necessary for construction of Siesta Promenade; governor eases hospitality industry restrictions; last Oceane units sold; and various infrastructure projects underway on Key

An aerial image shows the house on Featherbed Lane, outlined in red. Image courtesy Sarasota County Property Appraiser William Furst

A fire reported in the early morning hours of Aug. 7 resulted in an estimated $475,750 in damages to the home at 4839 Featherbed Lane on the northern part of Siesta Key, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

No injuries were reported; however, Sarasota County firefighters noted in the incident narrative that they were able to put eyes on only three of the 12 cats the homeowner told them were inside the residence. Additionally, the Fire Department report pointed out, “There was a large bird in a cage that did not survive the smoke conditions in the house.”

The report also said the homeowner declined Red Cross assistance.

Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office records and the Fire Department report both named the owner of the single-story home as Barbara Martin of North Port.

Property Appraiser’s Office records indicate that she took over ownership of the house from a relative in December 2010.

The structure was built in 1960 with a total of 4,411 square feet, the Property Appraiser’s Office record shows. The main floor encompasses about 2,600 square feet, the Fire Department report noted.

This year, the market value of the property was put at $644,500. The Fire Department report estimated the damage to the structure itself at $225,750, with another $250,000 listed as damage to the contents, which the report valued at $500,000.

The source of the fire was not determined, the report pointed out; “Unintentional” was marked as the cause of ignition.

The alarm came in at 5:09 a.m., according to the Fire Department log. The first unit arrived on the scene at 5:16 a.m., the report noted, and the blaze was under control by 6 a.m. However, the last unit did not leave until 1:34 on Aug. 7, the report added.

Details in the report indicate that the home did not have smoke detectors.

Firefighters noted heavy smoke upon their arrival; the narrative said that weather conditions at the time were clear, still and dry.

An aerial map show the location of the house on Featherbed Lane, on the northern part of Siesta Key. Image from Google Maps

Along with the fire engine and rescue unit from Station 13 on Siesta, the fire engines from Stations 11 and 12 assisted in fighting the blaze, according to the report. The other equipment was called to enable the rotation of manpower “throughout the incident,” the report said.

The fire was contained to the house, the report noted. Interior wall coverings — excluding drapes — and the wood used in construction of the house contributed the most to the spread of the flames, the report pointed out.

The county Fire Marshal also responded to the scene, the report said. After the crews determined that the fire had been extinguished, the report added, the Fire Marshal “released the scene to the homeowner.”

Pandemic lowers Siesta Key Breeze ridership figures

In late March, as Sarasota County Administrator Jonathan Lewis ordered the closure of all county-operated beaches and accesses, he also called for a halt on the Siesta Key Breeze’s operations.

County documents indicated that the step was taken to deter members of the public from trying to go to the beach.

And while the beaches fully reopened to the public in early May, the Breeze did not begin operating again until June 16.

During the June 17 quarterly meeting of members of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce — conducted via Zoom — Nathan Reid, general manager of the Breeze, reported that drivers received warm greetings from the public as they once more navigated between Turtle Beach Park and Morton’s Siesta Market in Siesta Village. “The reception was wonderful,” Reid said. “The constant waves and the thumbs up … It was awesome.”

About every other seat has been blocked off to ensure social distancing on the trolley, he pointed out. Thus, the Breeze has been able to ferry a maximum of 12 passengers at a time.

Further, Reid continued, Plexiglas had been installed to separate the driver from the passengers, and the drivers must wear masks.

At the end of every loop, he noted, passengers remaining on the trolley are asked to disembark at Turtle Beach Park so staff can undertake “an additional wipe-down on the vehicle.” Riders have not complained about that at all, Reid said. “They appreciate knowing we’re going the extra mile for safety.”

The Siesta Chamber included this flyer for the Siesta Key Breeze in its August newsletter. Image courtesy Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce

Ann Frescura, executive director of the Chamber, told him that she and her staff at the Visitors Center handled numerous inquiries about when the trolley would be back in operation, after the service was halted.

In response to a question from Chamber Director Mike Gatz, manager of Gilligan’s Island Bar & Grill, Reid said that, just as in season, a driver with a full trolley will stop briefly when he or she sees passengers waiting at a stop, so the driver can tell them another trolley will be coming by soon.

