Thirty-five years ago, Ralph Hunter started the Longboat Observer because he was bored.
With three employees — himself, his soon-to-be-wife, Claire, and daughter, Janet — the first issue of the Longboat Observer hit stands July 28, 1978, and totaled four pages. Hunter started the paper in July, so that he could get the mistakes out of the way during the slow days of summer.
Thirty-five years later, the Longboat Observer has grown to become one of eight newspapers and five websites that are part of the Observer Media Group.
In honor of three-and-a-half decades of reporting on the Key, join us as we reflect on the first 35 years of the Longboat Observer’s history.
Ringling Bridge: A long road
3:14 a.m. Sept. 15, 2003.
Construction crews moved a set of barricades, and the John Ringling Causeway Bridge was open.
Christopher and Lynne Boyne were the first Longboaters to drive across the bridge. They’d waited downtown at the Sports Page Bar & Grille for the opening, hoping to be part of history as some of the first people to cross the bridge.
The journey to the 65-foot bridge was a long one.
It began in the early 1990s, when the old drawbridge began breaking down, causing delays for drivers and public-safety concerns, frequently making news in the Longboat Observer.
By November 1992, the Sarasota City Commission voted to approve a new bridge.
What followed was nearly a decade of clashes about whether the bridge would be a fixed-span structure or a drawbridge.
The city of Sarasota and the Bridge Too High Committee sued after the Florida Department of Transportation proceeded with plans to build a 65-foot, fixed-span bridge. Finally, in 2001, the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee affirmed the process leading up to the bridge’s approval, paving the way for the start of construction.
Two weeks before the bridge opened to traffic, residents and officials celebrated with 5K and 10K races, a ribbon-cutting ceremony and parade. Its completion was the result of more than 575,000 hours of labor from 200 workers at peak construction.
The new bridge was scheduled to open to traffic Sept. 14, but was again delayed — this time by bad weather, and only by a day.
Development: Look how far we’ve come
Imagine Longboat Key with 75,000 residents.
That’s the track the island was on back in 1978, when the Longboat Observer was founded.
In the newspaper’s early years, it’s hard to find a week in which density and development issues didn’t make the front page.
The 1984 Comprehensive Plan cemented the Key’s identity as a low-density residential island, prohibiting any density increase without a public vote and increased setbacks, making approximately 60% of the Key non-conforming with regulations.
Today, the Key is mostly built out, and we’ve reported on countless residential and commercial developments, from the planning stages all the way to the ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
One development that we’ve reported on extensively was the loss of the Longboat Key Holiday Inn, which closed in 2003 to make way for the luxury Positano condominium. Many business owners say times got tougher after the closing because it resulted in less traffic, along with fewer customers for local businesses.
In 2008, voters attempted to remedy the loss of tourism units by approving two referenda questions to create a pool of 250 tourism units.
However, a November 2012 ruling involving code changes for the Longboat Key Club & Resort led Town Attorney David Persson to recommend an overhaul of the town’s codes and Comprehensive Plan.
In the short term, redevelopment applications are in limbo while the commission reviews its regulations — a process you’ll read more about in the months to come in these pages — which will have a lasting impact on the Key.
Publix registered for Key
Debate about plans for Publix to build a store on Longboat Key was already raging before the Longboat Observer came to town.
Some residents worried it would forever change the Key, increasing traffic by drawing mainlanders to the island.
In 1979, plans for a Bay Isles shopping center with a Publix were approved, and Arvida officials held a groundbreaking ceremony. The next year, Publix and Eckerd Drugs opened in the new plaza.
Publix, which now owns the shopping center, filed plans in 2011 to tear down and rebuild the shopping center, including a new Publix and CVS.
The supermarket closed in April 2012 for eight months of construction, while CVS remained in operation as its new store was built.
At 8 a.m. Dec. 13, 2012, a crowd cheered when Longboat Key Publix Manager Andy Lappin welcomed the first customers into the new 49,533-square-foot store.
