Siesta Seen

Siesta Public Beach zooms back to No. 2 on TripAdvisor Top 25 U.S. Beaches list; comment by Sarasota Mayor Arroyo indicates lack of awareness of controversy over dredging of Big Pass in 2021; Nora Patterson Bay Island Park improvements underway; SKA offers proposals for county’s Surtax IV Program; county’s Public Utilities director talks of plans for improving island water system; Fire Station 13 wins LEED green building certification; and seasonal traffic congestion already bad in February

This is a still of Siesta Public Beach taken from Visit Sarasota County’s live beach cam just before 12:30 p.m. on March 2. News Leader image, courtesy of Visit Sarasota County

After tumbling from No. 1 on TripAdvisor’s Top 25 U.S. Beaches list in 2020 to No. 17 in 2021, Siesta Public Beach is No. 2 this year, Trip Advisor recently announced.

In fact, Siesta Beach also snagged the No. 14 spot on TripAdvisor’s list of the Top 25 Beaches in the World, which includes numerous foreign locations.

Siesta Public Beach earned a rating of 4.5, based on 8,094 comments, the TripAdvisor website says.

Of those reviews, 6,450 rated the beach “Excellent,” with another 1,115 marking it “Very good.”

The No. 1 beach on the TripAdvisor list this year for U.S. locations was Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area in Puako, Hawaii.

“Absolutely beautiful beach with silky quartz sand!” the U.S. list notes of Siesta Beach. “Great beach for people watching, sunsets, breakfast/morning walk on beach and finding sand dollars,” it adds.

The first comment The Sarasota News Leader read on the TripAdvisor website, written on Feb. 27, gave the destination five stars. “Powdery sand, clean beach, away from the spring break crowd,” it noted.

A number of writers of other five-star reviews commended employees of the public beach concession for the service they provide, especially in regard to setting up umbrellas on the beach.

Yet another five-star review, written by a traveler from Burbank, Calif., carried the headline, “This beach is to die for …” It said, “If you’re a beach lover the way I am, you must come to Siesta Beach, my favorite beach. It truly is the prettiest beach I have ever been to, thus far. I’ve been to Europe beaches, Mexico beaches and this one tops them all for that baby powder, white, cool sand, warm, clear and calm water. The beach is very clean and taken care of. You find pretty seashells … they have lifeguards on duty and rentals available for a reasonable price (chairs, umbrellas). Oh, and plenty of parking available as well as food services, beach gear (inner tubes, etc.), bathrooms and showers outside to rinse off. I will be going back as often as possible … highly, highly recommend this beach.”

One more five-star review, dated June 2021, noted, “The sand is like walking on baby powder, simply amazing! It stays cool even when the temps rise. Such a beautiful place!”

A person from Palm Harbor, who also gave the beach five stars, wrote of an October 2021 visit, “Loved the large free parking lot, bathrooms and shopping. Food and drinks are also on site and reasonably priced. Wish there was more education on removing live sand dollars and their role in the ecosystem. People were collecting by the bucketful.”

And speaking of local beaches …

On Jan. 18, when Sarasota Mayor Erik Arroyo brought up the potential annexation of the Key into the city, he touted a wide array of Sarasota’s positive features in a manner of enticement, to win Siesta residents’ approval of the proposal.

Among those attributes, he noted that the city has the “No. 1 federal beach in America.”

This is a view of Lido Key Beach on March 10, 2021, after the new sand had been placed on it. Image courtesy of Michael Holderness

Arroyo was referring to a distinction that Lido Key Beach won after a contractor hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) added slightly more than 680,000 cubic yards of sand last year to the severely eroded Lido Beach.

Arroyo must have been unaware of the fact that many Siesta residents and organizations protested the removal of that sand from Big Sarasota Pass, which never had been dredged prior to the start of that Lido project. (See the related article in this issue.)

Indeed, representatives of Save Siesta Key, the nonprofit whose leaders and supporters worked so hard in 2021 to try to achieve incorporation of most of the island, pointed to the removal of sand from Big Pass against residents’ wishes as one of the reasons they were pursuing incorporation.

