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Despite super-charged push, Save Siesta Key supporters still in limbo; delegation vote is Jan. 4

By John Morton

It’s been an eight-month grind for Save Siesta Key, yet a flurry of recent events took everything to the front burner in a hurry.

Still, is the group any closer to its goal? Well, it’s certainly closer to knowing if things appear positive or if it’s time to either throw in the towel or go back to the drawing board. One of those all-or-nothing moments is nearing.

State Sen. Joe Gruters speaks with the media prior to the Dec. 8 town hall meeting on Siesta Key. (photo by John Morton)

After a roller coaster of a week in early December, here’s what the incorporation folks do know:

State Sen. Joe Gruters supports the proposal, state Rep. Fiona McFarland is willing – with some reservations – to represent the bill in Tallahassee, and one member of the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation said he went from a “hard no” to being “open-minded,” but warned a packed house during the closing moments of a town hall meeting that the idea won’t even get a look-see from state legislators because it involves an increase of taxes for those residing on the Key.

“It’s highly doubtful the bill will get a hearing, because of the hardcore fiscal conservatives that won’t raise taxes,” said state Rep. Tommy Gregory, bringing a moan to a crowd of nearly 500 that packed a town hall meeting on Dec. 8 at Siesta Key Chapel that Gruters delivered, as promised, to gauge the interest of the community.

To start the meeting, Gruters asked for a show of hands of who supported incorporation, with all but only five being raised. Three hands went up as undecided, and two went up in opposition.

Later, after several citizen speakers, he declared “I’m with you – I’m going to be a yes vote,” as the crowd cheered.

Save Siesta Key chairman John Davidson greets resident Laurie Chandler outside the Dec. 8 town hall meeting. (photo by John Morton)

That only matters if the majority of the six-person delegation votes in favor of the incorporation bill at a Jan. 4 meeting. It is being held at 5:30 p.m. at the Sarasota County Administrative Center, 1660 Ringling Blvd., and is open to the public. The delegation members are Gruters, McFarland, Gregory, state Rep. Michele Rayner, state Rep. James Buchanan, and state Rep. Will Robinson, the delegation’s chairman.

Without delegation support, the Florida Legislature won’t consider the bill at its upcoming sessions which begin Jan. 11.

Rayner and Buchanan were not present at the town hall meeting. Joining the balance of the delegation on stage was Sarasota County Board of Commissioners member Christian Ziegler, whose district includes the northern tip of Siesta Key.

“It’s amazing to see how many citizens have turned out for a community event,” said Ziegler.

Robinson, who has also publicly expressed doubts about the bill, told the audience that he hadn’t made up his mind and that he postponed what was originally thought to be a Dec. 13 delegation vote because he still has questions about Save Siesta Key’s required feasibility study and was still waiting to hear back from various state agencies regarding his concerns.

“You have a very steep hill to climb,” Robinson said.

As for McFarland, who represents the Key and in September suggested that Save Siesta Key leaders consider approaching the city of Sarasota for annexation, she first told the town-hall crowd that “I want to make sure this is not out of anger” in regard to the recent approval of two controversial hotels on the Key.

And as for the Save Siesta Key projection that it can start a town with only a .25 mill tax levy – representing an annual $96.75 tax bill for the owner of a median-assessed value home on the Key of $440,062 – McFarland conceded that many residents are clearly willing to spend some extra money to become a town.

“There might not be a price you’d put on incorporation,” she said. “Maybe even more than a quarter mill.”

The last part of her comment drew some negative reactions from the crowd, which once again broke into the “let us vote!” chant that dominated the evening.

In reaction to McFarland’s concern that the campaign was only about the new hotels, Save Siesta Key board member Tracy Jackson commented that “It’s event after event that we’re paying for and don’t want.”

The incorporation team has also voiced opposition to county decisions that allowed for the dredging of Big Pass and the green light for the massive Siesta Promenade project that is coming to the corner of Tamiami Trail and Stickney Point Road – the main gateway to the Key.

An overflow crowd was at the Siesta Key Chapel. (photo by John Morton)

Part pep rally and part inquisition, several speakers at the meeting voiced their frustration with government leaders. Aware that Save Siesta Key hired Tallahassee-based attorney Jon Moyle to serve as a lobbyist for the incorporation effort, resident Mike Cosentino turned toward the delegation members and told them “You should be our lobbyists.”

Resident Jean Cannon asked them “What about our particular petition would cause you not to vote for it?”

Harry Anand, another Save Siesta Key board member, reminded the delegation once again that group’s feasibility study had “no major red flags” and that it was thus the delegation’s duty to bring it to lawmakers for consideration. He noted that the estimated .25 mill rate was the lowest in the state.

“The delegation should be proud,” he said of that number.

He also re-emphasized that Siesta Key had $6 billion in assessed property value and brought Sarasota County 28% percent of its bed-tax revenue despite only representing 1.5% of the county’s population.

The town hall event was sandwiched between two “walk and rally” outings that Save Siesta Key organized, where residents wearing incorporation-themed T-shirts and carrying signs first marched southbound from the public beach on Dec. 5. Roughly 120 people participated.

Supporters of Save Siesta Key marched along Midnight Pass Road on Dec. 5. (photo by John Morton)

A week later, a group of about 100 did the same, marching northbound into the Village as it chanted “Hear our Voice!” and “let us vote!”

“Nothing means more to me than Siesta Key, and seeing all of these people walking with us, being energetic, and showing such passion about the love we all share for this beautiful place means the world to me as an ambassador,” said Ashley Cebak, one of Save Siesta Key’s volunteers.

She also spoke at the town hall meeting.

“At 31, I’m probably the youngest person here, but it’s not just about now. This is about Siesta Key’s future,” said Cebak, who inherited her grandmother’s condo at the Excelsior. “I want it to stay the same as much as possible – to be the place my family fell in love with.”

Another rally is set for 11 a.m. Dec. 29 in downtown Sarasota at at the “Unconditional Surrender” statue in Bayfront Park.

Earlier, on Dec. 2, Jackson reported at the Siesta Key Association’s monthly meeting that Save Siesta Key had surpassed its goal of 2,000 petitions – a number Gruters has said is critical in demonstrating community support. As for fundraising, $121,885 had been donated toward the group’s goal of $125,000.

Siesta Key is Florida’s largest barrier island that is not its own municipality. If supported by the local delegation, and then approved by a state house and senate vote, then signed-off on by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a local referendum vote would then occur. The earliest Siesta Key could become a town is Dec. 31 of 2022.

A new municipality hasn’t been approved since 2017, when Indiantown in Martin County got the nod. If an incorporation effort is denied, a minimum two-year wait is required before a new application is allowed.

John Morton
Author: John Morton

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