Siesta Chamber hosting March 20 anniversary party for the trolley; lifeguard hours will not be extended this summer; SKA sends out survey about SKOD setbacks; new county administrator addresses SKA members; resident asks about spurring a county offer for Siesta Promenade land; and Cosentino’s Special Magistrate hearing delayed
Editor’s note: The trolley anniversary celebration was postponed to a later date because of concerns about severe weather that was forecast for the area on March 20.
The Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce will host an event at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, March 20, to mark the first anniversary of the launch of the free Siesta Key Breeze open-air trolley.
The festivities will be held at the gazebo, located at the four-way stop on Ocean Boulevard.
Chamber representatives also plan to present a gift basket to the 250,000th rider of the trolley, Executive Director Ann Frescura has announced. Chamber members have been invited to provide gifts or gift certificates to be included in that basket.
During the Feb. 20 meeting of the Siesta Key Condominium Council and the Feb. 21 quarterly Chamber meeting for members, Commissioner Alan Maio noted that figures for ridership through January indicated the Breeze would be close to boarding its 250,000th rider by the time of its first anniversary.
On March 3, as he was attending the Siesta Key Association (SKA) Annual Breakfast Meeting, Maio reiterated those comments and talked about how no county commissioner or county staff member had envisioned the trolley carrying as many riders as it has each month. Every two passengers, he has noted, represent one less vehicle on the island’s roads.
One question Maio was asked during the SKA meeting was why the trolley does not travel along the north end of the island — to Nora Patterson Bay Island Park, for example. It circulates only between Siesta Village and Turtle Beach Park.
“I want it to extend further north,” he replied. “My dream is that one day we have off-key parking lots,” he said, where people can leave their vehicles and then take the Breeze around the island. “It’s just going to take some time.”
The primary issue is funding, he indicated.
No extended lifeguard hours this summer
As part of its budget reduction process, the Sarasota County Commission agreed earlier this year that it would not extend lifeguard hours as usual between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
That will save $119,323 a year, according to material provided to the board by the county’s Emergency Services Department.
When the commissioners combed through the lists of potential department savings on Jan. 31, Chair Nancy Detert asked Rich Collins, emergency services director, about the lifeguard issue.
In the past, Collins explained, the hours were extended from 5 to 7 p.m. for the approximately 100 days between the holidays that mark the traditional beginning and ending of summer.
(Lifeguards begin duty at 10 a.m.)
However, Collins said, the people hired to make that extra summer service possible have been “generally college students.” He added that those positions have proven “very hard … for us to fill.”
A note on the budget sheet provided to the commission said, “There is a national shortage of lifeguards making it difficult to fill positions on an annual basis. The past 3 years we have not been able to hire our budgeted [number] of summer lifeguards.”
Moreover, Collins pointed out, regular lifeguards have had to be pulled away from their duties to train the people hired for those temporary positions, which has resulted in reduced staff at the beaches where lifeguards work. Given the amount of staff time devoted to training, he added, “It makes sense” to keep the closing hour at 5 p.m. year-round.
Yet another consideration, Collins said, is that staff has noted that the number of swimmers at the beach begins to decline after 4 p.m. People do come back after dinnertime to watch the sunset, but not usually to swim, he indicated.
“We don’t want to put people at risk,” Detert replied, “but, for the main part of the day, when little kids are there, we have lifeguard coverage.”
Then Detert asked about whether signage on the lifeguard-protected beaches includes the hours of service.
Collins told her he was not certain whether signs are posted that tell the public the hours lifeguards operate.
If such signs exist, Detert suggested they make clear that 5 p.m. will be the year-round closing time.
“Yes,” Collins replied.
Along with Siesta, lifeguards are stationed on Lido, Nokomis, the North Jetty, Venice and Manasota beaches.
Latest SKA survey
The Siesta Key Association (SKA) once more has sent a survey to its members, following up on its success last year in polling them on a variety of issues. The latest survey regards the private initiative to amend the Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD) zoning regulations governing street setbacks for commercial buildings.
The County Commission will take up that issue again on April 11, after continuing a hearing that began on Jan. 30.