Patterson Park improvements underway

On Feb. 16, representatives of both the City and County of Sarasota gathered under a tent on the grounds of Nora Patterson Bay Island Park to mark the beginning of a project that will include construction of a much-needed restroom facility, as speakers pointed out.

The park’s namesake was among those who addressed the audience.

“I’m not sure that I deserve to have this lovely park named after me,” former Commissioner Nora Patterson said at the outset of her remarks.

This is an aerial view of the county side of Nora Patterson Bay Island Park, taken from a county video about the groundbreaking. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Formerly known simply as Bay Island Park, the property was renamed in honor of Patterson during a September 2015 ceremony, Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department pointed out. A decades-long resident of Siesta Key, Patterson had to step down from the commission in 2014 because of term limits.

During the Feb. 16 event, Patterson credited Rissler, City of Sarasota Parks and Recreation Director Jerry Fogle and former county Parks and Recreation Department General Manager John McCarthy for all they have done through the years to make parks a reality in the county.

“Waterfront land is particularly hard to preserve,” Patterson pointed out. “For one thing, it costs a lot of money.”

In the case of what was Bay Island Park, she continued, her husband, attorney John Patterson, played a key role in making the facility a public venue. As a result of what she referred to as “a legal scuffle,” she said, he was able to save the property from the construction of condominiums.

“I strongly believe that wonderful places with access to the waterfront should be preserved by local government,” Nora Patterson told those gathered for the event.

Rissler pointed out that the park comprises nearly 2 acres.

The park has two sites, on either side of Siesta Drive. One is owned by the city; the section on the south side, by the county.

The improvements that would get underway in just a short while would make the public appreciate the park all the more, Patterson continued.

Along with the construction of an elevated facility with two family-style restrooms and an observation deck, Rissler explained that the project would entail the installation of a gate at the entryway, plus landscaping and seating improvements.

Patterson credited renowned Sarasota architect Guy Peterson for providing conceptual plans for the restroom structure to the county, without charging “for his skilled talents.”

This is a rendering of the restroom facility planned for Nora Patterson Bay Island Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The design, which is a nod to the Sarasota School of Architecture — as Rissler noted — was completed by Seibert Architects of Sarasota. On Jan. 25, the County Commission awarded a $927,740.50 construction contract to Stellar Development Inc.of Sarasota.

Speaking on behalf of his colleagues, Commissioner Christian Ziegler noted that the park “serves as a gateway for one of our premier locations in the county, Siesta Key.” He added that the public beach on the Key is No. 1 in the United States, “and probably the world.”

Ziegler also talked of having spoken with a couple who had arrived at the site shortly before the ceremony was to begin. Because of the man’s health problems, Ziegler explained, the couple comes regularly to Nora Patterson Bay Island Park to enjoy the water; it is easier for them to utilize the site than to go to the public beach, he indicated.

“They are very excited about having restrooms here,” Ziegler said, as the new facility will make it possible for them to spend even more time at the park.

When she opened the ceremony, Rissler pointed out, “I’m not sure we could have a better backdrop than this,” with the Intracoastal Waterway in the background. She noted the “striking views of Sarasota [Bay] and Roberts Bay.”

The park is a prime location for fishing and picnicking, she said.

Former County Commissioner Nora Patterson (third from right) joins in with the shoveling of dirt to mark the start of the project. Image from a Sarasota County video

Just before the official shoveling of dirt to mark the start of construction, Rissler also mentioned that Stellar Development’s team had hoped to begin the work about three weeks ago. However, she indicated, county staff wanted to schedule the formal groundbreaking first.

In half an hour or less, she added with a laugh, Stellar’s crew could get to work.

Siesta Surtax IV Program proposals offered

On Feb. 23, the County Commission wrapped up its list of proposed projects that could be undertaken if voters in November support another 15-year extension of the county’s penny sales tax — or “Surtax” Program.

Almost exactly three weeks earlier — on Feb. 3 — leaders of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) talked about the dearth of suggestions that county staff had received from island residents.

Director Robert Luckner reported that the SKA had collected 47 ideas focused on Key projects and ended up sending a list of six to county staff.

