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Q & A with Nora Patterson: Champion of Siesta Key

By Roger Drouin

County Commissioner, Nora Patterson addresses the SKA members at her final Annual Breakfast Meeting as commissioner
County Commissioner, Nora Patterson addresses the SKA members at her final Annual Breakfast Meeting as commissioner

Because of term limits, Nora Patterson will step down from the County Commission dais Nov. 5. Siesta Sands caught up with her to talk about the big Siesta issues—from parking to density battles to the U.S. Army Corps proposal for dredging Big Pass—and what she plans to do with some free time starting in November.

The new District Four County Commissioner, to fill Patterson’s seat, will be sworn on the Nov. 18.

Siesta Sand: How long have you lived on Siesta?

Nora Patterson: Since 1970. We visited Sarasota considering it as a place to live and stayed with friends who lived on Siesta Key. We fell in love with the place, and when we moved here we moved onto the Key and never moved off.

Siesta Sand: Was there one particular thing about Siesta that sealed the deal?

Patterson: It was pretty much everything: the trees; the preservation of the tropical look; the beach, which was unbelievable; the ambiance; the sort of low-key availability of small restaurants on the Key in the Village area. We just loved it.

Siesta Sand: You were chosen in 2003 as Siesta Key’s Citizen of the Year by the Siesta Key Association and then earlier this year this newspaper described you the “Champion of Siesta.” How have you juggled this important role with representing other areas of District Four and the county?

Patterson: It wasn’t hard. I love the Sarasota community. I love the variety of different places to live and the general involvement of people. And yes I am a champion for Siesta Key, but I also think over the years I have been a champion for Nokomis or Osprey or Venice, sometimes North Port. I am very conscious that my responsibilities include a whole area, and we do represent all the citizens in the county. And I take that very seriously. I probably know this area better than other commissioners, and I look to other commissioners sometimes for insight that I might miss in other areas.

Siesta Sand: But you work a lot—representing Siesta while also representing other communities in your district?

NP: I do work long hours, but I have thoroughly enjoyed it. I think you have often seen my representation of Siesta Key issues at the table is because I am usually the first ones they call. The residents and business owners (on Siesta) will usually turn to me first as their voice. But I still get calls from the rest of the county, and emails.

Siesta Sand: Siesta is unique in that it does not have a municipal government, such as Bradenton Beach to the north or the town of Sanibel to the south, what difficulties or opportunities does that set up?

Patterson: In a way Siesta Key could get more continuous government if it did have its own municipality. But as a high tax area because of high tax values, I cannot imagine Siesta Key becoming a municipality without costing people a fair amount of additional money to pay for that governance. And I think because Siesta Key is so valuable and so vocal at the same time, that it will never lose its place as a spotlight area in the county. So Siesta Key is going to get a lot of attention from the county—whether or not it forms its own municipality.

Siesta Sand: When you bring issues up, do you feel in part you get fellow commissioners’ ear because Siesta is such an economic attraction for the county?

Patterson: It is an economic attraction, and I think everyone knows I have lived there for a very, very long time, and that I have lots of folks who do talk to me. I think Siesta Key will always be prominent in county conversations, in the same way that the downtown of Sarasota is always a topic of conversation, even though the county commission doesn’t have governance over it.

Siesta Sand: What has been the single biggest challenge in protecting the interests of Siesta Key?

NP: To me the biggest challenge on Siesta Key is to maintain its ambiance and not have it become so crowded and so visited that the quality of life deteriorates. Sometimes if you love a place too much. You can kill what you love about it.

Siesta Sand: What do you think have been some of your greatest achievements on the Key?

Patterson: Nobody achieves anything alone … and I don’t take full credit for any one thing.

One thing that is an achievement and continues to be a challenge is parking. As part of the beach improvement project, I would have preferred to see more parking, but it is pretty good size increase. To add to that beach parking, we have also purchased a little bit of additional land that provides beach access.