“Good,” Gatz replied, adding that business owners and managers were really happy to have the Breeze back on the road. “It’s very busy on the Key right now.”

Reid said he believes most people are understanding about the circumstances resulting from the pandemic.

Then, asked if it would be better for the driver to just put a sign in a trolley window, indicating when the Breeze is full, instead of having to stop, Reid explained that that would take a lot more time. The driver almost constantly would be taking the sign down and putting it back up, he added. A quick stop with an explanation to waiting people is more efficient, Reid said.

Finally, Reid pointed out that he and his staff used the trolley’s down time to work on rewiring vehicles to effect significant improvements to the reliability of the Breeze app, which riders can use to track its progress when they are at one of its stops. Other improvements were in the works, Reid added.

In response to a News Leader request for ridership totals for the Breeze in June and July, Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant said the total from June 16 through June 30 was 5,162. For the month of July, she added, the figure was 8,051.

In the trolley’s first June on the road — 2017 — it carried a total of 19,743 passengers. In July 2017, the figure was 25,525. Last year, the June number was 23,935, which was up 19.53% compared to the June 2018 figure. The July 2019 total was 28,123, up 18.66% compared to the July 2018 number.

These are the ridership figures for the Breeze from the beginning of its operations in March 2017 through February of this year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce routinely promotes the Breeze in its monthly newsletters. This month, for example, a flyer included in the newsletter notes, “Safety precautions and social distancing in place,” along with stating that the hours of operation are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

A Siesta Promenade update

Given the Second District Court of Appeal ruling for Sarasota County this summer in the Siesta Promenade lawsuit, the News Leader took the opportunity to ask county staff about the status of the mixed-use development planned for the northwest quadrant of the Stickney Point Road/U.S. 41 intersection.

On Aug. 6, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester, reported in an email that no site and development materials had been filed with the county’s Land Development Division, which is part of the Planning and Development Services Department.

Siesta 41 Associates is the Benderson Development Co. affiliate that actually is overseeing Siesta Promenade.

“From the planning side,” Winchester continued, Benderson representatives did participate in a pre-application meeting on July 17. However, he wrote, “[T]hey have not requested a Neighborhood Workshop as of yet.”

On Dec. 12, 2018, the County Commission approved the plans for 414 apartments/condominiums, a 130-room hotel designed to stand 80 feet tall, 133,000 square feet of retail space and 7,000 square feet of office space for Siesta Promenade.

Sura Kochman, who lives in the Pine Shores Estates neighborhood next to the project site, filed suit against the county in January 2019. After losing at the 12th Judicial Circuit Court level last year, she appealed to the Second District Court of Appeal, which has offices in Lakeland and Tampa.

On June 23, the attorneys conducted oral arguments with three Appeal Court judges via virtual meeting technology, a precaution taken because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is the binding development concept plan for Siesta Promenade approved by the county Planning Commission and the County Commission. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During neighborhood workshops held years ago to explain Benderson’s proposal for Siesta Promenade, Todd Mathes, the company’s director of development, talked of hopes to secure a contract with a major grocer for a store that would occupy part of the retail space within Siesta Promenade. However, the longer the pandemic has been underway, with negative effects on the economy, the more national retailers of various types have filed for bankruptcy.

Tourism also has been depressed, with accommodations in June reporting a 20% decline in occupancy and hoteliers marking a 24.2% drop in the number of rooms sold, according to figures the county’s tourism office, Visit Sarasota County, has reported. (See the related article in this issue.)

Easing hospitality restrictions

Just last week — on Aug. 6 — Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a new Executive Order that rescinded travel restrictions for visitors from the Tri-State Area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce announced to its members in an email blast.

On March 24, DeSantis implemented those restrictions after New York, especially, became a major center where spread of the novel coronavirus was documented. That order said, “Florida is experiencing an increase in individuals fleeing to Florida from states where ‘shelter-in-place’ orders are being implemented …” Therefore, DeSantis called for all persons entering Florida from the Tri-State Area “to isolate or quarantine for a period of 14 days from the time of entry into the State of Florida or the duration of the person’s presence in the State of Florida, [whichever] is shorter.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis. Image courtesy State of Florida

That did not apply to airline employees or “those performing military, emergency or health response.”

