By Rachel Brown Hackney
Thanks to a recent 4-1 vote of the Sarasota County Commission, it will take only 67% of affected property owners instead of 80% to initiate a petition process for maintenance of navigable waterways. “It’s still a higher number than a Florida constitutional amendment [threshold for passage],” Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out in making the motion during the board’s Oct. 10 meeting in Venice.
Only 60% of registered voters must approve a state constitutional amendment for it to become law. During the public hearing, Nokomis resident John Ask — who also is chair of the county’s Planning Commission — told the board, “I am curious as to the wisdom of the requirement of 21% having authority over 79%.” His combined service as a school principal and 40 years officiating sporting events, he explained, “instills in me a strong sense of fairness.” According to the resolution, the change was to take effect upon approval by the board.
Commissioner Christine Robinson cast the “No” vote. Although she offered no comments on the matter this time, when the board last addressed the issue — in December 2015 — she called for more public outreach and for “a discussion time set when we can really vet this out … before we skip to the end.”
The Oct. 10 public hearing was the first time the matter had come before the board since December 2015. In a memo prepared for the commission prior to the Oct. 10 public hearing, staff noted only that the board had requested a history of the threshold requirement for petition signatures and a “comparison of signature thresholds required in other County taxing districts.”
Getting to this point
“In December 2001,” the memo explains, “the Navigable Waterways Maintenance Management Program and the associated Municipal Services Taxing Unit were created for the purpose of enhancing the availability and use of navigable waterways within the unincorporated County, increasing boater safety, improving access to the [Intracoastal] Waterway, and providing opportunities to enhance the natural environment.”
During his presentation to the board on Oct. 10, Paul Semenec, a project manager in the county’s Capital Projects Division, pointed out that the county process for undertaking maintenance of navigable waterways necessitates two petitions signed by those who would benefit from a project. The first is a “feasibility” petition, calling for county staff to determine whether the proposed project can be undertaken. Then a second petition has to show sufficient support of the landowners who will have to cover the expense of the work.
That process was put in place in April 2003, the memo says. The petition threshold required at least 67% on both petitions, the memo adds. Then in September 2009, revisions the County Commission authorized raised the petition signature threshold to 80%, Semenec told the board. That was done “in an effort to improve neighborhood consensus for proposed … projects,” the memo points out.
Semenec characterized it a bit differently: The change was “reaction to that commission hearing repeatedly from property owners who were not in favor of the projects.”
During the December 2015 board discussion, Commissioner Carolyn Mason told her colleagues, “There was constantly … someone or some people who did not agree with [a project].” Since that 2009 change, Semenec continued, no new navigable waterway projects have been undertaken. “It is important to note that the recession began about that same time,” he added.
Staff did conduct a marketing effort in 2015 that included the mailing of a brochure to owners of about 10,000 pieces of property where efforts could be initiated, he said. As a result, he noted, staff received 101 inquiries, and 14 neighborhood groups requested feasibility petitions.
“To date,” he told the board, “I have received three completed feasibility petitions at the 80% threshold.” Staff has finished one study, he added, and a second is underway. In the third case, he said, staff concluded that the waterway in question was too narrow to accommodate a project.
He recently contacted the 11 other neighborhood groups he had not heard from since providing them petitions. “None of them are close to the 80% [threshold],” he pointed out, “and, as a matter of fact, none of them are close to the 67% [figure for] a feasibility petition.”
Staff did conduct research in other communities with petition-driven processes similar to those in Sarasota County, he continued:
• In Hillsborough County, the threshold is 51% for a feasibility petition and 60% for the second petition to get the work underway.
• Lee County has a three-petition procedure. All of those require a threshold of 50% plus one.
• Charlotte County has a process to establish the taxing unit at the outset, and that threshold is 51%.
• St. Petersburg has a two-petition process with a 51% threshold.
• Pinellas County has a 60% threshold on petitions.
Semenec then told the board that through discussions during its quarterly meetings in May and September, the county’s Waterways Advisory Council had reaffirmed its members’ advocacy for lowering Sarasota County’s threshold from 80% to 67%.
Public comments and a decision
Two other speakers joined John Ask in urging the County Commission to reduce the signature threshold. Catherine Laudet, another Nokomis resident and a representative of the Bayview Drive Association, said the action “will give us an easier path to see whether a project is feasible.” Along with his other comments, Ask referenced Semenec’s report on the lack of projects with the higher signature threshold. “The data and the evidence, to me, is compelling that the current 80% majority has not yielded a satisfactory outcome.”
The last speaker, Bruce Dillon of Nokomis, asked the board whether boat slip owners are eligible to initiate petitions and to pay for the expense of maintenance of waterways? “If property abutting a waterway is not a buildable property, but is available for the owner to gain access to the water, they would be included in an assessment district,” Semenec explained. “Of course, that includes boat ramps.”
“That’s what I thought,” Hines replied.