APRIL FOOLS — Town officials learned last week that they hadn’t spent $3.4 million of a federal stimulus grant for the beautification of Longboat Key. The reason? Call it a pitfall of living in paradise. Longboat Key’s grass is green. Its sand is white. Its ponds glisten without a speck of algae. Its tree branches are shaped with perfect symmetry.
“On a scale of one to 10, we’re a 12,” a town official said.
Town commissioners scrambled last week to find a way to spend the unexpected windfall as quickly as possible. They hired a grant-allocation consultant, who discovered the Central Housing Aesthetics Committee for Home Improvement National Grab (CHACHING) clause of the grant, which allows individual homeowners and condominium associations to spend the money on vital outdoor beautification projects.
The program will fund the installation of swimming pools, outdoor kitchens, hot tubs, golf sod, tiki torches that are compliant with turtle-lighting restrictions and silver-plating for dolphin and manatee mailboxes. Condominium associations can also receive funding for projects that benefit their entire communities, including outdoor fashion-show runways, expanded shuffleboard facilities and seasonal decorations, such as Mexican flags and sombreros for upcoming Cinco de Mayo celebrations. A “swag shop” with beautification supplies for purchse will open Thursday, April 15, at Whitney Beach Plaza.
Town officials say the upgrades are needed for a number of reasons.
A recent study commissioned by the town of Longboat Key and Longboat Key Garden Club showed that the island faces a critical housing shortage: Of existing homes on the island, 68% have been shown on the Garden Club’s annual Home & Garden Tour. The improvement projects could entice the remaining 32% of homeowners to participate. The same study found that Longboat Key lacks viable meeting space for poolside cocktail parties. And the recent cold snap provided residents with awareness about the important role of hot tubs, once considered a frivolous luxury on an island where temperatures average more than 70 degrees.
Residents will receive “CHACHING Change” based on the appraised value of their homes — one CHACHING Change dollar for every $10 of a home’s 2009 assessed value. Officials say that will help residents recoup the approximate 10% drop in their homes’ values that has occurred over the past year. The grant will provide job opportunities for unemployed mainlanders in construction. And the construction period will create overtime opportunities for Longboat Key police, who are bracing for an influx of noise complaints and reports of jealous mainlanders.
Meanwhile, police have increased their presence in the plaza, while dozens of eager residents have set up camp in the parking lot preparing to storm the swag shop at midnight on “Black Thursday.”
On the evening of March 30, residents settled in for a fourth night of camping out in the swag-shop parking lot. One couple discussed their visions of outdoor granite countertops and glass-tiled swimming pools, before reclining in their La-Z-Boys for the night. A condominium association president said he planned to buy his community reindeer, similar to the ones that were on display at The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort, to decorate for each holiday of the year. He appeared perplexed when a code-enforcement official wrote him a citation before he could explain his plans for Easter decorations.
Another woman said that she wasn’t interested in one of the silver-plated mailboxes. Instead, she hopes the swag shop will carry the mailbox design that the Florida Department of Transportation used when it placed a code-compliant mailbox on her property and then removed it last summer.
“I really liked that mailbox,” she said.
A fourth resident said that he plans to donate the swag he scores to improve a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, such as Sarasota Yacht Club.
An onsite town commissioner said he wasn’t surprised by the popularity of CHACHING Change.
“The people have spoken,” he said. “Last month’s elections were about ‘change.’”
Meanwhile, one resident protested the cost of the program, which will require that the town pay for maintenance of the swimming pools, hot tubs and turf grass it installs. The resident said that the maintenance responsibility could create a huge unfunded liability. But the commissioner scoffed at that claim.
“A mortgage,” he said, “is an unfunded liability.”
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If You Go
Black Thursday at Whitney Beach Swag Shop
What: Line up early to ensure the scoring of swag. Pushing, shoving, snatching and cutting in line will not be tolerated. Overflow parking will be permitted in Longbeach Village and Sleepy Lagoon.
When: Midnight Thursday, April 15, until supplies are gone
Where: Whitney Beach Swag Shop, 6800 block of Gulf of Mexico Drive