As county commissioners work to alleviate traffic on the Key, truly resolving the problem could take more than 140 new parking spaces.
The parking problem on Siesta Key is almost as well-known locally as the island’s standing as America’s No. 1 Beach.
With about 3.5 square miles to work with, the roads and parking lots jam up early and often, particularly on weekends and holidays.
The problem hasn’t gone unnoticed by county commissioners, who recently discussed options for how to address the problem. They’ll talk about them after the recess ends in August. So far, the consensus among commissioners and residents is that a single approach isn’t going to make a difference in the onslaught of cars on the Key, and a multifaceted approach may be the only chance for a solution. The following are some of the remedies discussed.
A new parking lot — on the Key
County Commissioner Al Maio wants a new parking lot, and he has just the place for it: 6647 Midnight Pass Road, a parcel shared by Sarasota County Utilities and the Sheriff’s Office.
The Sheriff’s Office vacates the property in October, and Maio hopes to turn part of the property into a public parking lot with about 140 spaces.
Earlier this year, the County Commission voted unanimously not to sell the land, and unanimously approved the utility department’s recommendation that the land be used unintrusively, which Maio said is perfect for a lot.
“I’m going to do my very best to make sure this doesn’t fail,” Maio told The Observer.
Not so fast, say his fellow commissioners.
“We need to quit creating more parking because all more parking does is bring more cars,” said Commissioner Charles Hines. “Adding more parking to bring more cars over those two bridges is not a solution. We have to figure out a way to encourage people not to drive onto the Key and make it painful to drive on to the Key, and make it convenient and free to park your car somewhere else.”
Members of the Siesta Key Association, though, indicated their approval for the new lot in a survey last year.
“I believe it’s painful enough on Siesta Key to find a parking spot,” said Mark Smith, Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce chair.
In the past two years, Maio said, 178 parking spaces have been added at Siesta Beach and Turtle Beach, but as spots are added, more people are coming to the Key.
“You could pave Siesta Key and you still wouldn’t have enough parking,” Smith said. “It’s just the way it is.”
A new parking lot — off the Key
Another option would be establishing a new public parking lot off the Key and potentially extending the trolley’s route to include the lot.
This seems to be the solution that most are leaning toward — it would resolve Hines’ concerns about bringing more cars onto the Key, and meet Siesta Key Association President Harold Ashby and Smith’s goals of alleviating traffic.
“The difficulty is finding the space,” Ashby said. “It can’t be out by (Interstate) 75, obviously.”
Smith half-joked that he would be in favor of the county buying the Benderson property — a controversial parcel at Stickney Point Road and U.S. 41 where the developer is hoping to build a mix of apartments, hotels and shopping centers — to put a parking lot. Commissioners have not publicly considered that possibility.
Additionally, transporting people to and from the Key presents a problem. The Breeze Trolley only runs up and down the Key, stopping anywhere passengers want, but doesn’t extend over the bridges. Sarasota County Area Transit offers a bus route that runs on and off Siesta Key on Monday through Saturday, but not on major holidays and Sundays.
Commissioner Michael Moran also cautioned that to ask people to leave their cars miles away is something that requires “incredible trust.”
Charging for parking
Commissioners discussed the possibility of charging for parking at existing public lots and using the proceeds to fund the Breeze Trolley, and the possibility that only visitors could be charged for parking. Commission Chairman Paul Caragiulo said he’s already had people approach him and ask why parking on the Key is still free.
“People are offering to pay, they’re so fond of the spot,” he said.
Ashby hesitantly agrees, suggesting that proceeds from paid parking be put toward improving the Key in other ways.
“Personally I think that paid parking should be studied, only in the sense that whatever money is raised from paid parking should go to alleviate parking issues, traffic issues and upkeep on the beach.”
Smith, however, is hesitant to go down that route.
“That’s a nuclear war. I’m not sure I want to go there,” he said. “If the good commissioner wants to pursue it, that’s fine. But I believe that the residents, the property owners of Sarasota County, should always have free parking at the beach.”
More private parking lots
Several entrepreneurs have thought of adding private lots on the Key and charging for parking.
Davidson Plaza, along Ocean Boulevard in the Village, charges visitors $4 an hour if they’re not patronizing one of the stores on the property.
Two months ago, an applicant sought county approval to build two parking lots on Siesta Key — one in the Village and one on Beach Road.
A 35-space lot where visitors are charged $5 to park is estimated to bring in hundreds of thousands in revenue each year.
“The visitors have a place to park — they don’t mind spending $10, $15 knowing they have a space,” Smith told The Observer. “The property owner makes the money. ... I think it’s a great idea.”
A parking garage
Though the possibility of adding a parking garage was raised, commissioners were quick to point out that their constituents probably wouldn’t approve.
“If anyone wants to build several large parking structures, they will witness my demise for proposing that,” Maio said. “No one wants them next to their home.”
Ashby also pointed out how expensive it would be and how hard a garage would be to fit into the island’s aesthetic. Land-use obstacles and zoning also would be troublesome, he said.