For Siesta Key, is it time to try to become a town?

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If an incorporation effort succeeds, this sign could someday read “Welcome to the Town of Siesta Key.” (photo by John Morton)

By John Morton

Convinced that Sarasota County officials don’t act with Siesta Key’s best interests in mind, island resident Mike Cosentino is spearheading an effort to have Siesta Key become its own town.

If successful, it would have its own government made up of elected council members and employees.

Cosentino hosted a public meeting Feb. 17 at the Siesta Beach pavilion that featured guest speakers Ralf Brookes, an attorney, and Brian Lichterman, a planner.

A month later, he hosted a meeting at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church, where government consultant Joe Mazurkiewicz spoke.

Another meeting at the church is set for April 14.

Cosentino told those in attendance that he hopes to get an application for incorporation to the Florida Legislature by a Sept. 1 deadline that ensures it will be addressed during its next session. In Florida, towns can only be established by a legislative special act.

If approved, a referendum vote by island residents would follow. The earliest the incorporation could become reality is next year.

“I’ve been working in the background on this for a couple of years and, in talking with people, I think it’s high time we brought it to fruition,” Cosentino said. “Certainly, I have a vision for the island, but I think it should be our vision, not the county’s vision. We have 7,000 voters here on the island and it’s time for us to take control of our future and our destiny.”

Mike Cosentino (file photo)

Cosentino has had several land-use issues with the county, and now the recent proposal for two new hotels on the Key, and a rebuild and expansion of another, has prompted him to begin the push for incorporation. Details in the plans – one is eight stories high (the first three levels are parking), the other seven — exceed the island’s current 35-foot height limitation.

“We already have enough laws on the books right now that most of the things that are happening just shouldn’t be happening at all,” Cosentino said. “We want to get a government in place and attorney’s office in place that advocates for the rules of law and we want to set up those laws the way we want to see our future unfold.” 

Local residents have previously played a role in planning. The 1999 Siesta Key Community Plan is a foundational document that resulted in certain protections for the Key. Citizens worked with the county to create it, but Cosentino and others feel it’s being largely ignored.

Lichterman noted it’s more of a “feel-good plan” than a legal document.

Still, Brookes pointed to the plan as an example of Siesta Key residents’ desire and ability to set expectations. Furthermore, the island’s history with the creation of civic groups also bodes well for an incorporation attempt, he added.

“I think it’s a particularly relevant and appropriate time for us to revisit this issue – I think it may have been visited 15 or 20 years ago but times change, and things happen, and unincorporated areas grow,” said Brookes, who is certified in city, county, and local government law, and is a former Siesta Key resident who worked in the Sarasota County Attorney’s Office in the 1990s.

He’s played a role in several incorporations, including that of Key Biscayne in 1991, he said.

Brookes said that some applications from unincorporated areas are turned down because the area is rural and parts of it lack infrastructure. Siesta Key, he said, has no such challenge.

“You’ve got everything you need in place,” he told the attendees.

The nitty gritty of incorporation

Other requirements are that the area in question has a population of at least 5,000 in a county of 75,000 or more and a population density of at least 1.5 persons per acre. Siesta Key meets both criteria.

Brookes explained that an application needs to be represented by only three residents. However, a petition consisting of signatures of at least 10 percent of registered voters with a Siesta Key address must accompany it.

Cosentino said he hoped to far exceed that threshold. “Let’s get 70 or 80 percent on board,” he said.

Brookes also said the Legislature looks for examples of broad support from influential local entities, such as businesses, chambers of commerce, civic groups, and homeowner associations, in the forms of letters expressing their desire for incorporation.

Finally, a $40,000 feasibility study conducted by a consultant is also a requirement, Brookes said.

It serves in part as viability proposal for the area and includes a five-year fiscal analysis that shows it can be finacially independent for the first five years.

Cosentino said he’d need to establish a fundraising effort for the study. His supporters have established a Facebook page entitled “Incorporate Siesta Key Now” and Cosentino said he’ll organize other social-media and networking campaigns, as well as additional public meetings.

