By John Morton
Save Siesta Key’s incorporation team is picking up the pace, and for good reason.
If it wants to see the island become its own town by the end of next year, which would be the earliest for such an effort to come to fruition, it has to hustle.
“You’ve got a lot of homework in a short amount of time,” said Lynn Tipton of the Florida League of Cities while addressing a group of about 40 at Save Siesta Key’s first public meeting, held April 28 at Siesta Key Chapel.
A second meeting, three weeks later, drew an overflow crowd of about 200.
Tipton said the fastest turnaround she’s seen is 15 months, which is the approximate timetable Save Siesta Key is on, while many efforts take up to two years.
A first major step was taken by the group in late April when it hired Jensen Beach-based consultant Bill Underwood to conduct the financial analysis portion of a required feasibility study. He said he wasn’t sure if he’d be retained to go further into other areas of the project.
In total, the study will likely cost about $75,000, and Underwood received about $12,000 to get the process rolling. As of May 21, Save Siesta Key has received just shy of $30,000 in donations. It is a registered 301(c)(4) entity, so donations are not tax-deductible.
The study is due to members of the Florida Legislature by Sept. 1. The upcoming sessions begin in January and, if approved at the state level, Save Siesta Key has indicated it would like to fund a special-election in March to put a referendum question out to voters. A majority vote on the topic of incorporation would be the final hurdle toward implementation.
Next, a town council would be elected during the November general election. In an effort to coincide with property-tax bills, Tipton said, most new municipalities receive their new designation on Dec. 31 of a given year.
Meanwhile, Tipton said it’s crucial that Save Siesta Key builds an allegiance with the members of the Florida House who represent the island – in this case, it’s first-time state Rep. Fiona McFarland of the 72nd district and longtime Congressman Vern Buchanan of the 16th congressional district.
At the Senate level, it’s Joe Gruters.
“If your House member will be your champion, you have a chance,” Tipton said. “If not, it won’t get out of committee.”
She warned that lawmakers have been cold on the topic of incorporation lately due to a flurry of requests. The support of the full delegation of the Legislature, through a special act, is needed for a green light from Tallahassee.
The most recent incorporation was that of Indiantown in Martin County in 2017.
As for Underwood, he knows firsthand how challenging the pursuit can be. He’s represented three attempts with no successes – one was actually approved by the Legislature but subsequently voted down by the residents (the proposed name of Panacea in Wakulla County in 2015), one never got out of committee (the proposed name of Preservation in Orange County in 2019), and one never reached committee because the state reps wouldn’t endorse it (a group called A Better South Walton in Walton County in 2017).
“It’s an uphill battle all the way,” Underwood said. “With two of the groups, it was financially feasible. So even with the right stuff, it’s tough.”
Does he like Save Siesta Key’s chances?
“I’m a huge proponent of home rule. I’m all for controlling your own destiny,” Underwood said. “But there are so many unknowns. It may look good on paper, but what you’re really trying to do is get to the point of a vote.”
Taking the temperature of the community is exactly what Save Siesta Key is emphasizing. Its website (savesiestakey.org) has a survey and, according to board member Tracy Jackson, 95% of the 300 respondents thus far said they favored incorporation.
Also, a petition drive made its debut at the group’s May 19 public meeting. They were handed out by neighborhood ambassadors, which Jackson said stood at eight volunteers.
“We really need 30,” she said in hope of recruiting more. “Especially with the different condo groups.”
The signatures of at least 10% of the island’s registered voters are required as part of the application, per Florida Statute 165 (which outlines the incorporation process).
The island has between 6,000 and 8,000 voting residents, the incorporation group’s members said, and they hope the feasibility study can lead to determining an accurate number.
Meanwhile, an email to McFarland in early May from the Siesta Sand has not received a reply.
However, board member Harry Anand said she’s been contacted.
“She said she has a very open mind about it,” Anand said.
Chairman John Davidson said his group will begin interacting with her and other lawmakers, and even members of the Sarasota County Commission — the body that governs Siesta Key. The incorporation campaign was triggered by the lack of the county listening to Siesta Key residents regarding a number of development and environmental issues, Davidson has said.
He also said he didn’t expect much pushback from commissioners because they won’t win to lose votes from Siesta Key residents come re-election time.
When asked by an audience member as to why Davidson supported the election of Alan Maio, the county commissioner who represents Siesta Key, Davidson replied “It was a mistake. I wouldn’t do it again.”
Davidson said he can see his group join forces in some ways with the Key’s other civic groups, including the Siesta Key Association, the Siesta Key Condominium Council, and the Siesta Key Coalition. That latter group recently distributed anti-hotel yard signs throughout the island.
Save Siesta Key has made presentations to all of them, as well as the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce. Letters of support from community groups are considered a critical part of the process, Tipton said.
As for the hot topic regarding the recent proposals for four new hotels, the Save Siesta Key group acknowledged that the incorporation effort would likely not play a tangible role because of the time needed to potentially get the green light.
Even after incorporation, most communities then need two more years to formulate a comp plan.
“We are the long-term help,” Davidson said at the April meeting, “and they are the short-term,” he said of the Siesta Key Coalition.
Still, the big turnout won’t be lost on the county leaders, board member Rick Munroe said.
“When they learn we had 200 people here, they’ll know,” he said of the momentum.
Davidson, who has been a resident here since 1958, spearheaded an incorporation drive in the mid-1990s but dropped it when the county agreed to be more cooperative. He said the issue goes all the way back to 1960, when he first attended meetings.
“I wasn’t even aware it wasn’t incorporated,” he said of the Key at the April meeting. “But even back then they said it’s too late. The island’s too programmed.
“Well, that’s not true. Yes, it would have been better then, but it’s never too late.”
Added Anand at the May meeting, in relation to how often he meets people who move to the area because of their love for Siesta Key, “This is what drives this region. We have to preserve it.”
He also noted that Sarasota is the 10th-fastest growing region in America, especially in areas east of Interstate 75. That’s where the county’s focus seems to be, he said, while Siesta Key is neglected despite providing huge tax dollars.
“We’ve become a less-and-less significant part of the county,” he said.