Another is to finally bring to fruition more frequent public transportation to relieve some of the traffic on the key. Also, working with the Village owners, as well as the residents, to endorse county investment in the Siesta Key Village. That’s a big one. (Another) is to work to put some leash on the increase of density on the Key that could cause it to be loved to death, by clarifying codes that have been in place forever. That you can’t build a duplex on every single little lot—that was never the intention.

Siesta Sand: Density, that’s been a tricky one.

Patterson: Density is a tricky one because property rights are important but keeping the ambiance of the key is even more important, or you’ll kill the golden goose.

Siesta Sand: In addition to garnering support at the Commission dais, you’ve been a consensus builder on the key, or at least tried to, which is no easy task on an island populated with many different interests and varying opinions on matters such as density, as you mentioned. What’s another project or issue that’s been tough to tackle?

Patterson: I think the biggest challenge, which has not been solved but at least is a dull roar, is to keep access to the beach and to prevent people from trying to privatize their little patch of the beach, which would destroy the whole walking ambiance of the key. That is one of the hugest issues that is not solved. But at least for the moment, people have gone back to realizing that carving out their own little piece would make their own little piece that much less valuable.

I don’t think it will ever get completely solved outside of the courts. You never know what the courts will say. One ruling of the courts is that has to be litigated a piece at a time. I think at least people have at least relaxed a bit on it—with the exception of some skirmishes still at the south end of the main beach, where the beach is a little narrower.

Siesta Sand: You were instrumental in asking questions and pushing for an additional independent review of the dredging of Big Pass proposed as part of the Army Corps Lido Beach Project. What steps need to happen next?

Patterson: I care just as much about Lido as I do Siesta Key, it’s a big economic asset to the community. I think people including myself, just want a little reassurance that dredging the shoal is not going to cause great harm.

I hope we are going to rather quickly settle on an independent review of the Army Corps study that will give us reassurance of several things: Number One to give the commission and lovers of siesta key beach some reassurance that taking a pretty large amount collectively of sand from the big pass shoal will not harm the siesta key beach. Number Two that navigational interests will not be harmed in the past and nature has always maintained the pass at about five-and-a-half feet in the shallowest spot and the pass is very important to recreational boaters. And the third issue is the groins, which is one of the more serious issues, and the only reason the county would have any say in this frankly. They are proposing three huge groins on the south end of Lido, and at least one of them is on county-owned land, and they (the Army Corps) would like to use the county park there as a staging area to build the groins and for the renourishment altogether. Groins tend to damage beaches to their south on the west coast of Florida.

Siesta Sand: What’s next for you—you’re going to have some free time open?

Patterson: My husband and I both love to take our boat on reasonably large trips, so I plan to do more traveling, both by boat and other means. We’ve for the first time in our lives have been without a dog because we have been so busy. And I’d like to buy and train a puppy. We’ve had a couple of golden retrievers and loved them… There is very little down time in our lives. Actually, a little down time might be nice.

Siesta Sand: When it comes to Siesta issues and governance, what advice would you give to the next incoming district four county commissioner who will be sworn in in November?

Patterson: Please keep sight of the fact that while Siesta Key is an important economic asset, it’s also a place where people live and enjoy a wonderful quality of life. Please pay attention to that and go to the meetings of the various stakeholders, the people that live on the key as well as the people who work on the key, and let them get to know you. Let them get to feel comfortable to sharing their issues and thoughts with you. 

Siesta Sand: You’ve said people come to you first, that seems to be important. It seems better to have someone come to you with issues before an article shows up in the paper or everyone is talking about it.

Patterson: More importantly than having an article come out, it’s nice to have a shot at resolving issues before they become a crisis. 

Siesta Sand: You have chaired the Tourist Development Council for about eight years. Why is that an important role?

Patterson: It’s the county’s contact with people who are actually involved in attracting tourism. It’s a reality check, I think, to be able to work with people whose primary focus is tourism … you are able to get a broader perspective.

Siesta Sand: Thank you County Commissioner Patterson for your many years of service.