By John Morton
It’s well known that members of Save Siesta Key want to see the island secede from Sarasota County and become its own town, but would it consider joining up with the city of Sarasota instead?
That question, posed by state Rep. Fiona McFarland, was among the few words of suggestion, concern, and even potential opposition voiced Sept. 30 after a brief presentation at the Sarasota County Administrative Center where the Save Siesta Key incorporation team pitched its reasons for seeking incorporation to the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation.
“What I’m trying to understand, as the representative of Siesta Key, is on a fundamental level what you feel is broken and how incorporating as a city might fix that,” McFarland asked Save Siesta Key board member Harry Anand after his presentation. “A lot of what I’ve heard today is that you are satisfied with the level of services you are provided by the county. Waste removal, fire and safety, law enforcement.
“Many of your concerns fall to zoning – settling zoning and enforcing zoning. I’m wondering if there are other avenues that can solve your concerns.”
The feedback came at a meeting that was only informational in purpose, as no vote was set to take place as to whether the delegation would promote the idea or not. It’s likely, according to Save Siesta Key members, that a town hall meeting will be held on the Key in December with McFarland and state Sen. Joe Gruters for follow-up discussions and to gauge local interest prior to a Dec. 12 vote deadline by the delegation.
With that in mind, Save Siesta Key has asked residents to continue to sign petitions of support and contact delegation members with their thoughts.
Other elected officials on hand Sept. 30 who represent at least part of Sarasota County were state reps Will Robinson Jr., Tommy Gregory, James Buchanan, Michele Rayner, and Gruters. About 30 to 40 residents of Siesta Key were in attendance — a group made up mostly of incorporation-team ambassadors and members of local civic groups.
Save Siesta Key hopes it can bring the matter to a local vote this spring, but that can only happen if lawmakers in Tallahassee pass a bill in both houses through a special act, signed by the governor. The Legislature convenes for 60 days beginning Jan. 11, so a delegation vote will likely take place prior to that date.
The bill would have to come from lawmakers who stand behind it. And, with that in mind, having a local state rep or two championing the cause is critical. A presentation to Save Siesta Key in May by Florida League of Cities representative Lynn Tipton included those very words while she warned that lawmakers were “cooling off” on endorsing incorporation efforts.
In the past five years, only two have come to fruition. Between 1995 and 2000, 12 were approved.
Meanwhile, delegation chairman Robinson, whose District 71 includes a small part of the northern part of Siesta Key, warned the incorporation team regarding its pursuit that it’s “a big jump” and “it’s not done every day in the area and, frankly, it’s not done often in the Legislature.”
He also said he had some questions regarding the feasibility study, but did not elaborate.
Robinson went on to say he also feels uncomfortable with a proposal that would add another layer of government, more taxes, and felt he and his colleagues were being asked to settle zoning disputes.
“It seems like at some level, the Legislature’s getting asked to mediate a couple of zoning issues that are going on between Sarasota County and the area of Siesta Key,” he said, mirroring McFarland’s thoughts.
Indeed, land-use issues have been at the forefront of Save Siesta Key’s incorporation campaign — notably the recent push for new hotels.
The massive Siesta Promenade project at its U.S. 41/Stickney Point Road doorstep, along with the dredging of Big Pass to provide sand to Lido Key, are others.
A curious turn of events?
As for the comments by McFarland, who was elected last fall and whose District 72 includes the balance and majority of the Key, they come several months after Save Siesta Key reported at its July public meeting that it had met individually with all the delegation members, and that they were open-minded about incorporation provided a feasibility study was sound.
As for McFarland, former Save Siesta Key member Rick Munroe said “Fiona has expressed her willingness to sponsor the local bill” at that meeting.
But during the Sept. 30 meeting, McFarland suggested that the group consider approaching the city of Sarasota for annexation, noting the Key could potentially have a stronger voting block to earn council seats within an entity of roughly 60,000 residents vs. the county, which has roughly 440,000.
Interestingly, residents of Siesta Key’s Bay Island neighborhood near the north bridge are already part of the city.
Anand, who said he knew he didn’t have time allotted for a thorough response, instead sent an email to McFarland the next day that outlined his group’s disinterest in such an idea.
“I wasn’t entirely surprised,” Anand said of her suggestion. “Her job is to look at alternatives, which I respect. But I don’t think that is what we’re looking for and it would not solve what we’re trying to do.”