Additionally, the new Executive Order rescinded the previous COVID-19 screening requirements for restaurant employees, the Chamber email blast said. Staff members who previously tested positive for the virus “do not need to receive two negative tests before they can come back to work,” the Chamber pointed out. “Employers are required only to implement screening protocols pursuant to CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance.”

The CDC website says a person can end home isolation as follows:

  • “10 days since symptoms first appeared and
  • “24 hours with no fever without the use of fever-reducing medications and
  • “COVID-19 symptoms have improved (for example, cough, shortness of breath).”

However, the website does add, “Note that these recommendations do not apply to persons with severe COVID-19 or with severely weakened immune systems (immunocompromised).”

Further, DeSantis’ new Executive Order eliminated the requirement that employees who have traveled through an airport in the past 14 days be prohibited from working in a restaurant.

Final two Oceane units sold

On July 9, CG Oceane LLC, a Georgia company, sold the last two units of its Oceane condominium complex located just north of Siesta Village, Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller records show.

Pamela A. Garvin, trustee of the Pamela A. Garvin Survivors Trust of West End Avenue in New York City, paid $4,050,000 for Unit 101. Garvin is an attorney, the News Leader found in an online search.

The last condominium, Unit 102, went to Vibeke C. Olson and James A. Rotenberg — a married couple with a Wilmington, N.C. address — for $3,850,000, that deed says.

In June 2018, construction is just getting underway at the Oceane site. File photo

A News Leader online search found that Rotenberg is an associate professor of environmental sciences at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. A Wilmington StarNews article published in October 2017 reported on Rotenberg’s use of drones “to study the rare harpy eagle in the rain forests of Belize.”

Olson is an associate professor of art history at UNC-Wilmington, the News Leader learned. Her research specialties are 12th century French architecture and medieval pilgrimage.

Located at 4740 Ocean Blvd., Oceane faces Big Sarasota Pass, where dredging has been underway to renourish Lido Key Beach.

When the complex first was being proposed, the Oceane website offered a potential design for the living area. Image courtesy of Peter Laughlin

The highest price for a solitary condominium in the project — Unit 201 — was $4,250,000, based on the Clerk of Court’s records. That was paid by trusts established by a couple listing a Chicago address.

An entity called Oceane Penthouse LLC, with the same Georgia address as the developer, paid $8,150,000 at the end of December 2019 for the two condominiums on the top floor, Units 301 and 302.

Several county projects underway on the Key

A county initiative to improve drainage, as well as the sidewalk and shoulder, on Higel Avenue from Little Pond Lane to Somerset Drive has begun, county staff reported in the Aug. 10-16 Construction — One Week Look Ahead report produced by the county’s Capital Projects Division.

The roadway also will be resurfaced in that area, the report noted. Weather permitting, that undertaking will be completed in the fall.

Crews have begun clearing the drainage easement and have started the shoulder work, the report said.

An aerial map shows Little Pond Lane intersecting with Higel Avenue. Image from Google Maps

Further, county staff is replacing a primary potable water pipeline — a watermain — in the vicinity of the intersection of Beach Road and Midnight Pass Road. The existing structure was not only old but undersized, as noted in the Aug. 10-16 One Week Look Ahead report.

A new 16-inch water main and one new fire hydrant will be installed, the report said. After that initiative has been completed — by the end of September — county crews will have better access to the water lines.

The contractor, Douglas N. Higgins Inc. of Naples, was working this week on the northeast side of the Beach Road/Midnight Pass Road intersection, the report added. Intermittent lane closures will be necessary, the report pointed out, as the project proceeds. Appropriate signage and flaggers will be present at those times, it added.

An aerial graphic shows the location of the Siesta watermain replacement project. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Yet another project underway on the Key involves the demolition of structures no longer needed on the site of the Siesta Key Master Pump Station, which replaced the Siesta Key Water Reclamation Facility on Oakmont Place.

The contractor’s equipment was expected to arrive on-site this week, the county report said; then, the demolition could get underway.

That initiative is expected to be completed in November.

Finally, a Florida Department of Transportation maintenance project on the Stickney Point Road drawbridge was expected to necessitate intermittent eastbound and westbound lane closures between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m. on Aug. 11 and Aug. 12. Crews were to inspect the bridge, the report said.