“I never thought I’d get goosebumps going into a grocery store,” Commissioner Jack Duncan told the Longboat Observer.
Key Club: It’s a go … then a no
Loeb Partners Realty Chief Operating Officer Michael Brody and Longboat Key Club & Resort attorney John Patterson were beaming on the front cover of the July 1, 2010, Longboat Observer.
The 167-point-font headline announced “IT’S A GO!” — the “it” being the $400 million Islandside redevelopment-and-expansion plan that the Longboat Key Town Commission approved 6-1.
The approval came after 23 public hearings held in Temple Beth Israel.
But the jubilance of Key Club officials concerning the project would be short-lived.
In December 2011, the 12th Judicial Circuit Court granted a writ of certiorari to the Islandside Property Owners Coalition (IPOC) and L’Ambiance and Sanctuary condominium associations in their challenge of the project. The Florida 2nd Judicial Court of Appeal upheld the lower court’s ruling in August 2012, effectively killing the application.
The Delray Beach-based Ocean Properties Ltd. purchased the Key Club and its assets for $32 million in October 2012. The company’s officials haven’t disclosed whether they plan to attempt a redevelopment or expansion for the property.
Town Hall politics test tempers
At the beginning of every Town Commission meeting, the mayor reads the town’s civility policy.
Flip through the Longboat Observer archives, and you’ll know why.
Take the meeting of July 2, 1980, when the commission discussed a controversial proposed density transfer.
After Commissioner Sam Seegel said he had voted for three amendments to the proposed ordinance, he insisted he heard Commissioner Howard Ridyard call him a liar and demanded Mayor Ken McCall admonish him or have him removed from the room.
McCall hadn’t heard Ridyard say the word and refused.
Seegel left his seat saying, “Trying to serve the people of Longboat Key is a complete waste of time.”
The commission voted 3-2 to censure Seegel, with McCall noting that he had never seen a commissioner walk out of a meeting before.
Seegel later sued the town after he moved out of his district and commissioners insisted he resign immediately. He lost.
At a March 23, 1982, workshop, it was the town manager who became frustrated with his commission.
During a discussion of an evacuation procedure, Town Manager Wayne Allgire felt he didn’t have enough direction from the commission to proceed. Commissioner Claire Bell told him she felt the commission had already told him to proceed. The commission then moved on to the next agenda item, but Allgire interrupted.
“Every man has his own evacuation plan and I have mine. I hereby resign and you can have it one of two ways: either six months from today, or by the terms of the town charter.”
Commissioner Kit Fernald allegedly tried to ask for Marie Dreyfus’ resignation from the Code Enforcement Board after learning Dreyfus, who was subsequently elected to the Town Commission, had violated the town’s setback ordinance in building her swimming pool. The commission launched an ethics probe of Fernald, who commissioners claimed had misused her office by attempting to influence an advisory board.
Fernald hired an attorney and filed a lawsuit but later dropped it after her husband became ill.
Although commission elections may grow contentious, none in recent memory have been as underhanded as the 1989 race.
That’s when an unknown individual sent out a bogus newsletter stating that the Longboat Key Public Interest Committee (PIC) had held an emergency meeting and reversed its endorsements for the Longboat Key Town Commission.
The newsletter made everyone involved with town politics a suspect and drew vows from PIC officials to take legal action.
Colony flourished … then faltered
The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort has been referred to as “the Ellis Island of Longboat Key.” It was the place where many residents got their first glimpse of their new world that was Longboat Key.
But Aug. 14, 2010, more than 250 people gathered in the resort’s Monkey Room bar for one last hoorah. They brought Colony memorabilia, reminisced and ended the night by singing “Auld Lang Syne” — before bidding adieu to the resort.
The good-byes came five days after U.S. Bankruptcy Judge K. Rodney May converted the Colony Partnership’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization with its unit owners to a Chapter 7 liquidation, effectively dissolving the Partnership, giving unit owners control of their units and closing the once-flourishing resort.
