Although Kafi Benz is stepping into a new role as president of Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA), she’s confident in her ability to lead the organization. She’s been on the CONA board since the 1980s, although it’s the first time she’s held an office in the organization.
“I have a good understanding of the long-range goals of CONA,” Benz said.
The 11-member board persuaded Benz to take the office because the organization has become a mix of new and old members who need someone with experience to lead. She said she hasn’t seen lots of changes in the organization in the last three decades, but rather a consistency (CONA was founded in 1961).
“They’ve known their mission for a long time and been at it so long they understand what it is,” she said.
Benz wants to stay consistent with the organization’s mission to help neighborhoods lobby for their needs. One main goal she wants to pursue is initiating more participation from members throughout the county. She wants to encourage the individual neighborhood associations to mobilize and get connected; many of the smaller ones don’t have a website or Facebook page for communication.
“I want to start marching through the county and give neighborhoods a platform to speak about issues,” she said.
CONA and the associations are facing a more homogenous County Commission, she said, so she wants them to come together and rally around issues facing neighborhoods.
Benz predicted that environmental protection — including agricultural land and water resources — and encroaching developments will be the top issues CONA will face. Specifically that means fighting to protect pine flatwoods, and continuing efforts against the Sarasota 2050 amendments and upcoming changes to the county’s comprehensive plan.
CONA’s newly formed Zoning Committee, a group of five members who will examine county issues affecting neighborhoods, will be important for CONA to stay informed about some of those issues, she said.
Benz’s knowledge in Sarasota County extends into her childhood: Her family owned property on Siesta Key and Longboat Key. She grew up in Manhattan, N.Y., but ultimately decided to relocate permanently to Sarasota County in 1982. She wanted to live on the mainland rather than on one of the barrier islands.
Benz moved in to the Uplands, a neighborhood within the northern boundary of the Indian Beach/Sapphire Shores neighborhoods. She served on the board of the Uplands and IBSS neighborhood associations (the two eventually merged) and also on the City Council of Neighborhood Associations, which got her involved in city issues affecting city neighborhoods.
She also served on the county’s historic preservation board. Benz played an instrumental role in protecting the Powel Crosley Estate in 1986, when a developer planned to raze the mansion and build a mini-mall instead.
Born: Chatham, N.J.
Moved to Sarasota: 1982
Lives in: Uplands neighborhood
Fun fact: She doesn’t watch TV. She was given one, but it stays in a closet. “It’s the only way I’ve gotten anything done in my life,” she says.
Past accomplishment: When Benz lived in New Jersey, she got involved with a small group of concerned residents who wanted to conserve the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, a 55-mile area with unique native habitats. The group had to fight the New York Port Authority from developing the land into an airport. This endeavor got her involved in conservation and long-range planning.
“In the Northeast, the cultural values are that citizens get involved in government,” Benz said. “If you have the capabilities to do something, you can do something that most people say is impossible.”