Among them, he said, were public restrooms at the gazebo in Siesta Village and at a few of the beach accesses on the island. However, he continued, staff had informed him that the master list for County Commission approval would include no restroom projects for Siesta other than the one that is underway at Nora Patterson Bay Island Park.

This aerial map shows Midnight Pass Road between the Beach Road and Shadow Lawn Way intersections. Image from Google Maps

Among other proposals, Luckner noted, were improvements to the crosswalk at the intersection of Beach Road and Midnight Pass Road. County Engineer Spencer Anderson told him, Luckner said, that that would be addressed during a road resurfacing project that the Florida Department of Transportation plans for later this year. It will start at the intersection of Stickney Point Road and Midnight Pass Road and continue to Shadow Lawn Way, which is one of the entrances to Siesta Isles.

The only Surtax IV Program proposal for the Key that appears to have won board support, Luckner added, would be the installation of sensors in the parking lots at Siesta Public Beach and Turtle Beach Park, so members of the public could learn in real time — via an app or via message boards located off the island — how many spaces are available in each of those parks.

Commissioner Ziegler, who represents the northern part of the island as part of his District 2 territory, championed that initiative during a Surtax IV Program discussion that he and his colleagues engaged in with staff on Feb. 8.

The approximate cost of that project would be $1 million, Ziegler noted.

The commissioners are scheduled to vote on March 8 on the final county project list for the November Surtax IV referendum.

This graphic, shown to the commissioners on Feb. 23, shows the breakdown of allocations by project category for the Surtax IV revenue. Image courtesy Sarasota County

County staff has estimated that about $908.2 million would be raised through the penny sales tax program for county initiatives between 2025 and 2039, if voters approve the November ballot question about Surtax IV.

“The tax is applied to the first $5,000 of any single taxable item at the time of purchase,” a county slide has explained. The first iteration of the surtax program won voter approval in June 1989.

On a related matter, Luckner appeared before the commissioners on Feb. 23 during the Open to the Public comment period. (Luckner also is vice chair of the county’s Citizen Tax Oversight Committee, whose mission is to “[e]nsure the infrastructure surtax project process is fair, open and fully disclosed and that money is allocated appropriately, the county website explains.)

In a reflection of that mission statement, Luckner pointed out to the commissioners on Feb. 23 that, as part of the Surtax III Program, which will expire at the end of 2024, they sought voter approval to speed up projects by borrowing money, with repayment to come from the penny surtax revenue.

Altogether, Luckner said, the county spent about $76 million of the Surtax III revenue on interest on bonds. That resulted in a project reduction of approximately 13%, he noted.

This year, Luckner continued, staff plans a second Surtax IV ballot question in November. That would authorize the county to issue up to $400 million in bonds — again, to accelerate initiatives, especially if interest rates remain low.

If voters approve that question, Luckner added, the county would end up spending at least $70 million in interest on the resulting bonds. Therefore, the project list once more would be pared, with money going to pay the interest, he pointed out.

“I’d like for you to think about whether it should be more clear on the ballot,” he said of that second question, “since it’s a bit misleading now.”

Commissioner Nancy Detert reminded him that state law prohibits any ballot question from being longer than 75 words.

No other board member commented on his remarks, and none of them brought it up that afternoon when they approved the related question for the November General Election ballot.

This is the ‘red-line’ version of the second ballot question. The underlined language won commission approval on Feb. 23. Image courtesy Sarasota County

And speaking of the Surtax IV plans …

On Feb. 8, directors of county departments reviewed for the County Commission the projects that they had recommended for penny sales tax funding between 2025 and 2039 — if the Surtax IV program wins support from voters in November.

Among those individuals, Mike Mylett, director of Public Utilities, noted plans involving Siesta’s water system.

The county took over the former Siesta Key Utilities Authority (SKUA) system in 2013, he told the commissioners. “We made considerable improvements to the wastewater system,” he continued, but staff needs to undertake more work in regard to the potable water service for island residents.