The ruling came five years into a dispute between longtime Colony owner Dr. Murray “Murf” Klauber and the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort Association.
One year later, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday overturned those rulings and directed May to consider one of two damage scenarios for the Partnership. Last year, May awarded more than $20 million in damages to the Partnership, while leaving owners in control of their units.
Settlement discussions between Klauber and the Association remain ongoing, but Longboat Key commissioners have expressed frustrations with what they perceive as a lack of progress.
In the meantime, the entrance that so many Longboaters once passed through is now blocked from trespassers with a chainlink fence.
Klauber won past lengthy legal battle
In 1997, Klauber was victorious in a seven-year legal battle concerning the town’s revocation of his building permits to build the Reserve spa at what is now Vizcaya condominium.
Klauber alleged the town did so arbitrarily, because some members of the Town Commission opposed him and his political views, and that his civil rights were violated.
A federal jury awarded him $8.9 million; he ultimately settled with the town for $6.5 million.
Observing breaking news, as it unfolds
Longboat Key may have a reputation as a sleepy little island, but breaking news still finds its way here.
On Feb. 10, 1989, the Longboat Observer was on the scene when Longboat Key police announced the arrests of 11 men and women as the result of Operation Longboat — a nearly one-year investigation that resulted in the seizure of more than a ton of cocaine, with a street value of $15 million, and $2 million cash.
As part of the operation, police arrested a couple who rented a home in Emerald Harbor that they had used as a drop-off point in a smuggling operation.
In June 2000, the murder of area theater director James Brown, who was found stabbed and beaten to death at his home in the Longbeach Village, stunned the Key. Shay Sullivan, who was the Longboat Observer’s city editor at the time, planned to marry his fiancé June 9, the morning news of the murder broke.
A true reporter, he postponed his wedding and covered the murder. The couple married June 23, in the Longboat Observer office.
Then, of course, there was the scene that unfolded just after 5 a.m. Dec. 18, 2006, when shrimp delivery driver Dennis Holder called 911 after spotting a group of people in the road near the New Pass Bridge.
The group consisted of 18 men and seven women, all refugees from Cuba, who paid smugglers $2,000 each to take them from Cuba to Miami. The combination of rough waters and increased border enforcement in South Florida made it difficult to reach the planned destination. So, the smugglers headed 300 miles north and landed on Beer Can Island.
“I was quite shocked when I was awakened at 5:05 a.m. and told 25 Cubans swam onto the island. At first I thought it was a joke,” Deputy Chief Martin Sharkey told the Longboat Observer.
Terror attacks hit close to home
The crowd could hear the muffled roar of motorcycles down Gulf of Mexico Drive by 6:10 p.m.
President George W. Bush’s limousine rushed past the crowd and into the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort. Members of the Republican Club of Longboat Key landed the job of greeting the president and his entourage.
Bush feasted on a Tex-Mex meal prepared by Tommy Klauber before retiring for the evening. The date was Sept. 10, 2001.
Bush started the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, with a jog along the Gulf of Mexico beach and returned to the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort.
He walked down the stairs at 8:23 a.m. and left the property in his limo, en route to Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota.
White House aides informed Bush that American Airlines Flight 11 had crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center, but at the time the incident was thought to be an accident. A short time later, Bush aide Andrew Card whispered in the president’s ear that United Airlines Flight 175 had slammed into the north tower.
Bush announced at Booker Elementary that there was “an apparent terrorist attack on our country” and was immediately whisked away on Air Force One.
Many Secret Service agents and most of the press corps were left behind at the Colony.
Every year since the attacks, Longboat Key has remembered those who lost their lives in the attacks by placing flags along Gulf of Mexico Drive in their honor.
You. Your neighbors. Your neighborhood.
What’s the biggest news each week?
It isn’t development or lawsuits or what happened at a Town Commission meeting.
It’s our motto: You. Your neighbors. Your neighborhood.
Every week, our newspaper and website are filled with your stories, your events, your photos and your milestones.
Here are just a few of the moments and stories we’ve captured.