“The Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD) was created to tailor Sarasota County building ordinances to the special character of Siesta Key,” the SKA survey explains. “Current SKOD ordinances state that a building up to 35 feet high can be built 2 feet from the sidewalk to create a walkable storefront environment in Siesta Key Village and other Commercial General areas on Siesta Key. A building taller than 35 feet, up to a maximum of 85 feet, must be set back a minimum of 25 feet, or half the height of the building, whichever is greater, to ensure that tall buildings are built on larger lots to maintain an open feel in the area,” the survey adds.
“In flood zones such as Siesta Key, building height is measured from a Base Flood Elevation (BFE) above sea level. BFE varies by site as determined by the [federal government],” the release notes, but BFE generally ranges between 10 and 12 feet on Siesta Key. “This means that a 35 foot building could actually be 47 feet above grade level, and an 85 foot building could approach 100 feet above grade level.”
(Eighty-five feet is the maximum height allowed for any structure on a barrier island in the county.)
“As permitted by Sarasota County laws, a private entity has proposed an amendment to current SKOD ordinances that would reduce the minimum setback of a building greater than 35 feet above BFE to less than 25 feet, potentially to as little as 2 feet. Other groups have informally proposed options that follow a variable height-setback formula, e.g., (x) feet back per (y) feet above 35 feet, but the details of the final proposed amendment are not yet known,” the survey points out
“The final proposed amendment will be brought before the County Commission at a meeting on April 11, 2018,” the survey continues. “SKA intends to submit a position on the proposed change prior to this meeting, and we need the help of all current SKA members to draft this position statement.”
The survey stresses, “It is important that we get as many responses as possible to compile our final position statement.” The notice also encourages all SKA members to attend the County Commission meeting on April 11, “to show your support for the SKA position.”
The survey offers members just one question: “What is your position on the proposed amendment to SKOD ordinances?” The choice of responses follows:
- “Keep the current SKOD ordinances as they are.
- “Change the SKOD ordinances to adopt a variable height-setback formula.
- “Allow more flexibility in building setback exceptions on a case by case basis.”
The note accompanying the survey asks members to respond by March 19, but it gives them an absolute deadline of March 23.
The new county administrator
During the SKA’s March 3 Annual Breakfast Meeting, many members had their first opportunity to meet new County Administrator Jonathan Lewis.
Commissioner Alan Maio — who introduced Lewis — explained that the former North Port city manager became the interim county administrator on Dec. 8, 2017 and, “in short order, we asked him to negotiate a contract.”
The County Commission unanimously approved the contract on Jan. 16.
Maio added that he met Lewis on Lewis’ first day in the North Port position, about seven years ago. “He is a great addition to the county administration.”
Lewis opened his remarks on a humorous note, explaining that somehow, “without my being asked,” the SKA was told that he would not be able to attend the March 3 meeting, as his predecessor, Tom Harmer, had done for several years. When Maio mentioned that to him, Lewis said, Lewis responded, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Somehow, someone had RSVP’d “No” for him without even consulting him, Lewis added. Fortunately, he was able to resolve the issue pretty quickly, he indicated, so he could be present on March 3.
Then Lewis explained that he has two school-age children, and his wife is a teacher, “so my weekends are entirely dependent on them,” most of the time.
As he prepared to delve into county issues, Lewis said: “I have been your county administrator for 45 days, so, clearly, I know every answer to every question that has to do with Sarasota County.” That prompted laughter from the approximately 150 people in the audience.
He repeated, “Forty-five days” at various intervals during his remarks, drawing more laughter.
As for becoming county administrator: Lewis noted that the “clever former county administrator [Harmer] strong-armed me out of North Port, and about half a minute later, he decided he was leaving.”
Lewis began working as an assistant county administrator in April 2017. In early July, Harmer announced to the County Commission that he planned to accept an offer from the Town of Longboat Key to become its new manager, succeeding the retiring Dave Bullock.
“I still, every once in a while, want to kick him,” Lewis added of Harmer, eliciting yet more laughter.
Then Lewis explained that he has been familiarizing himself with issues that are highly important to Siesta Key. Among them is Benderson Development’s proposed Siesta Promenade mixed-use project at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road. “I know a little about [that],” he said. However, guidelines pertaining to the quasi-judicial hearings the County Commission holds — such as one expected on a rezoning petition for part of the Siesta Promenade site — prevent him from commenting, he pointed out.
