By Debbie Flessner
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead, American cultural anthropologist
Pine Shores neighborhood resident Sura Kochman may be fighting an uphill battle as a
representative of her community’s small alliance group, but that is not stopping her from voicing her opinion. Her target? Only one of the largest commercial developers in the area.
Technically, it’s not Benderson Development that she takes issue with–it’s the logistics of their Siesta Promenade project, if approved by the county, to begin construction on the corner of Stickney Point Road and U.S. 41 in the Spring of 2015. The latest rendering of the project submitted to Kochman by Benderson’s director of development, Todd Mathes, shows about 250,000 square feet of retail space spread throughout twelve buildings, plus a 150-room hotel.
Kochman said that the Pine Shores Alliance Group’s primary concern was with the traffic flow surrounding the busy 24-acre property.
“My problem is with the density of the project and associated traffic that will pour into the roadways, based on their own traffic study they conducted last June,” she said. “Based on the Sarasota County regulations, they estimated that between 4 and 6 p.m., there would be 1,200 two-way trips going through that intersection. That’s 6,000 cars a day, in a 10-12 hour 9am-9pm business day–and that’s on the low side.”
Even worse, those times may be peak hours in the rest of the county, but it’s not for traffic going on and off of Siesta Key. Kochman said the busiest times on roads leading to the beach here are between 10 a.m. and 3 or 4 p.m., then it starts back up again as people head out to watch the sunset.
But because those traffic studies were conducted during the 4 to 6 p.m. time, the outcome of the study determined that the new development would have no impact on the surrounding area whatsoever. Kochman said she spoke with Paula Wiggins, head of transportation for Sarasota County, who said that they have to go by the Sarasota County regulations for the times that studies are performed. She also called Nora Patterson and asked if an amendment could be made to the Sarasota County regulations, to allow staff to ask for studies at different hours of the day, depending upon where developments were proposed. Nora indicated that she didn’t know if that was possible.
Kochman grew up here and has lived full and part time inher Pine Shores home for more than 50 years. She was the chair of the Planning Board in her town up north for almost 10 years. So when she speaks to people about issues like traffic density and signal approvals, she can be taken seriously.
One of the state departments she has been conversing with on a regular basis about this project is the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT).
“The problem you have is if the county approves the developer’s plans, the FDOT could come in and say ‘no’ to the proposed lights,” she said. “Benderson can formally apply to the FDOT for a Notice of Intent (NOI) prior to officially filing with the county.”
An NOI would allow Benderson to make an informed presentation to the county and community as to what the FDOT will recommend regarding the approval of traffic lights, median cuts, driveways, etc. Kochman said that the county does not approve or disapprove traffic lights,so if Benderson decides not to take her recommendation of going to the FDOT before the formal presentation to the county, and goes to them afterwards, there is a good chance that the project could go forward with no lights, only right ins, and right outs backing up traffic on Stickney which is already highly congested, especially during tourist season.
According to Kochman and the Pine Shores Alliance Group, that would be a disastrous decision.
“If they don’t get their light, then everyone trying to go left will be going right towards the Key and
will have to do a u-turn,” she said. “Then you will also have all this traffic going through the neighborhood, trying to get out to reach the Beechwood/41 light. It boggles the mind.”
Kochman’s group also questions whether or not Siesta Promenade is in line with the Sarasota County Comprehensive Plan, which is the bible of future development for the county. Chapter 9 of the plan, in particular, deals with future land use, and clearly states that its intention is “to protect the quality and integrity of adjacent neighborhoods.”
But while they are concerned about the impact of Siesta Promenade on their community, Kochman said the Pine Shores Alliance Group is absolutely not anti-Benderson. On the contrary, Todd Mathes has been respectful and has been listening to their concerns. But at the end of the day, they are in the business of making money, and Kochman recognizes that. She is just hoping that her plea of building a less dense development will be taken into serious consideration, as she awaits further information about their plans.
“I think that Benderson is well-liked at the county level and it will be difficult for us to get our point across,” she said. “I’m hoping logic will prevail here and that there will be an understanding. You can only hope that will happen.”