By Rachel Brown Hackney
In his final remarks as president of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), Gene Kusekoski offered a deadpan opening as he looked out at the approximately 120 people assembled in the Community Center of St. Boniface Episcopal Church on Siesta Key: “So it’s been a quiet year; not much going on.”
After the laugher subsided during the nonprofit’s annual breakfast meeting on March 2, Kusekoski touched on the top issues for the organization over the past months: the ongoing effort to prevent the dredging of Big Sarasota Pass (see the related story in this issue); support of a legal challenge to try to stop Benderson Development Co. from building its Siesta Promenade mixed-use project at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road; the County Commission’s decision to approve a change in the island’s zoning regulations, which could lead to construction of a hotel on Old Stickney Point Road; the continuing fight against illegal short-term rentals of homes; and the SKA’s support of another nonprofit’s efforts to do exactly what that nonprofit’s name says — Make Siesta Drive Safer.
The SKA offered its own arguments to the County Commission during the “hours and hours of testimony opposing [Siesta Promenade]” on Dec. 12, 2018, Kusekoski pointed out. “Siesta Promenade’s a problem,” he continued, adding that “huge, huge amounts of development” also are planned on the eastern side of Interstate 75, thanks to County Commission decisions in the past few years.
On Jan. 11, a legal complaint was filed in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in Sarasota to try to overturn the County Commission’s split decisions allowing the Siesta Promenade project to go forward.
Benderson Development plans to construct 414 condominiums/apartments in multi-story towers; an 80-foot-tall, 130-room hotel; and 140,000 square feet of retail and office space on a site that is not quite 24 acres.
“Benderson probably is not going to walk away from this thing,” Kusekoski said. He wished “some horse trading” had gone on to ensure that if the mixed-use development is built, he added, that the company would, at the very least, provide room for park-and-ride options to ease traffic congestion on Siesta Key.
A number of people — including Commissioner Charles Hines — have talked of their disappointment that Benderson would not agree to allow space within Siesta Promenade for a facility where people could leave their vehicles and then take a trolley or other means of transit to Siesta Key Public Beach.
Kusekoski told the audience on March 2 that he had not given up hope for such an agreement in the future.
As for the zoning amendment involving the proposed Old Stickney Point Road project: “That whole process isn’t done yet, I think,” Kusekoski said.
The change the County Commission approved in April 2018 would allow for a shorter setback from the street than the minimum of 25 feet that would have been necessary for any new structure higher than 35 feet in one of the island’s districts zoned for commercial use. Siesta resident Gary Kompothecras, known for his 1-800-ASK-GARY advertising for medical and legal referrals, made it clear last year that he had sought the setback modification to facilitate construction of a hotel, though his attorney has stressed that it would be a boutique property standing well below the height of many of the condominium towers on the island.
The SKA will need to keep an eye on the actual plans after they have been revealed, Kusekoski said on March 2.
The nonprofit also should “watch for people citing [the setback modification] as a precedent.” If new initiatives arise, he added, they should be “cut off at the knees pretty quickly …”
Another issue — “a big one that’s come up lately” — is the increase in illegal short-term rentals in neighborhoods zoned for single-family residences, Kusekoski said. Just the previous week, the County Commission amended the county’s Code Enforcement ordinance to provide for a fine up to $5,000 if an egregious situation can be proved, Kusekoski noted.
“Our big success for the year,” he continued, was assisting a group of residents at the Bay Tree Club on South Midnight Pass Road who had sought a crosswalk to enhance safety for people who routinely make the trek between the bayside and Gulf side buildings of the condominium complex. Not only did county staff members agree to install a crosswalk, Kusekoski said, but “they came back and put blinking lights on it.” Nobody even asked for the lights, he pointed out.
Kusekoski then explained that he originally became an SKA director to work on bicycle safety issues. In stepping down from the board after two years, he said, “I’m going to go back to my roots … and … campaign for more bike safety on Siesta Key, which is still badly, badly needed,” especially between the Beach Road and Stickney Point road intersections.
In closing, Kusekoski told the audience members, “Stay engaged.”
Retiring and incoming directors
During the program, new President Catherine Luckner recognized two other board members besides Kusekoski who were leaving their positions: Bob Stein, publisher of the monthly Siesta Sand newspaper on the Key and a number of other publications: and Bob Miller, who had served as treasurer.
Dan Lundy will be the new vice president, Secretary Joyce Kouba said, while Marilyn Romanus will serve as treasurer.
Erin Kreis and Joe Volpe also are keeping their seats on the board.
New directors, Kouba continued, are Jean Cannon, Elizabeth Gomez-Mayo, Eddie Ward, Roland Clark and Tom Surprise.
In brief remarks at the end of the meeting, Luckner emphasized that the SKA is focused on facts. The spread of misconceptions and false statements, she pointed out, “actually tends to foment a lot of fear.”
She added that if anyone has a question or a concern, “Ask us and we will give you a factual answer or help you find it.”