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Sarasota news

By Stan Zimmerman

A little art with your roundabout?

The Sarasota City’s Public Art Committee is taking on an epic project. This month it begins to lay the groundwork for statuary for the center of 22 traffic roundabouts. Three are already built, and 19 are on the project list for U.S. 41 and other roads and streets.

The roundabout are designed to replace intersections with signals, and provide a safer place for pedestrians to cross busy streets. But pedestrians are not wanted in the center, only at the crosswalks that “frame” the traffic pattern.

Thus the public art committee has an interesting task. The art must be ‘fine art” but not so “arty” that people want their picture taken in front of it. Sarasota already has several of those, the most popular being the sailor’s V-J Day kiss on the bayfront. 

The city already has three roundabouts, one at Five Points and two on Charles Ringling Boulevard. There is a flag pole at Five Points, but the two on Ringling are barren. Presumably these would be the experimental sites.

However more roundabouts will be constructed on an accelerated schedule, and any artwork would be best installed as a finishing touch instead of a retrofit. So the committee will need to back-time any call to artists to include construction and delivery times so it will coincide with construction schedules.

The committee initially will look at the physical requirements to plant statuary. How big a base and how to defend the artwork from addled drivers enamored with the piece as well as motorists clueless about roundabouts. 


City goes zero discharge

After a century of dumping icky stuff in Sarasota Bay, the city is embarked on a project to  eliminate any harmful discharges. It’s taken a century, but in about a year the mayor will cut a ribbon to inaugurate a deep-well injection facility. It will receive not only excess treated wastewater but also brine byproducts from the city’s reverse osmosis drinking water plant.

The city’s first sewer was built in 1911 with a $20,000 bond issue approved by a margin of 57-35 (all-male) voters. The following year, another bond issue extended the system by a ten-to-one margin. Over the decades the city not only extended the water and sewer system, but refined and diversified it. 

A fresh water system became possible in 1966 when the city purchased a well field in eastern Sarasota, guaranteeing the city a source of potable water. It later added a reverse-osmosis plant fed by coastal wells furnishing brackish water that became drinkable using permeable membranes and high-pressure pumps. The RO system, however produces brine, which has been discharged into the bay.

On the sewer side of the equation, the city continually updated the treatment technology and now reclaims the water and sells it for irrigation and other non-potable uses. Any excess is sent east for agricultural irrigation. However in the summer, when irrigation needs are low, any excess is now discharged into the bay.

The deep-well injection project will accept both the brine residue from reverse osmosis, and excess treated wastewater, thus eliminating any discharge into Saraosta Bay – ending a century of pollution.

However one major source still remains. Runoff from rains and storms. That is a county responsibility, and the overwhelming majority of that pollutant remains untreated.


Shelter wrangle continues

The Sarasota City and County Commissions continue to spat over creation of a shelter for vagrants and homeless people. The five county commissioners are supporting a consultant’s plan to place the shelter on the north side of the city. However two of five city commissioners are consistently voting not to put it there; and both want to understand the cost of building and operating the shelter before they will give the consultant’s proposal any credence.

The foot dragging caused County Commissioner Joe Barbetta to levy a charge of sabotage. “It’s most unfortunate what took place with two of the [city] commissioners. I can see an apparent plan of action to sabotage this process,” he said. 

The county has reallocated $2.5 million from an affordable housing fund for construction and operation of the shelter. However another consultant says affordable housing is exactly what is need to attack the problem of homelessness in the city and county. A team of Harvard and New College students found Sarasota housing was very expensive, with more than half the county’s renters paying half their monthly salary to cover rent. The study was commissioned by the local Salvation Army, which shoulders much of the shelter burden now. 

Another report is expected soon from a joint city-county delegation that visited homeless shelters in other locales. Anecdotal reporting from newspapers in those areas indicates after the shelters were built, crime increased in the areas nearby while property values decreased. 


Projects run millions over budget

Two major infrastructure projects are soaring wildly over budget, with little hope the costs can be reigned back. One concerns a new sewer lift station near the intersection of U.S. 301 and U.S. 41 in Lukewood Park. The other is a proposed high-rise parking garage on State St. downtown.

The lift station is going to cost about $7.5 million more than initially expected. with the parking garage is about $4.1 million over the budget set aside in 2009.

The lift station will handle about one-third of the city’s sewage when completed in 2015; the parking garage will house 399 cars.