The four reasons, Anand said he stated in his email to McFarland, are:
1) The fact that the city requires more than 4 mills in taxation to operate, plus the 3.2 all county residents must also pay to the county, far outweighs the modest .25 mills that Save Siesta Key’s feasibility study has established as a starting point. “We can own our own township for just a quarter of a mill,” he said.
2) The Key and the city are two very distinct communities, he said, with different lifestyles and different land use.
3) The Key generates about the same amount of bed tax at 27% as the city (27.75% Sarasota, 27.70% Siesta Key in fiscal year 2020). “It shows we can stand on our own,” he said.
4) The city continues to grow, while the Key holds mostly still with less than 9,000 residents and less than 7,000 voters. Like with the county, he said the Key would continue to have “a smaller and smaller part” of representation with the city, “and that is a problem.”
In conclusion, “All negatives, no positives” Anand said of the idea.
He said he also wouldn’t be surprised if the Bay Island residents would eventually seek inclusion in the Key, although they are not currently part of the incorporation proposal.
Anand added that his group has never discussed anything with the city and the only conversation it had with the county was with Commissioner Christian Ziegler, who Anand said expressed an open mind to the idea.
Kurt Hoffman, the county’s sheriff, also conferred with Save Siesta Key and wrote a letter of support as part of its application.
Said Hoffman, according to Anand, “A lot of what you’re saying Harry makes sense. I’ll keep open-minded on it.”
Even with Siesta Key’s satisfaction regarding some county services, many of which would continue to be supplied if Siesta Key became a town, Anand said incorporation would help determine how they are applied.
“It’s better if residents have a seat at the table,” he said. “We have no local voice on to further our causes and collaborate better.”
The incorporation group, which spoke first and only briefly during the meeting, considered the rest of what it saw and heard as a microcosm of its problems. Afterward, on its website it wrote:
“After our presentation, we watched County Commissioner Ziegler and mayors from the city of Sarasota, Longboat Key, Venice and North Port further their agendas with the local delegation. There were no elected officials to represent Siesta Key on issues affecting our island. Siesta Key has no seat at the table and has been ignored by the county because they have bigger countywide issues to deal with.”
Let us vote
Back to Anand’s presentation, he highlighted the various challenges the Key’s residents face. For starters, no members of the current Board of County Commissioners live on the island.
“Our needs or not necessarily understood unless you live here,” Anand said. “The residents are the best stewards.”
He outlined the need for local code enforcement, as illegal short-term rentals continue to cause trouble on the Key.
Then there’s the hotels issue. Within a year the builders of four large hotels — each consisting of 100 or more rooms — have filed applications on the Key, and the county commissioners will be the ones to vote on them. Anand said it’s an example of the Key’s inability to control growth and density.
“They will absolutely change the face of Siesta Key,” he said of the hotels, one of which has already been approved. “The infrastructure is not there to support it.”
As for the proposed structure of the group’s desired government, Anand reiterated the “government lite” concept where only about five employees would be needed and elected council spots would be unpaid.
He said 39% percent of the budget would go toward employee salaries and operations, 36% toward infrastructure, and 25% would be earmarked as reserves.
Regarding taxes, the bill would be $97.65 a year for the owner of a median home in terms of appraised value ($440,602).
“That shows how fiscally conservative we are,” he said.
In regard to community support, Anand pointed to the fact the Save Siesta Key campaign recruited 25 neighborhood ambassadors, collected nearly 2,000 petitions of support during offseason, and raised more than $91,000 (now more than $93,000) with contributions as small as $20.
“It was truly a grassroots effort,” he said.
Finally, Anand pounded away at the notion that every community has the right of self-determination, pointing to the 1973 Florida Legislature’s Home Rules Powers Act. In summary, it ensures that the state’s counties and municipalities are effectively and efficiently providing for the wishes of their citizens.
This was a critical reminder, in Anand’s mind, as he emphasized how all that Save Siesta Key wanted was to bring the incorporation matter to a local referendum vote, and not be at the mercy of Tallahassee.
Said Anand, “At the end of the day, you guys in the delegation and in the Legislature are not voting to create the town of Siesta Key. You’re not voting to create another layer of government. You are not voting to raise those taxes.
“You are merely checking that feasibility study and confirming that yes, this town is feasible. It comes back after that to the people. And that vote up or down – and we accept that. All we are asking is you allow that opportunity for the residents of Siesta Key.”
In a follow-up conversation, he made the same emphasis.
“We’ve delivered. Now it’s up to the local delegation to take it to the next step,” Anand said.
“We even presented them with a draft of the bill.”