The observer stayed busy online in 2019. Here are the top stories of the year from YourObserver.com.
From the weather scares to the weird animal sightings, the Sarasota area has been quite the place to be in 2019. But as much news as we cram into our print newspapers, there’s always more on our website and social media that gets our readers talking.
Some of them were exclusively digital stories; some are the top online stories of the year; some just received a lot of reader response online. Either way, here are the best of the best this year from YourObserver.com.
Can’t get enough
Whether you love it or hate it (or hate that you love it), MTV’s “Siesta Key” is a great conversation starter — even when it’s not in season. The “popular” reality show announced in May that it’s coming back for a third season, and it’s been one of our top stories ever since. At the beginning of December, it announced that the new season will premiere Jan. 7. And as crazy as this reality show is, it’s about to get even crazier because this season will have a Bachelor Nation alum join its ranks.
The best place to be
Sarasota: We all think it’s a great place to live — obviously, or we wouldn’t be here. But it turns out we’re not the only ones. In April, U.S. News and World Report named Sarasota one of the best places to live in America. Out of 125 metropolitan areas across the country, Sarasota was ranked No. 18, quite an improvement over being No. 34 the year before.
According to U.S. News, “To make the top of the list, a place had to have good value, be a desirable place to live, have a strong job market and [have] a high quality of life.” The city has also a large arts community, top beaches and, of course, the best weather year-round (if you ignore those random few days when it gets below 60 degrees — brrr!). And although increasing traffic congestion is a big concern, that’s a sign that the city is pretty attractive to newcomers. Sarasota also ranked No. 2 of the best places to retire in the U.S., though that announcement is less of a surprise. (Have you looked around?)
Creatures on the loose
It’s not another year in Florida without wild animals showing up unexpectedly, right? Well, 2019 was no different. First, Longboat Key was on the verge of having new swans for the first time in two years. The island usually has 17 or 18 roaming around, but by April, it was down to a dozen. David Novak, the unofficial swan keeper of the flock (or is it bevy?), bred two pairs in hopes of bringing the numbers back up, but it was unfortunately to no avail, which Novak attributed to a heavy rainstorm that likely flooded the nests. The third time’s the charm, so hopefully, next year will bring better luck.
In other Longboat bird news, the conversation regarding Longbeach Village’s peacocks made a comeback. It's been years since the last dust-up in the north end over peacocks, which can be stunning to look at but also are loud and tend to foul up normal life. But as the numbers have begun dwindling, one Village 11-year-old wrote a letter to Vice Mayor Ed Zunz in July about his fondness for the neighborhood's peafowl and his hope that a new batch of babies could stay. The town maintains that keeping the flock to about 12 is what’s best for Village residents, given a difficult situation and opposing views. But even that is tricky, largely because of an especially hard-to-catch female that bears young every so often.
Alligators need love too, y’all. One gator went on the prowl in a Lakewood Ranch neighborhood in April, but instead of finding a mate, it was entranced by its own reflection in a glass door. Naturally, a Country Club resident did exactly what anyone would do when running into a nearly 6-foot toothy creature: He pulled out his camera and followed it around.
East County keeps growing
For the past decade, Lakewood Ranch has done nothing but expand — and it’s not anywhere near slowing down. In July, Metrostudy, a leading research and consulting first specializing in U.S. residential markets, announced that the community was No. 1 in the nation for housing starts in the second quarter.
But homes aren’t the only thing popping up in the area. More than a dozen stores, companies and plazas are currently under construction or recently opened. The Costco Wholesale, which opened in August, is the anchor tenant for a future shopping, dining and entertainment mecca at the northeast corner of Interstate 75 and State Road 64, in front of the Heritage Harbour Community. The project also is slated to have apartment housing.
And with the exponential increase of people and companies in Lakewood Ranch, the Florida Department of Transportation has been working to widen I-75 between state roads 64 and 70, widen S.R. 70 from Lorraine Road to County Road 675 and add six roundabouts along S.R. 70. FDOT is also now looking to further expand its interstate system. This five-year, $90.1 million project includes a managed lanes study in hopes of anticipating future needs rather than reacting to current traffic needs.
Up, up and away
A favorite topic of Sarasotans continues to be air travel, and SRQ has done a lot this year to keep that conversation going. In April, Allegiant Airlines launched nine nonstop flights from Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport — Baltimore; Asheville, N.C.; Cleveland; Grand Rapids, Mich;, Harrisburg, Pa.; Columbus, Ohio; Nashville, Tenn.; Richmond, Va.; and Syracuse, N.Y. Allegiant added another eight routes in November — to St. Louis, Mo.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Des Moines, Iowa; Rockford, Ill.; Flint, Mich.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Louisville, Ky.; and South Bend, Ind. Frontier Airlines began nonstop seasonal service to Cincinnati in October, Philadelphia in November and Trenton, N.J., in November. In December, American Airlines increased frequency of direct flights to Philadelphia. And in September, Delta Airlines joined the craziness by announcing it would offer seasonal flights to Minneapolis-St. Paul starting in January. So for all those with Midwest relatives looking to visit, might want to rethink how comfy you've made your guest room.
Water you up to?
As uncommon as they are, two waterspouts were sighted in the area this year. The first was seen off Longboat Key in June, when many locals took to social media to share pictures and videos of the natural weather phenomenon. The second short-lived twister was spotted a month later near Siesta Key. Although waterspouts rarely hold together long enough to reach land, they always create quite a stir among those lucky enough to see them in person.
High $$$ sales
“Ohana means family, and family means no one gets left behind.” Well on Longboat Key, Ohana means the highest single-family home sale in Manatee County. The 9,622-square-foot house sold in August for $11.4 million after five years on the market; it was originally listed at $22 million. (Fifty percent off is a steal, no matter the final price, right?) The property features three pavilions, a tennis court, a pool, six bedrooms and seven-and-a-half bathrooms.
On the other side of Manatee County, an estate was listed for $12 million in September. The furnished house in the Concession community is 17,756 square feet with six bedrooms, 12 bathrooms, a home theater, an underground wine cellar and a 12,000-square-foot lanai. If sold at listed price, it would beat Ohana as the most expensive home ever sold in Manatee.
Sick Siesta seagulls
Last year it was red tide. This year, well, we don’t quite know. In October, more than two dozen seagulls were found sprawled out on the beach. Of the ones brought in, nearly half died in the first 24 hours.
Save Our Seabirds received around 25 birds — mostly laughing gulls — in the first few days of the month alone from Siesta Key and a few from Lido Beach. When the organization’s volunteers do rescues, the birds normally put up a bit of a struggle, but these sick gulls were sprawled out and "almost look[ed] dead,” one volunteer said. Because Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium charted no red tide this year, Save Our Seabirds was not able to confirm a cause of the illness and death of the birds.
Conserving the ranchlands
When national news gets overwhelming, you need something wholesome to balance it out. Myakka’s Jim Strickland was just that in October. The rancher is proving to be a state leader in conservation by promoting ways to conserve Florida’s ranches and farmlands. In September, Strickland was named Sustainable Rancher of the Year by Audubon Florida. With the help of state grants, he has installed two solar wells — with two more planned — and has six windmills on the property to generate power. Strickland said that working as a cowboy through his childhood instilled in him a love of nature and an understanding of the importance of how ranchers must work in harmony with the environment. “If we change the environment, let’s change it for the better,” he said.