The lift station hit a snag last year when the contractor walked off the job after attempts to tunnel under Hudson Bayou failed. An engineer reported earlier this year the failure was actually a good thing because the bore was too shallow and headed directly for the base of the Osprey Ave. bridge. A deeper alignment means the entire lift station needs to be lowered eight feet. Needless to say, there is a lawsuit against the original engineering company.

The parking garage design was the result of a long and very public process. The building is required under a complex agreement with downtown property developer Pineapple Square. However city commissioners dithered for months over the final design before choosing one requiring an extra story to meet the parking required by the contract. 

Neither project is financed by bonds, so the city’s finance department is busy juggling accounts to make sure cash flow is sufficient to pay the bills for the two construction projects. 


Hotel roulette

For survivors of Florida’s twenty-first century’s real estate crash, the new hotel craze is either welcome news or a harbinger of doom. “Big money” is betting better days are here again. Four new hotels are proposed for downtown Sarasota, and the old Quay property is under new ownership armed with the same old plans…for another hotel. That makes five.

None of them are flea-pits, an old Florida term for a hole in the center of a hut where long-suffering residents flicked their fleas. No these places have first-class plans, and all are in some stage of official approval. The one at Palm Avenue and Charles Ringing Boulevard is coming out of the ground.

They include the Hotel Sarasota at Palm x Coconut; the Vue at U.S. 41 x John Ringling Causeway, a Weston hotel; the Embassy Suite on Second St. x 41; and a Kimpton Hotel at U.S. 301 x Main St. on the parking lot of the historic courthouse. Excluding the Kimpton, 850 new hotel rooms are in the works.

Can Sarasota absorb five new high-end hotels? Developers think so, and if they are right, hang on to your watch caps, sailors, Another storm of historic real estate proportions is brewing. 



People movers

County staffers are pondering a change of location for the downtown bus transfer station. It was put at the western end of the city hall parking lot on Lemon Ave. about ten years ago. Some people, including the Chair of the Downtown Improvement District Ernie Ritz want it gone. He would prefer a mixed-use building on the site. 

Ritz convinced county commissioners to ask their staff to consider a move to the county-owned parking lot on School Ave. and Ringling Blvd. Staff isn’t hot on the idea because, for one reason, it would require a major overhaul of schedules for all the routes.

Meanwhile Ritz’s group is testing low-speed electric vehicles for use as a downtown circulator. Wait five minutes and jump aboard. It would service the Main Street area and parking garages along Palm and Second St. A local firm volunteered a six-seat golf cart for the test, and now a Largo company would like to join the competition. 

Meanwhile plans are moving ahead for a different circulator to take people from the mainland to Siesta Key. A two-year experiment funded by the state department of transportation would determine how many people would leave their car at the Westfield Mall parking lot and take a trolley to the beach.

Siesta is one of the few major beaches in Florida that offers free parking, so it is no surprise the parking lot is often full. County officials hope a ride-to-the-beach trolley could reduce traffic and parking woes on the island.


Designer drugs banned

The City and County of Sarasota have banned the possession, distribution, marketing and sale of synthetic materials intended to mimic the effects of marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine or opium. The material is packed in eye-popping colors, and was legal to sell.

The so-called designer drugs go under the generic name of “spice,” but sell under a myriad of names. Each package can sell for $10 to $20, said Lt. Jim Reeser, head of the city’s narcotics squad. 

Penalties include a fine of up to $250 per package, and prosecution as a second-degree misdemeanor. Officers say while possession is also outlawed, enforcement will focus on the convenience stores, smoke shops and other venders. 

A 2012 Youth Substance Abuse Survey found 21.7 percent of Sarasota high school students had used synthetic drugs, compared to 13 percent statewide. 

Unlike other drugs, which must be tested to confirm the substance is illegal, the joint city-county ordinance allows an arrest without any testing. That is because the chemicals used are changing faster than tests can be devised. “You arrest somebody, but they’ve changed the chemical,” said Reeser. 

Mayor Shannon Snyder urged caution in enforcing the new ordinance. “I really want this thing to work right,” he said. Snyder was concerned a questionable arrest could result in a court challenge finding the new ordinance unconstitutionally vague. 

One unique provision allows anybody to go to court to enforce the ordinance. The measure is called a “private attorney general,” and allows any person “to sue in county court for damages,” said an attorney for the county.


Siesta Sand
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