Residents of Whispering Sands condominium complex had failed in March to win Traffic Advisory Council support for stop signs
On May 10, the Sarasota County commissioners unanimously approved Siesta residents’ — and the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce’s — request for new multi-way stop signs on Siesta Key’s Whispering Sands Drive and Avenida Milano, at their intersections with Ocean Boulevard.
The area is on the northern end of Siesta Village.
Following a March 14 public hearing, the county’s Traffic Advisory Council members recommended against the signage, because the proposal did not meet the county criteria for approval.
Donald DeBerry, senior transportation manager in the Public Works Department, told the commissioners on May 10 that staff also recommended against the new stop signs, based on the same criteria, as well as the guidelines set forth in the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).
However, as Commissioner Michael Moran pointed out during the board discussion, the final decision on such requests is a matter for the County Commission. “It’s not rubberstamp stuff.”
“I don’t think you need to be a traffic engineer to see that that probably could be beneficial there,” he added of the two extra stop signs. (Two signs already exist — at the intersection of Ocean Boulevard and Whispering Sands Drive and at the intersection of Ocean and Avenida Milano. The two new signs will go on Ocean.)
Moreover, Moran told his colleagues, he had asked staff whether approving the new signs would result in the necessity of a traffic study in several months. Staff responded that the commissioners could do whatever they felt would be best, Moran said. Staff added, “ ‘As fast as we put [a stop sign] in, we can pull it out,’” since the sign is just on a pole.
His instinct, Moran continued, was to try the new stop signs and then have staff report back in three or six months about how the four-way stop situation was working.
“I rarely disagree with staff on these things,” Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out. Yet, she continued, “I don’t see why it hurts to have four-way stops … [Ocean Boulevard] is one of the few straightaways [on the Key], so [the new signs] may slow down people, which is a good thing.”
Further, Detert said, “I think sometimes it’s just good to let the residents win one. … It makes ’em happy.”
“I think four-way stops on some really low-level streets are often used as traffic calming,” Chair Alan Maio pointed out. “I’m hearing from a lot of people who wouldn’t mind if things slowed down a little bit,” he added, including residents of Whispering Sands.
During his presentation of the application to the commissioners, DeBerry of Public Works noted that Ocean Boulevard is considered a minor collector, while Whispering Sands Drive is a private road, and Avenida Milano is classified as a local road.
The speed limit on Ocean is 20 mph. On Whispering Sands Drive, it is 15 mph, he added; on Avenida Milano, 20 mph.
The speed of vehicles northbound on Ocean Boulevard in Siesta Village, at the 85th percentile, is 24.8 mph, according to a chart that DeBerry showed the board members. For southbound traffic on Ocean, the 85th percentile for speed is 36.2 mph, the chart said.
Representatives of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce had been talking with him for months about the request, Maio continued. “I know there’s a real desire for the trolley [route] to be extended. We’re trying a lot of different things.”
With a second set of stop signs at the two intersections, Maio said, the trolley would have the ability to get back onto Ocean Boulevard if it came up Avenida Milano and stopped to pick up and unload passengers.
“I think it would be a good idea to encourage staff to move forward with researching that,” Commissioner Ron Cutsinger said.
One concern he had heard, Commissioner Christian Ziegler noted at the outset of the discussion, is that Whispering Sands residents might grow tired of the noise of vehicles accelerating after stopping at the signs. Therefore, he initially voiced a willingness to delay the vote, so that issue could be addressed.
Yet, he also was the first person to note that Siesta Chamber representatives’ interest in the trolley stop. “I think that makes some sense.”
After listening to the other board members’ comments, Ziegler said, “As long as Whispering Sands is fully on board with this … then I’m fully on board with it.”
Ziegler ended up making the motion for the new stop signs, and Maio seconded it.
After the commissioners voted 5-0 on the motion, Maio again brought up the trolley turnaround idea. After looking at his colleagues to make sure no one objected, he told County Administrator Jonathan Lewis that Lewis had board consensus to work with staff on the proposal for a trolley stop on Avenida Milano.
Demand for a longer trolley route
During a May 10 telephone interview, Siesta Key Chamber Chair-Elect Mark Smith, a Siesta architect, told The Sarasota News Leader he was delighted with the news of the County Commission vote. “It’s a good thing.”
Smith added that he, Chamber Chair Mike Gatz and other island residents had planned to attend the afternoon session of the board meeting, when the item was scheduled to be heard. He learned from the News Leader that the commissioners had moved up the discussion because they were running so far ahead with their morning schedule.
The key factor behind the Chamber’s support of the stop sign request — as both commissioners and Smith pointed out — is the goal of extending the route of the Siesta Key Breeze trolley farther north on the island.
