Saying they felt county staff had not communicated sufficiently with Key residents, two county commissioners last week voted against a revised plan for improvements at Turtle Beach.
“I’m not comfortable with the public-input portion on this,” Chairwoman Christine Robinson said before the board voted 3-2 to amend a contract with CPH Engineers Inc. of Sarasota to reduce the number of improvements in the initial phase of work at the beach.
Commissioner Carolyn Mason also voiced concerns that the public had not had enough involvement in the process.
However, Catherine Luckner, president of the Siesta Key Association, told the Pelican Press that, because Project Manager Curtis Smith had been a frequent presenter at the organization’s meetings over the past three years, her board was comfortable with the contract changes. SKA members had participated in stakeholder meetings, submitted public comments and had had frequent email exchanges with staff over the park plans since 2008, she added.
Moreover, Luckner said, the contract the commission approved last week stipulates more stakeholder input after 30% of the revised plan has been completed.
“We feel this will provide a good option for any additional comments to enhance Turtle Beach,” she said.
The commission’s vote Jan. 10 reduced the fee for CPH from $332,806 to $182,810. A memo to the County Commission from James K. Harriott Jr., the county’s executive director of public works, said the contract needed to be scaled back “to better meet current budget priorities.
“The beach projects on Siesta Key actually need to be discussed together in the future,” Commissioner Nora Patterson said, referring to the county’s plans for extensive improvements at the public beach. “The question is not really what we are funding, but when.”
Harriott told the County Commission last month that he and Steve Botelho, the county’s interim chief financial planning officer, would report to the board early this year on budget projections for major construction projects, including the public beach plans. A budget session has been scheduled for Jan. 26.
The funding for the Turtle Beach work will come from bonds the county floated in its 2008 fiscal year, with the money to be paid back by infrastructure surtax revenue.
According to Harriott’s memo on the project, the design work is expected to be complete before the end of the year.
During a presentation to the board, Brenda Bair and Curtis Smith, both managers in the Public Works Department, showed the commissioners an aerial view of Turtle Beach on which the new project areas were marked.
Bair explained that the Parks and Recreation Department staff in 2009 had identified amenities that could be done right away, while other improvements necessitated the county’s applying for permits. Among the earlier projects, she said, the county had remodeled the meeting room at Turtle Beach and had upgraded the landscaping at the adjacent campground.
Because of the economic downturn, she said, Parks and Recreation staff had agreed to postpone until later “the bigger, grandiose improvements” for the park.
“We have not had additional public meetings at this time, but that is part of the process,” Smith said.
“Our main focus is basically connectivity for pedestrians,” Bair said, especially those who cross the adjacent Blind Pass Road to reach the beach.
Smith added that a new parking area would be placed where the playground exists, because the county had had numerous requests for more parking at Turtle Beach. When the work is completed, according to the presentation, the park will have a total of 219 spaces for vehicles, plus 38 spaces for boat trailers.
The plans also called for a relocated playground that will meet Americans with Disabilities Act criteria, with adjacent parking; a new, ADA-compliant sidewalk connecting the parking lot to the boat ramp; a pre-fabricated gazebo; and numerous two-pole shelters constructed from a county design.
Bair said the gazebo and crosswalks to the beach, as well as the relocated playground, would require permits from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and a county variance, because they would be constructed seaward of the Gulf Beach Setback Line.
Bair told the commission further improvements to the campground would be delayed. She also referenced the fact that the campground has been a focal point for criticism from some area residents.
During SKA meetings over the past several years, owners of nearby condos have called for the County Commission to stop using the property next to the park as a playground and, instead, to make it available for general public use.
Additionally, Smith said improvements originally planned for the kayak launch area had been delayed.
“We felt further improvement in this area was not one of the highest priorities,” he said, because many kayakers already use the existing amenities.
When Robinson asked whether a vote of approval on the revised contract would limit the number of amenities that could be provided at the park in the future, Bair responded, “None of the amenities has been deleted … We’d love to be able to do everything on the list.”
When Robinson then asked what would happen if county staff learned the public was more interested in other amenities than those planned for the short-term, Bair said staff would come back to the commission “with a whole new contract.”