By Phil Colpas
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sarasota County lessened the number of parking spots required for restaurants in order to allow for more outdoor seating.
It now appears that this practice will remain intact for some businesses, as the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce successfully petitioned the county to keep the measures in place indefinitely for businesses south of Stickney Point Bridge.
Part of the chamber’s request to keep it that way is because some restaurants have invested in outdoor seating in areas that used to be parking stalls. In south Siesta Key’s business district, for example, Toasted Mango in Crescent Plaza sacrificed a few parking spaces in front of its place to erect a tent and place picnic tables. And Captain Curt’s has installed outdoor seating where several parking spots used to be.
At the Jan. 25 regular meeting of the Board of County Commissioners, Mark Smith, chair-elect of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, made the request.
“During COVID, restaurants placed seating in their parking lots just to be able to attract customers and stay open,’’ Smith said. “Sarasota County initially waived the temporary use permit requirements to allow such outdoor seating, but that waiver is soon expiring.”
With the continued fear of COVID-19, restaurants are finding that people prefer outdoor dining, Smith said. “The idea is to lessen the parking requirements for restaurants so that the outdoor seating can remain after Sarasota County’s temporary approval expires.”
The South Bridge area has a large number of condominium units within walking distance to restaurants. “Together with the success of the Siesta Key Breeze trolley and the free rides, customers are driving less,” Smith said.
South Bridge-area restaurants are collecting data on how customers are arriving, and that will be presented at the upcoming county commission hearing, Smith said. The preliminary numbers indicate that around 53% are finding alternative methods to driving to get to the restaurants.
For example, the use of golf carts as transportation on the key has been on a steady increase.
“As golf carts have become more popular on Siesta Key, golf cart parking spaces make sense as you can park three golf carts in the same space as two cars,” Smith said.
Additionally, the county is paving the vacant lot just to the south of Crescent Plaza, where a sheriff’s substation once stood, and the chamber is working on a contract with the county to have the lot be for chamber member use only — not for public use.
“The contract/lease with the county for the use of a new parking lot south of Crescent Plaza for employee parking is in the works,” Smith said. “I believe that an agreement will be worked out in a few weeks.”
Donna Thompson, the county’s planning and development services zoning administrator, explained the amendment to the county commissioners: “The chamber has brought through some changes to the Siesta Key parking requirements within the South Bridge area to change it from one space for 50 square feet of space to (one space for) 75 square feet of eating, drinking and waiting area.”