A detailed document reporting on the department priorities that county administrative staff had approved for Surtax IV funding explained the Siesta project thus: “[It] will enhance the reliability and resiliency of the potable water transmission system on Siesta Key.” The project will include the replacement of the “Stickney Point subaqueous water transmission main; construction of a replacement ground storage tank; construction of a new pump station and transmission main [pipeline] improvements throughout the [K]ey.”

A county Public Utilities Department building on the property at 6647 S. Midnight Pass Road conceals a water tank. File photo

The goals, the form stated, would be to “[i]mprove water quality, system pressure, and fire protection capabilities for residents of Siesta Key.” The operating impact, the form added, would be the reduction in the amount of maintenance “and emergency responses and repairs performed by field crews due to the continued usage of aged infrastructure.”

Staff estimated the total expense of the initiatives at approximately $48.3 million, with half to come out of the estimated $908.2 million in Surtax IV revenue county staff anticipates over the 15 year life of the new penny sales program — again, pending voter approval.

When the News Leader asked for more details about the storage tank item, Mylett explained in an email that, before Sarasota County took over the system, SKUA removed from service an old tank located at 6647 S. Midnight Pass Road, “as its water tightness was in question. One of the goals of the new [project],” Mylett continued, “will be to either rehabilitate the tank to regain its water tightness or replace it with a new tank.”

Regular readers may recall that when county staff and the commissioners a couple of years ago conducted discussions about the construction of a public parking lot at 6647 S. Midnight Pass Road, the point was made that what appears to be an office building on the site actually contains the tank that Mylett was referencing. Commissioner Alan Maio also noted a number of underground utility lines on the property.

The need to ensure that no damage would occur to all of that equipment was a major reason that the parking lot had to be created on the portion of the site closer to Midnight Pass Road.

Honors for Fire Station 13

Carolyn Eastwood and Rich Collins pose with the LEED certification plaque for Fire Station 13. Image courtesy Sarasota County via Facebook

During the Feb. 23 County Commission meeting, Carolyn Eastwood, director of the county’s Capital Projects Department, announced that the new Fire Station 13 building completed last year had won LEED certification, joining eight other Fire Department facilities in the county to earn that distinction.

The two-story Fire Station 13 structure, with slightly more than 8,500 square feet, was designed to withstand Category 4 hurricanes, she pointed out. Moreover, “It is one of the few stations in Sarasota County which has an actual fire pole.”

Former Sarasota County Fire Chief Michael Regnier enjoyed noting that latter fact in presentations about the facility.

Eastwood also explained, “Nearly 88% of all construction debris was diverted from the [county] landfill” when the project was underway. “Water usage is nearly 50% less than that of similar size buildings,” she continued, and “Energy usage is nearly 23% less.”

Sustainable and recycled materials were used in the structure, Eastwood added, “including the polished concrete floor throughout.”

Finally, she noted, drought-tolerant vegetation was planted at the site.”
“Congratulations to the entire team,” Eastwood said.

Chair Alan Maio offered his congratulations, as well.

The formal opening of the completely reconstructed station took place on July 9, 2021. The original facility dated to 1974, county staff noted.

The project cost $5.4 million, according to a county staff document.

During the official opening, Rich Collins, director of the county’s Emergency Services Department, called the facility “an absolutely beautiful, beautiful building.

’Tis the season

March, the official spring break month, as denoted by special operations of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, had not even begun when the News Leader received two reports of heavy traffic congestion on the Key.

One person noted that, at the end of a late-February workday, it took 45 minutes after leaving an office in Siesta Village before the person was able to make it to U.S. 41, via the north bridge on Siesta Drive.

A second individual reported that, just around noon on Feb. 21, vehicles were stacked bumper-to-bumper from the vicinity of the Publix store in Paradise Plaza, between Osprey Avenue and U.S. 41, all the way to the traffic light at the intersection of Higel Avenue and Midnight Pass Road.

As that individual was heading off the Key that morning, the person told the News Leader, traffic heading onto the island via the north bridge “was heavy.”

Leaders of the Siesta Key Coalition pleaded with the county commissioners months ago to direct county staff to undertake a comprehensive traffic study of the island before the first hearing was conducted on one of the four hotel projects proposed for Siesta. Yet, the commissioners did not even comment on that request.