Bill to create more hurdles for incorporation is withdrawn, but now Save Siesta Key needs a county vote for a straw poll
By John Morton
The twists and turns continue at a dizzying pace for the Save Siesta Key group that is seeking incorporation of the island as its own municipality.
It no longer has to worry about House Bill 1035, which was withdrawn at the end of the state’s legislative session that wrapped up March 11. The proposed bill, filed by state Rep. Jayer Williamson, was asking for many measures that add hurdles in the incorporation process. It included that the required feasibility studies by applicants include not only petitions of support from 60 percent of the registered voters in an area, but also a 60-percent approval rate in a non-binding straw vote with those results included in the study with an Aug. 31 deadline of the year prior to a legislative session.
The bill also called for additional measures of verification of data offered in such studies.
It would have possibly tacked on another nine months to an incorporation application and about a year and a half overall.
Williamson has been involved in an incorporation effort in unincorporated Navarre in Santa Rosa County in the Panhandle to which he has expressed concern.
As result, if things go well for Save Siesta Key, the island could still become its own town by Dec. 31 of 2023. Next year’s Florida Legislature meets March through May.
However, a straw vote here on Siesta Key was highly encouraged by state Rep. Tommy Gregory if Save Siesta key was to potentially earn his support. He was one of three no votes in a 3-3 tie by the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation that on Jan. 4 killed Save Siesta Key’s initial attempt at sending a bill for incorporation to Tallahassee.
Gregory said he wanted not only 50-percent-plus-one of registered voters to sign a petition of support, but the same in a straw vote. That would likely take place in November on the general election ballot, on the heals of a second feasibility study being due Sept. 1, but there’s quite a catch:
Only the five-member Sarasota County Board of Commissioners can approve such a straw vote going on a ballot. Yes, Save Siesta Key would be asking the very governing body it wants to shed to support a measure that could possibly open the door to losing the Key from being under its rule.
The county’s decision on land-use issues has triggered the incorporation effort, including the approval of the massive Siesta Promenade project at the gateway to the island at U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road, the dredging of neighboring Big Pass in order to provide beach renourishment to Lido Key, and the approval late last year of two high-density hotels on Siesta Key. Two more are waiting in the wings.
“Yes, I would have a concern that the three commissioners that voted for both hotels wouldn’t support a straw vote or anything that helps the incorporation effort,” said Tim Hensey, chairman of Save Siesta Key.
Still, Hensey was pleased about House Bill 1035 falling to the wayside.
“Adding additional criteria to the process of incorporation was unnecessary,” he said.
However, had it gone through, it would have been a state initiative and that could have resulted in the county having no say. Whether it would have played out like that remains an unknown.
If the bill’s language did indeed bypass any county involvement, the extra requirements in the long run could have been a huge positive for Hensey’s team — mostly because he said he has no fear of a vote.
“We generally believe we would have a very strong turnout for a straw poll,” he said, “with those in favor of incorporation at 80 percent.
“You will recall, at the (December) town hall meeting at Siesta Chapel where somewhere around 500 people showed up, there were only two people in the audience against incorporation.”
Meanwhile, Save Siesta Key is pushing hard again for another round of petition signatures. It formed in late March of last year, and by the time petitions came into play the group found that many snowbird residents that designate Siesta Key as their home were already elsewhere.
“April is a huge month for us,” Tracy Jackson, Save Siesta Key’s vice-chair, said. “We need to reach as many people as possible, now.”
Petitions must be hand-signed. They can be downloaded from savesiestakey.org and mailed to P.O. Box 35214 Sarasota, FL, 34242.
Also, both Davidson Drugs locations on the Key (the Village and Southbridge Mall) have petitions and receptacles.
The state’s incorporation-related statute (Florida 165) calls for only a 10-percent petition threshold from registered voters to meet application requirements, which would equate to only about 750 based upon the island’s roughly 7,500 registered voters (from a population of 8,915, per the Save Siesta Key feasibility study). However, Save Siesta Key members say they were encouraged by state Sen. Joe Gruters – a member of the delegation who cast a supportive vote – to shoot for at least 2,000 signatures combining both voters, property owners, and business owners.
Save Siesta Key exceeded that goal in time for the Jan. 4 vote.
Yet, despite meeting with Gregory months prior to his vote, Save Siesta Key members report that he never voiced an insistence on 50 percent – mentioning it only after he said no.
Besides Gregory, opposing votes came from state Rep. Will Robinson and state Rep. James Buchanan, a former Siesta Key resident. Gruters, state Rep. Fiona McFarland, and state Rep. Michele Rayner cast yes votes.
As of now, Save Siesta Key has collected roughly 2,350 total signatures, of which roughly 1,650 belong to registered voters (the only ones allowed to participate in any straw poll).
That’s about 22% — far shy of the level Gregory has put on the line.
Hensey and Jackson have said they are treating Gregory’s request as a requirement, noting he said he’d only consider another submission for incorporation is the goal is reached.
The organization is also recruiting neighborhood ambassadors to help collect petitions. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if interested.
The group has also raised more than $124,000, with about $45,000 left in its coffers.