Bob and Catherine Luckner continue to relish the role of watchdog as the Siesta Key Association marks its 75th year
By Hannah Wallace
For more than a decade, Bob and Catherine Luckner have been at the forefront of Siesta’s battles, both big and small — from Big Pass to big hotels to tiny snowy plovers. It’s a convoluted, unpaid, and often exhausting job. But the Luckners have turned out to be the right people at the right time for Siesta Key.
As current acting treasurer and president (respectively) of the nonprofit Siesta Key Association, Bob and Catherine possess the combination of curiosity, grit and patience required to navigate the boggy, bureaucratic world of civic procedures. Together, their complementary traits have forged an often-unstoppable force.
“I’m an engineer. Catherine’s a psychologist,” said Bob this summer. “We double-team them.”
Their mission, as Catherine Luckner put it, has been “the retention of a feeling of home” on Siesta.
The Siesta Key Association will celebrate its 75th anniversary on Nov. 12. As the Luckners recently looked back over nearly 14 years with the organization, they recount a measured, systematic and informed advocacy that could be recommended as a road map for civic organizations everywhere.
And though they don’t win every fight, the Luckners believe that Siesta will retain its feeling of home going forward, especially as other residents join the cause and follow their lead.
Prior to joining the Siesta Key Association, Bob worked 35 years as a chemical engineer for Exxon Mobil, retiring in 2005. Catherine, a native Floridian from St. Pete, worked in mental health for more than 40 years, including at Sarasota Memorial Hospital.
In 2010 they both joined the Siesta Key Association, which had been formed in 1948 to preserve the island’s residential appeal. That 75-year-old mission still touches virtually every aspect of life on the Key — albeit in widely varying ways.
“We act as a clearing house to get general information out to people,” said Bob, who first visited Siesta Key in 1960 with his parents. “But we also act as an advocacy group, so that when people bring problems to us that are common — hotel houses or a new condo — we act as a focal point to talk to the commissioners. There’s probably not a rezoning request out there that we don’t submit a written letter on.”
Communication is key. Shortly after the Luckners joined, the SKA board implemented a monthly “Presidents’ Council” meeting with the leaders of the chamber of commerce and the condo association, as well as the district’s Sarasota County commissioner (currently Mark Smith). “I think it’s been a wonderful way to have communication that helps everybody,” said Catherine. “We do have a good, collegial relationship.”
The Siesta Key code enforcement officer and the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office also represent vital relationships. Residents, too, are encouraged to call an SKA hotline to share issues and concerns that the board may be able to address. Calls increase when hot-button topics come to the fore. “Water quality, zoning, overdevelopment — that’s when we have the biggest interest,” said Catherine. The solutions are rarely clear, but that’s where the Luckners’ dogged research comes in.
“Sometimes it’s just what comes up, you grab the people and then you go,” said Catherine. “Sometimes you don’t know what’s involved, like codes and ordinances. You have to ask, ‘How do you change things?’”
Things may or may not change, but ultimately the SKA empowers residents to participate in the process.
“A good part of our work is just to share with people how to contact the right person,” said Catherine. “Many people feel better just knowing who to call.”
SKA board members bring their own passions and areas of expertise to the organization’s fights. For the Luckners, environmental concerns have always loomed large.
“I literally was drafted onto this [SKA] board while I was looking at the canopy oaks on my street,” said Catherine. “I was just standing there and looking up. Someone came out and said, ‘Would you like to go to an urban forestry meeting with me?’ I had no idea what it would turn into.”
One of the first SKA projects spearheaded by the Luckners was the development of a beach nesting program for snowy plovers. They put up buffers and monitored the nests almost constantly, and they recruited other volunteers to join them. The program has inspired similar efforts on other beaches, and the work earned both Bob and Catherine recognition as 2011 Sarasota Audubon Volunteers of the Year.
Other environmental successes followed. Under the Luckners’ leadership, the SKA recently secured a grant to install more than 200 mini reefs, vital habitats for improving water quality, in the Grand Canal. They participated in a project that evolved into the Siesta Key Coalition to resist proposed “mega-hotels.” The couple also worked diligently to stop a dredging project from destroying sea grass habitats off Siesta Key Beach — a project Catherine said that made her realize “how tired you can be. It’s like it never leaves your mind. There’s been times when we were really intensely involved where it never left our minds, not ever, for all the years that we were working on it.”
They’ve even established neighborhood “doggy-bag stations” that only cost about $500 annually to stock and in turn keep significant animal waste out of the bay every year. People who’ve just moved into the neighborhoods volunteer to fill the stations with fresh bags — a sign that new residents have literally bought into their stewardship for the Key.
“They’re coming to us because they bought a house, and the people who lived here before them were [filling the stations],” said Catherine. “We have three generations of people that do that, just because they’re buying a nice piece of property. It really is personal as well as a community effort.”
Other victories have been more circumspect. The Luckners recently faced down a Turtle Beach renourishment project that would have involved 4,000 dump trucks driving down Siesta Key in the middle of the busy winter season. The government wouldn’t formally reconsider its schedule, so the Luckners and their team went through official channels to request an extra 30-day period “for comment” and to consider hiring a lawyer. After that, they devised other requests.
“By the time we were done with all that, it had been delayed enough” to avoid a mid-season traffic fiasco, said Bob. Then the project proceeded as planned.
“The government sets up a lot of ways to challenge their decisions, but they’re complicated, so we’ve got to learn a lot,” Bob added.
Fortunately, in addition to the Luckners, the SKA attracts a passionate team with a variety of talents.
“There’s some people that are just put together right for the moment that we’re in,” said Catherine. “Some people have the knowledge. Some people have the motivation but may not have all the information. We’ve been so lucky to find people who work together well.”
The Luckners’ constant search for information has a cumulative effect, too. Through all their work over the years, Bob and Catherine have found paths and built relationships that can make their subsequent projects easier to navigate.
“That working relationship helped us way back when, in 2011, when they were redoing the whole public beach buildings,” said Catherine. “That’s where our working relationship started with many of these engineering people. They knew we’d ask good questions, not just yell at them. Those same people are now the heads of some of these departments. We know that they ask good questions and they know we ask good ones too.”
As Bob put it, “Yelling and crying won’t solve the problem. If you’re organized, it’s a way to get big government to listen to the citizens of an area. The county recognizes SKA as kind of a consolidated voice. It’s not just one or two cranks.”
The Luckners certainly recognize how valuable it can be when the right people come together at the right time.
“My husband is brilliant,” said Catherine. “I’ve known this from the start. He doesn’t do things for the sake of doing them. He uses what he’s learned for the good.
“I’m more interactional, I approach things interpersonally. Between the two of us, that works.”
But will there be similarly well-suited stalwarts to usher the Siesta Key Association to its 100th year and beyond? For their part, the Luckners aren’t worried.
“The nice thing about Siesta Key is there’s a lot of really smart people out here,” said Bob. “We never have a shortage of volunteers and good ideas.”
Catherine added, “We know so many fabulous people. There will be so many people to come along and take good care of this place.”
Still, the key to that next-level Luckner brand of motivation remains hard to define — even by the Luckners themselves.
“[Former Sarasota County Commissioner] Nora Patterson once said, ‘Why do you do all this?’” Catherine said. “I guess it just seems like, if this is one thing you can do, then why not?”
(To learn more about the Siesta Key Association, including details about membership, visit SiestaKeyAssociation.com. The group meets the first Thursday of the month.)