Siesta Key organizations had united in seeking that action
Community collaboration was the key to Sarasota County staff’s decision last week to extend a Temporary Use Permit (TUP) program that facilitates outdoor dining during the pandemic, leaders of Siesta Key organizations told The Sarasota News Leader this week.
In late July, Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce Director Russell Matthes pointed to the rare circumstances in which residents’ organizations had joined business owners in calling for the county to maintain the TUP program that was implemented in May 2020. It allowed restaurants to set up tables and chairs outdoors, creating an environment that diners found safer, Matthes told the News Leader. (The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had advised the public last spring that the COVID-19 virus was not as easy to catch outside as in indoor settings.)
The Siesta Key Association and the Siesta Key Condominium Council had joined the Siesta Chamber in pleading with the county commissioners to allow the TUP program to continue.
“We communicated well,” Matthes said during an Aug. 25 telephone interview with the News Leader. Collaboration among the organizations, he added, is “what it takes.”
“Honestly, it was a lot of good people putting their heads together to do something good for the Key,” Steve Cavanaugh, chair of the Siesta Key Chamber, told the News Leader during a separate Aug. 25 telephone interview. “It was just such a no-brainer,” he said of the proposal to extend the program, especially given the current COVID surge.
Frank Jurenka, president of the Condominium Council, responded to the News Leader’s request for comment with the following statement: “The Siesta Key Condominium Council is pleased to learn that Sarasota County has extended the Temporary Use Permit allowing dining and other activities with reduced Covid-19 exposure. This is especially welcome given the recent upsurge in infection rates for our area. The SKCC championed for this for the SK Condo owners as well as the local businesses.”
With the county’s COVID State of Emergency having ended on May 19, county Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson had notified all the TUP holders by letter, dated June 16, that the pandemic program would end on June 30. “These TUPs were issued so that you were able to open at full capacity, utilizing indoor and outdoor seating and maintaining social distancing for your patrons,” she pointed out.
“Failure to comply” with the standard county regulations, she warned, “may result in Code Enforcement action.”
In most cases, the outdoor dining arrangements were taking up parking spaces that county zoning regulations require for the businesses, Thompson noted in staff email exchanges that the News Leader obtained through a public records request.
On June 18, Cavanaugh of the Siesta Chamber sent a letter to Thompson, urging county staff to revisit the decision.
“The businesses of Siesta Key, specifically restaurants, have expressed concern about the County’s decision to terminate the Temporary Use Permits effective June 30, 2021,” Cavanaugh wrote.
“As you are aware,” he continued, “many of the businesses have lost large amounts of revenue over the last 15 months as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions. Although sales are somewhat rebounding, there has not been sufficient amount of time to make up for the lost revenues. In fact, most of the restaurants have permanently removed a portion of their indoor seating to maintain social distancing and are heavily reliant on the outdoor seating revenue generated via the TUP.”
County staff did work with a couple of businesses to allow them to continue with special outdoor arrangements through the July Fourth holiday period, county Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant reported in late June.
Nonetheless, feeling that a longer-term option was critical, Matthes, as co-owner of the Daiquiri Deck restaurants, and the Stewart family, which owns Captain Curt’s Crab & Oyster Bar on Stickney Point Road, joined the Siesta Key Association and the Condominium Council in sending letters to the commissioners in July.
The Stewarts wrote, “[W]e fail to see any benefit to the community by terminating these permits. The restaurant industry may never return to what was defined as ‘normal’ pre-pandemic.”
Commission and staff responsiveness
With the County Commission meeting this week for the first time since its four-week summer break, Commissioner Christian Ziegler brought up the TUP issue during his Aug. 24 board report.
He represents the northernmost part of Siesta Key as holder of the District 2 board seat.
“I talked to the county administrator a couple of weeks ago,” Ziegler began. “We still have COVID obviously lingering in our community, and the Temporary Use Permits for outdoor dining — I think that’s been great. … I want to encourage people to eat outside,” Ziegler added. “We have a beautiful area.”
(Cavanaugh of the Siesta Chamber pointed out to the News Leader this week that outdoor dining is “just a better feel,” given the island atmosphere on Siesta.)
Moreover, Ziegler continued, “I think businesses have gotten accustomed to [the program]. I haven’t heard of any issues with us allowing that.”
Therefore, Ziegler said, “I would like to see that [program] extended.”
Then County Administrator Jonathan Lewis explained that Matt Osterhoudt, director of the Planning and Development Services Department — which has Zoning Administration under its purview — had researched details of Temporary Use Permits in the county’s Unified Development Code. (The Code contains all of the land-use and zoning regulations.)
“We’re able to extend that [pandemic program] administratively,” Lewis added. “As of last Friday, that is reinstituted … with the circumstances surrounding COVID.”
(See the related article in this issue.)
The program will remain in effect until Jan. 2, 2022, Lewis pointed out. The county website has been updated with that information, he noted, and staff has been contacting businesses that applied for TUPs after the program began last year.
“I appreciate that,” Ziegler responded.
“I had also raised that issue,” Commissioner Ron Cutsinger said. “Glad to see that addressed.”
In fact, Cutsinger added, perhaps the program could be extended beyond early January 2022.
To access the COVID-19 TUP permit packet, a person may click on this link, Media Relations Officer Grant told the News Leader after the County Commission meeting.
Although county staff waived the $140 TUP permit application fee during the program last year, that payment is being required during the extension, documents show.
“I’m not going to complain about it,” Matthes of the Daiquiri Decks said on Aug. 25. “I get it. They’ve got to process this, so the fee should cover that.”
The updated county materials do note a “24-hour Response” for applicants.
Further, those materials explain, “This Temporary Use Permit is designed to assist in the economic recovery of local restaurants while ensuring the health and safety of the employees and customers in accordance with Unified Development Code, Article 6, Section 124-74(d)k.”
The materials also point to the Jan. 2, 2022 expiration date and add, “Please note that the Planning and Development Services Department will continue to monitor the impacts of COVID-19 in the community and the usage of this program. As a result, this temporary program may be extended or terminated at that time.”