Gatz, general manager of Gilligan’s Island Bar & Grill in Siesta Village, told the News Leader, “We’re excited to get that [stop sign request] passed,” so county staff can proceed with working on plans for the trolley. Gatz noted the importance of having a longer route through the Village, which would make it easier for riders to access businesses on that end of the commercial district.
Chamber leaders have talked about the prospect of the Breeze’s traveling north on Ocean Boulevard and then turning right onto Avenida Madera, then left onto Calle Minorga and finally left again onto Avenida Milano, before turning back onto Ocean and heading south, Smith explained.
Since its launch, the Breeze has traveled a loop between Turtle Beach Park, which has a parking lot where riders can leave their vehicles, and Morton’s Siesta Market on Canal Road, near the four-way stop in the Village. When the service began on March 20, 2017, Smith told the News Leader even then of his hopes to make the trolley more visible in the Village. “It’s important that people see it.”
Smith has estimated that every two riders on the Breeze represent one less vehicle on the Key’s roads, which are a perpetual focus of residents and visitors because of traffic congestion, especially at the height of tourist season.
As Jane Grogg, director of Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT), noted during a March 30 budget workshop presentation to the commissioners, the Breeze had 312,736 riders in 2021. She and Chair Maio talked of the fact that the trolley has been far more successful than staff had expected when the service started.
“You need a sizable area for the trolley to turn around,” Smith pointed out to the News Leader on May 10, and it has to be what Smith called a “controlled stop,” so the trolley would be able to move into traffic without long delays. County staff had emphasized the need for the Breeze to stay on schedule, Smith added, to reduce waiting times for riders.
Chamber leaders had been trying to identify a spot on the northern end of the Village that would work, he said.
Smith has talked with Grogg about the potential of removing a couple of parking spaces on Avenida Milano, next to the Truist Bank, to provide an area where people could wait for the trolley, he continued.
Grogg told him that a sidewalk would be needed from that waiting area to Ocean Boulevard, Smith added. “I don’t think that would be a problem,” he said, given the short distance involved. “I think that’s all doable.”
“I hate to lose parking [spots],” Smith continued. However, he noted the recent completion of the 22 new parking spaces in the northern end of the Village.
That project — which entailed construction of 18 spaces on the west side of Ocean Boulevard, adjacent to the Whispering Sands condominium complex — was the key reason for the application for the new stop signs.
Bernette Hoyt, a Whispering Sands resident who worked on the TAC application, addressed the county commissioners in late 2020, emphasizing to them that people speed into the Village and sometimes do not slow down until they are in the vicinity of the Circle K convenience store, which is just south of the Avenida Milano intersection with Ocean Boulevard.
She also stressed that large delivery vehicles routinely park in the center turn lane on Ocean Boulevard, in the area close to Whispering Sands. She feared, she said, that numerous crashes would result from people trying to back out of the angled spaces on the west side of Ocean.
In response to a News Leader request for comments on the May 10 commission vote, Hoyt wrote in an email, “It’s amazing how quickly the commissioners will act when they have a pet project to complete. It is fortunate that the need for a trolley extension happened to coincide with the safety concerns of drivers, bike riders and pedestrians.
“I’m grateful to the commission for this rare victory for Siesta Key,” she concluded the email.
Catherine Luckner, president of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), told the News Leader on May 10 that the nonprofit’s leaders have been concerned about the safety of pedestrians in the affected area, because two crosswalks are located there. “We’ve been wanting them to be safe,” she said.
“Anything we can do to eliminate some of the heavy-duty movement through the Village is a good thing,” Luckner added.
Given the 22 new parking spaces on the northern end of the Village, she continued, Whispering Sands residents “had pretty good reason to be concerned” about drivers speeding into the Village.
The March 14 TAC decision prompted the Whispering Sands residents who submitted the application to county staff to withdraw it from County Commission consideration, Luckner pointed out. However, when the trolley stop proposal was aired, she said, SKA leaders suggested to the Whispering Sands residents that they proceed with requesting the County Commission discussion of the application.
Being able to provide a turnaround area for the trolley on the northern end of Siesta Village “is one of the benefits” of the stop sign plan, Luckner added.
The SKA leaders were involved in the trolley discussions, she told the News Leader.
Leaders of the Siesta Key Condominium Council also had called for County Commission approval of the two new stop signs.
In an email to the commissioners before the May 10 discussion, the Council wrote, “The Board of Directors of the Siesta Key Condominium Council strongly supports the extension of the Siesta Key Trolley route through Siesta Village — and the need for any stop signs to accomplish this, by enabling the Trolley to turn around and resume its route.”