A new facility for Fire Station 13, the Breeze’s route and illegal short-term rentals among top topics during county staff presentation to Condominium Council

By Rachel Brown Hackney

A new two-story building for Fire Station No. 13, a means of tracking the movements of the Siesta Key Breeze open-air trolley and illegal short-term rentals were just a sampling of the topics senior Sarasota County staff members covered during the Feb. 19 meeting of the Siesta Key Condominium Council.

In 2018, when Sarasota County Fire Chief Michael Regnier appeared before the Condominium Council members, he took questions about the fact that the department had to evacuate its personnel and equipment from the Siesta station before Hurricane Irma was expected to strike the area in September 2017.

Having a new structure in place will not eliminate the need for such evacuations, just because Siesta is one of the areas in the county most vulnerable to storm surge, Regnier said on Feb. 19. However, if the County Commission ultimately approves a redesigned facility for Station No. 13, he added, “we [will] have a place to come back to” if a storm does inflict significant damage on the Key. The existing building, he said, dates to 1973-74.

Regnier explained that staff has been working with an architect on a design similar to that of the new two-story fire station at the intersection of Bee Ridge Road and Murdock Avenue. The façade of the Siesta Key structure “will probably be very different,” he added, so it will blend into the beach community atmosphere. (Station No. 13 is next to Siesta Public Beach on Beach Road.)

Staff will have “a lot of interaction” with the public, he pointed out, before decisions about the appearance of the facility are finalized.

In response to a questions, Ashley Lusby, media relations officer for the county’s Emergency Services Department, explained in an email that a discussion about a new building for Fire Station No. 13 would be on the County Commission’s March 13 agenda. “At that time,” she continued, “the board will consider an architect and construction manager for the project.” The groundbreaking is “tentatively scheduled for the end of this year,” she added; the new station would be built in the same location..

Transit and Code Enforcement questions

A second county speaker at the meeting, Rob Lewis, serves as both the interim director of Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) and director of governmental relations.

In discussing SCAT, Lewis pointed to the popularity of the Siesta Key Breeze, the free trolley service that circulates between Turtle Beach and Siesta Village.

Ridership on the Breeze from Dec. 22, 2018 through Jan. 31 was 77,812, he noted. In its first year of operation — from March 2017 to March 2018 — the Breeze transported its 250,000th rider, Lewis said.

Condominium Council President Frank Jurenka reminded Lewis that when the Breeze was launched, SCAT staff indicated that a mobile app would be available at some point to enable passengers to track the trolley’s route over the island. That way, they would not have to waste time waiting for it.

“[That] would be especially beneficial,” Jurenka added.

A new firm won the contract last summer to operate the Breeze for the county, Lewis explained, and that company has equipment on the vehicles it operates that will enable riders to follow the trolley online on a real-time basis.

SCAT staff expects the launch of the tracking system “sometime in the next month,” Lewis added.

“It’s not a mobile app” that a person downloads from the Apple store, for example, Lewis pointed out. Instead, a person will be able to visit a specific SCAT website on a smartphone, an iPad or a laptop computer to check on the trolley’s location.

The internet address is https://scattrack.scgov.net/bustime.jsp.

Lewis promised to let Jurenka know when the app goes live for the Breeze, so the Condominium Council can alert its members.

All county buses have GPS devices, Lewis noted, so riders can track them, as well.

Siesta resident Michael Shay also asked Lewis about the potential for extending the trolley’s route to the northern part of the island.

“The constraint is finding an adequate place to turn around,” Lewis replied. With the current route, he continued, the trolley comes up Canal Road, behind Siesta Village, and then stops at Morton’s Siesta Market before heading southbound on Ocean Boulevard. “It has the ability to turn around at Turtle Beach.”

Staff has been exploring options on the northern part of the Key, Lewis added.

“What about the streets up here?” Shay asked, referring to Gleason Avenue, where Siesta Key Chapel is located. (The meeting was taking place in a room at the church.)

For that matter, Shay continued, what about having the trolley turn around on Siesta Chapel’s property?

“We have to limit our turnarounds … to public roads,” Lewis responded. However, he added, “I don’t want to rule anything out.”

During the meeting, Shay also took the opportunity to ask County Administrator Lewis about ongoing problems with Code Enforcement on the island, especially in regard to illegal rentals of homes in single-family neighborhoods.

The County Commission is looking at a stiffer fine, Lewis explained, but, under the guidelines of Florida law, “You have to be able to establish a violation and due process,” and anyone who violates the county code has to be given the opportunity to “cure” the situation.

Even if county Code Enforcement staff establishes that a violation continues occurring, Lewis said, the staff member has to present the case to a Special Magistrate. It is up to that court official, Lewis added, to decide how to proceed, and the decision may be to give the offender 30 more days to clear up the problem.

“We’re still trying to figure out what the legal options are,” he said. Ultimately, Lewis continued, the County Commission may agree to implement new procedures, and some of them “may have to be tested in court, I think.”