He has had had the opportunity to talk with SKA Vice President Catherine Luckner about the fight to prevent the proposed dredging of Big Pass to renourish South Lido Key Beach, he continued. “We’re also monitoring and paying attention to what the county’s role will or won’t be” on that topic, he told the audience.
Lewis mostly focused on the county’s budget, which, he assured the audience, “is structurally balanced and in good shape.”
In prefacing remarks on that topic, he joked that he knew it was what “everybody loves to hear about on a Saturday morning after a nice breakfast, when the temperature is like it is and the sun is like it is outside right now.”
Lewis also explained that one of his top priorities is “how [county employees] treat people, how responsive they are” and how timely and knowledgeable they are in those responses. Referencing the 2017 Citizen Opinion Survey, in which county staff won record marks for responsiveness to the public, Lewis emphasized, “I really need to know” if a resident is not satisfied with how a county employee handles a concern.
However, he cautioned, staff members “will get things wrong occasionally. They’re humans, not robots.”
He and Maio both pointed out that anyone who needs help with a problem should call the county Contact Center at 861-5000; the person who answers the call will make certain that the information is directed to the appropriate staff, they added.
Speaking of Siesta Promenade …
During the question-and-answer session following the remarks of Commissioner Alan Maio and County Administrator Jonathan Lewis during the March 3 SKA Annual Breakfast Meeting, one attendee asked about the potential of the county to purchase the property slated for the Siesta Promenade project.
“What is the process for us to perhaps get something on a ballot?” Margaret Jean Cannon inquired. “I know that Siesta Key would be very eager to help support that,” she said, and residents perhaps would assist with raising money if the county would try to buy the property from Benderson Development.
Other people in the past have suggested the area could be transformed into a park, she noted, or a site where people could leave vehicles and then take a shuttle onto the Key, making the location a park-and-ride facility.
Lewis responded that he would give her a copy of the guidelines he had brought with him regarding how to seek a citizen-initiated amendment to the Sarasota County Charter.
Of course, he added, if people want to buy property from a landowner, “they can always do that.”
In the 45 days he had been county administrator, Lewis continued, many people had offered suggestions about how the county should spend its money. If county staff were to pursue all of those, he joked, it would need every penny of the $1,131,424,334 in the current fiscal year budget, instead of just the $665,723,169 the County Commission controls, which is part of the General Fund.
As soon as the meeting ended, Lewis brought the charter amendment material to Cannon, as promised.
Cosentino Special Magistrate hearing postponed
As it turns out, Siesta resident Mike Cosentino did not end up appearing before the Code Enforcement Special Magistrate on March 9, the News Leader learned. His hearing was delayed until April 13, the first available date after March 9, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester reported.
Asked the reason for the delay, Winchester told the News Leader that Cosentino had a conflict with his schedule on the morning of March 9.
The county’s Environmental Permitting Division staff had served Cosentino with an Affidavit of Violation, saying he must remove the portable toilet and Reopen Beach Road sign from property he owns at 10 Beach Road, near Beach Access 2 on Siesta Key. Those structures are violations of the county’s Coastal Setback Code, according to the original Notice of Violation county staff issued in January in the case.
The Code Enforcement Special Magistrate hearings begin at 9 a.m. in the Commission Chambers at the County Administration Center on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota.
In the meantime, residents who live near 10 Beach Road have continued to complain that the toilet reeks and that young people routinely are creating a disturbance on or near Cosentino’s property. The News Leader recently read one homeowner’s angry comments, which the person sent in an email to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the county commissioners. The person wrote that “hundreds of belligerent young people are on our property day and night. They would not stay away even after a deputy moved them along back to the public Beach access. This is trespassing. Tickets should be issued. Violators need to be arrested for trespassing. Way too many unsupervised young people at beach access 2.”
The homeowner added, “Our homes are unlivable. Our commission lives in Venice. The County is silent. What happened to our owners’ rights? … We have a right to peaceful enjoyment of our homes.”
Only two of the commissioners — Paul Caragiulo and Michael Moran — live in North County. Commissioner Alan Maio, who represents the Key as part of his District 4, lives in Nokomis; Chair Nancy Detert lives in Venice; and Commissioner Charles Hines also lives in Nokomis.