In March, he put together a steering committee and established a nonprofit corporation called the Siesta Key Preservation Commission. The group is now seeking donations.

Florida Statute 165 outlines the process of incorporation. In 1973, the Home Rule Powers Act was ratified by the Florida Legislature, giving towns the ability to establish its form of government through its charter and to then enact ordinances, codes, plans and resolutions without prior state approval.

Since then, 32 incorporations have been established in Florida. Conversely, 11 have been dissolved.

Estero, a Lee County village incorporated in 2014, is the community closest to Sarasota to have most recently made the transition.

Generally, a town is a populated area with fixed boundaries and a local government while a village is a small community in a rural area.

The power of planning

While Brookes described the process, Lichterman focused on the execution. 

A private land-use planner who previously spent 22 years as a planner with Sarasota County, Lichterman told the audience he has played a role in rezoning approximately 65 properties in the county.

If incorporated, he suggested the Key could be divided into sections where each has its own rules and regulations regarding development, limiting it in some areas in order to promote more pedestrian and bicycle lanes.

“The planning and the zoning are where the rules hit the road,” Lichterman said.

Focusing on the concept of “self-determination,” he said Siesta Key residents could create an overall vision for the community, “rather than allowing things to happen incrementally.”

Added Lichterman, “Even though most of Siesta Key is already built out and you don’t have a lot of future-growth areas, there’s certainly going to be a lot of redevelopment that’s going to occur. And right now, the Sarasota County plan is basically a 20-year plan.

“Now, 20 years sounds like a long time, but it actually goes by on the blink of an eye. What I really think you need to be doing is planning for a 50-year time frame and coming up with really long-range strategies about how you want to grow. And, as individual re-zonings and amendments come forward, you can evaluate those proposals against your comprehensive plan, against your vision, to see if in fact it is consistent.”

Decisions, decisions …

Brookes said a potential town would likely have five elected council members. Creation of a charter would determine the length of terms; whether they are paid and how much; whether seats are organized by district or at-large, or a combination; and if the government has a “strong mayor” who’s elected separately, has veto power, and controls the budget and staff, or one that is elected separately and has the same vote as the other council members. Another option is that all council members are elected in the same manner and then a mayor is put in place by a council vote.

In the latter two scenarios, a council-hired town manager would run the administration. The mayor would run the meetings, but otherwise mostly serve in a ceremonial role.

“I highly recommend that,” Brookes said of the town-manager concept, “because then you’ll likely have a professional with a master’s degree in public administration — and the criteria (for the position) you can actually put into your charter.”

The hiring of a town attorney would be another likely need.  

Services become another consideration, Brookes said. Would the town want to establish its own police and fire departments, or enter into contractual agreements with what the county already provides? It’s commonly known as “government light.”

“These would be your decisions to make,” he said.

However, getting there can be an arduous process, Mazurkiewicz warned attendees of the second meeting, including some pushback from residents.

“The hurdle you are about to approach is not going to be easy,” said Mazurkiewicz, a Cape Coral-based consultant who said he has produced 30-plus feasibility studies of which 25 resulted in incorporation. “Who the heck wants to have another layer of government? Anybody? Because that’s exactly what you’re contemplating doing.”

He also said the Legislature will ask if an applicant can achieve its goals in a manner that doesn’t require incorporation.

Overlay zoning (over an existing zoning base to create special provisions) is a common suggestion, Mazurkiewicz said, but he acknowledged it’s a method that’s already in place on Siesta Key and is failing in the eyes of many.

Annexation into the city of Sarasota could be another suggestion, he noted, especially since Sarasota has already incorporated part of the Key.

The bottom line, Mazurkiewicz said, is that an applicant’s case must highlight compelling “threats” to a community’s unique culture and/or quality of life.

“They’ll also look at keeping things the status quo,” he said. “If you remain as you are … what are you possibly facing?”

John Morton
Author: John Morton

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