By Rachel Brown Hackney
Sarasota County Commissioner Alan Maio has pointed out several times in recent months that almost one-third of the county is protected from development, thanks to board decisions to preserve environmentally sensitive lands.
In fact, during a regular commission meeting in November, he even asked whether the Citizen Opinion Survey project team members with the University of South Florida could include a question in the 2021 sampling of county residents on that point.
“A simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ question,” was how he described it, asking survey respondents if they are aware of how much county property has been preserved. Maio emphasized that the one-third figure equates to 182 square miles.
“It’d be interesting to see how few people know that,” he added, “as they play that cute little ditty to us about ‘Pave Over Paradise and Build a Parking Lot.’” He was referring to Joni Mitchell’s song Big Yellow Taxi.
Maio also was referring to recent public hearings during which county residents have implored the commissioners to turn down applications for new developments so as to preserve wetlands, for example, or other open space.
After Maio made his request, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis responded that the survey team could add the question if that was the consensus of the commission.
“I think it’s an excellent question,” Chair Michael Moran replied. “I’ll assume there’s a consensus,” Moran added, unless a board member objected to the proposal.
“It’s a pretty amazing number,” Commissioner Nancy Detert said of the 182 square miles, adding that she believes many people are unaware of that fact.
Commissioner Ron Cutsinger pointed out that the county also has 160 parks encompassing more than 55,000 acres, plus open space that it requires in new residential communities.
Yet, on Siesta Key, the exact amount of land that the county has preserved for the public through creation of beach accesses may be a surprise, Siesta Key Association (SKA) President Catherine Luckner told members during their November 5th meeting. The reason? The figure is small, she pointed out.
After hearing assertions from residents about that fact, Luckner said, she asked Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), to provide the SKA a document showing the exact acreage.
Upon reviewing the figures in that list, Luckner added, she indicated that they bore out what she had heard.
At its request, county staff also provided a copy of that list to the SNL.
The SNL’s review of the document found that only one of the 13 county beach accesses on the barrier island encompasses more than 0.25 acres. For Beach Access 7, which is located primarily at 402 Beach Road, county staff several years ago added a 3.2-acre segment at 330 Beach Road. Another 0.5-acre section at 5404 Calle de la Siesta also is considered part of Access 7, Rissler’s list says.
For years, island residents have urged county staff to take advantage of the extra Access 7 space — specifically an old cottage on part of the property — to create public restrooms. No such initiative has been planned at this point, based on a SNL review of the county’s Capital Projects budget materials for the current fiscal year. However, the previous PRNR director, Carolyn Brown, did discuss the idea with SKA members during one of the nonprofit’s annual meetings a few years ago.
On March 5, 2016, Brown told the SKA member who raised the issue, “It all comes down to funding and then permitting.”
When the county purchased the parcels adjacent to Access 7 — including the cottage — Brown said plans called for restrooms. “Bathrooms are on the wish list. … Right now, there is no identified funding source for that,” she added that day.
In September 2010, a county staff report pointed out that the county purchased the two parcels next to Access 7 in 2007 and 2009, expanding the area by 3.7 acres. The goal was “to enhance public beach access, provide additional beach parking and preserve the viewshed toward the Gulf of Mexico,” the document noted.
Adding it up
During the November 5th SKA meeting, President Luckner explained to members that the land on either side of the other county beach accesses is privately owned.
Altogether, the county has 14 beach accesses, stretching from No. 1 at 3940 N. Shell Road to No. 13 at 6900 Point of Rocks Road on the southern end of the island. The latter has no parking area, Rissler’s list points out. (Beach Access 3B, located at 136 Beach Road, also has no parking spaces.)
In fact, Luckner said, the county does not own that much public parkland on the Siesta Key.
The list provided by Rissler shows that Siesta Public Beach Park has 40 acres, Turtle Beach Park encompasses 16 acres, and Turtle Beach Campground has a total of 2 acres.
Glebe Park, which is located near the Siesta Isles community, encompasses 10 acres, the list notes, and the county side of Nora Patterson Bay Island Park, located just west of the Siesta Drive drawbridge, has a total of 2 acres.
Technically, Bay Island is separate from Siesta Key, as longtime residents will attest. The “hump bridge” on Siesta Drive is the line of demarcation between Siesta Key and Bay Island. However, most people consider Bay Island part of the key.
Among other county properties on Siesta are Boyd Park, which stands in the elbow, so to speak, of the intersection of Higel Avenue and Midnight Pass Road. It covers 1 acre.
One other county site, Christopher Wheeler Park, which is located at 1300 Old Stickney Point Road, comprises 0.3 acres.
Thus, by the SNL’s calculation, the total county park property on Siesta Key is 78.5 acres.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Siesta Key comprises 2,240 acres, or 3.5 square miles. The total county parkland on the island makes up approximately 3% of that.