Organizers leading a push to turn Siesta Key into its own town have finished the first stage of their campaign. Next up: convincing state officials to buy into their cause.
If the group Save Siesta Key is successful in its campaign to incorporate the barrier island, the new municipal government would be led by a five-member Town Commission, an elected body whose members draw no salary.
The Siesta Key government would employ five people: a town manager, a finance director, a clerk, a planner and an administrative assistant. The town budget would be $3.7 million in its first year. The government would be charged with adopting a code of ordinances and foundational land use documents. Officials would also need to formalize agreements with Sarasota County and the sheriff's office to maintain existing essential services pertaining to streets, utilities, parks and law enforcement.
These are the details outlined in Save Siesta Key’s proposed town charter and feasibility study, submitted to the state ahead of a Sept. 1 deadline for consideration. After completing that task, Save Siesta Key leaders are focusing on the next step of their campaign, a Sept. 30 presentation to Sarasota’s delegation of state legislators.
If Save Siesta Key is successful, voters will ultimately decide the question of whether Siesta Key should form its own government. But to get to that point, the group must get legislators to sponsor and pass a bill authorizing an incorporation referendum. Incorporation isn’t a particularly common occurrence: Florida has added 11 new municipalities in the 21st century, and only two were created since 2006.
Still, Save Siesta Key is optimistic about finding a receptive audience in the local legislative delegation. Harry Anand, a resident and member of the Save Siesta Key board of directors, said elected officials have indicated they have an open mind about the proposal in preliminary conversations.
“They understand our concerns,” Anand said. “They understand why this would be important not only for Siesta Key, but for the rest of the region.”
Focused local control
The design of the town charter and proposed government speaks to the issues that are fueling the drive to incorporate Siesta Key.
The feasibility study states the town would be focused on ensuring planning and zoning on the island is consistent with the desires of residents. Save Siesta Key formed in response to four proposed hotel developments on the island that have drawn outspoken opposition from residents. In August and September, the first two of those projects to go before the county’s Planning Commission both came away with endorsements from the advisory board.
“Our goal is to have a say in our land use,” said Tracy Jackson, a Save Siesta Key board member. “That’s where a majority of people are upset — the decisions that have been made for our community that have been made by people who don’t live in our community.”
As part of the application to the state, Save Siesta Key attempted to quantify that sentiment. In a non-random online survey of 500 residents, 94.9% of respondents expressed interest in incorporation, and 89.6% said they did not currently feel represented in decisions affecting Siesta Key. More than 1,800 people have signed petitions in support of an incorporation referendum, and Save Siesta Key hopes to hit 2,000 before meeting with the local delegation.
Jackson said the displeasure on Siesta Key dates back long before the hotel proposals. She cited the dredging of Big Pass and the approval of the Siesta Promenade development on the mainland near the south bridge as other major points of contention between residents and county officials.
“The hotels are really the last log on the fire for many people,” Jackson said.
Anand said that as Sarasota County has grown, the weight of input from Siesta Key residents has diminished. Rather than a rebellion against county leaders, Anand framed incorporation as a strategy for creating a lower layer of government that’s more attuned to the specific needs of the island.
“Siesta Key has become a much smaller portion of the overall county, and we feel the local residents — who live here, who walk the beach every day — would be able to better represent and nourish this crown jewel that we have, that we all cherish,” Anand said.
Although Save Siesta Key said residents are receptive to the idea of incorporation, Jackson acknowledged some pushback. She said the majority of the questions the group has received has focused on the prospect of a property tax increase to fund town operations.
“People want to go: ‘What’s going to happen; are my taxes going to go up?’” Jackson said. “‘How much more is that going to cost me?’”
The group’s application proposes establishing a .25-mill property tax for the Siesta Key government in addition to levies to maintain existing county services. Save Siesta Key said the average cost associated with the local tax for a homeowner on the island would be $97.65 annually.
In hopes of winning support from residents, the group sought to minimize the expenses associated with incorporation. Under the proposed “government lite” model, Siesta Key officials would primarily focus on planning, zoning and code enforcement. Sheriff Kurt Hoffman already affirmed his office would be able to maintain its levels of service following incorporation, and Jackson is confident the same will prove true for other county operations.
The two most recently created Florida municipalities also use a government-lite model: Westlake, a planned community in Palm Beach County, and Estero, a Lee County village that incorporated in response to annexation efforts in nearby Bonita Springs. The origin story behind those places is different than the one driving Siesta Key, and Jackson acknowledged that getting the legislature behind an incorporation is a challenging task.
Still, six months after Save Siesta Key formed, Jackson thinks the group has put together a compelling case.
“I do feel that we have gone above and beyond everything that is required,” Jackson said.
Next, state legislators will decide whether they agree with that assessment. If they don’t, the incorporation campaign will have fallen short for now. If they do, the proposal will head to Siesta Key residents for consideration at the ballot box.
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