Longboat Key’s traffic may have eased up in the offseason, but the news certainly didn’t. Major developments have been afoot underfoot while you, our snowbird friends, were in cooler climes. (Yes, some of us may be jealous. How’s the weather been down here you ask? Well, not to be hyperbolic, but practically volcanic!)
Nowadays, even May through October, Longboat Key keeps humming along, so we don’t want you to feel left out when the conversations turns to local happenings. That’s why we’ve put together this rundown of some of the top stories you may have missed while you were elsewhere.
So welcome back, but before we dive in, you should know it’s easier than ever to keep a finger on the pulse of paradise because while you were away, the Observer rolled out its own app for smartphone, tablet and desktop users, featuring an enhanced reading experience. Of course you can always read the latest on YourObserver.com, but with the app you can even have Observer articles narrated for you to listen to!
And one other piece of Observer news: You may notice some new faces on the Key taking notes and documenting all they see. This offseason, the Longboat Observer welcomed Carter Weinhofer and Petra Rivera aboard as its news reporter and community reporter, respectively.
So here's some of what they reported that you may have missed.
1. The big blow-by
For about two solid weeks, there was one word on everyone’s minds: Idalia. The tropical storm, then hurricane seemed at times like it might chart a course right for Longboat Key and Sarasota. Sandbag stations on the Key were crowded as Idalia approached, and on Aug. 28 evacuation orders began. Soon the entire Key was under evacuation orders in advance of the storm.
But the Category 4 hurricane brushed past the area, diverting north through the gulf before making landfall Aug. 30 in the Big Bend area of Florida.
Although Longboat Key was spared a direct hit, it didn’t escape completely unscathed. Storm surge from Idalia combined with a king tide to inundate areas of Longboat Key and flood St. Armands Circle and Sarasota’s bayfront. Several boats around the Key were damaged or shoved ashore.
And then another wait began. The wait to return home. Emergency responders were hard at work restoring access to the barrier islands, but with the Circle underwater and both bridges closed, residents had no way of knowing what they would find. Gradually the waters receded, with Cortez Bridge and Longboat Pass Bridge reopening before the Ringling Bridge.
Some 400 Longboat Key residents lost power, according to Florida Power & Light, which many had thought the town’s undergrounding project might have prevented. But another question remained. What happened to the St. Armands Circle pump system and why couldn’t it cope with Idalia’s glancing blow?
The transformers were never meant to be submerged, as Robert Gaddis, director of FPL’s Storm Secure Underground Program, explained.
Gaddis said he doesn’t think there will ever be a type of underground transformer system that could be 100% submerged and remain energized.
“This system is the best we can put in, but it’s not perfect, and there’s going to be failures,” Gaddis said.
FPL assured town commissioners on Sept. 26 that the utility company would know more once its investigation concludes in the coming months.
Similarly, the pump network on St. Armands couldn’t keep up with what Sarasota County Public Works Director Spencer Anderson called “a perfect storm.”
The combination of king tide and storm surge during Idalia breached seawalls around the key, overwhelming the system as pumps failed when low-lying electrical panels in the system became submerged.
To make matters worse, a vehicle crashed into a pump station the night before, leaving the station inoperable.
On the bright side, Sarasota County figured out a solution shortly after Idalia departed.
“When the (pump system) was originally constructed, there was significant demand by the community to make the system as low profile as possible,” Anderson said. “We did that and mounted the electrical control panels fairly low to the ground, and we found out that's not a good idea. We are looking to raise those electrical panels to a higher elevation to hopefully avoid a similar flooding of those electrical components in the future.”
3. The great compromise
You may recall hearing something about a little parking garage before you left for the summer.
Who are we kidding? Based on our inboxes from those spring months, the St. Regis Longboat Key Resort parking garage was on everyone’s mind, and it’s occupied a large portion of Longboat’s mindshare for two years now. Which is perhaps unsurprising, because as the developer behind the project said in 2021, “(The St. Regis) is going to be the nucleus of this town.”
The latest plan under consideration for the St. Regis hotel parking was a multistory garage with landscaping to “screen” the structure from view of neighbors and passersby on Gulf of Mexico Drive.
But Longboaters wanted to know: Would the nucleus’ parking garage be an eyesore or would the landscape screening work as advertised? Would it have enough spaces to prevent overflow problems? Was this solitary parking garage destined to be the straw that broke little Longboat’s back and irreversibly altered the barrier island’s character?
Speaking of parking, last season some folks got a little heated about Bayfront Park pickleball players taking up all the car placement pavement.
It seemed as though there simply weren’t enough spots to go around to meet demand. Because as several Longboaters pointed out, there’s a lot more to Bayfront Park than just pickleball courts. Some people come for the beach access, others for the yoga and varied class offerings, not to mention the kayak access and bay walk or playground.
In March of this year, Public Works added six spots followed by three more in July. In September, Public Works added five more spaces by the dog park. That’s 14 new spaces, a 23% increase in parking since 2017. Not too shabby. But wait, there’s more!
Director of Public Works Isaac Brownman brought a heck of a deal to the Town Commission’s Sept. 26 workshop — a draft lease from Frontier Communications to utilize 10-14 spots on Frontier’s property, which is located near the center of Bayfront Park.
The town wouldn’t have to pay for parking in the arrangement. So what’s Public Works' end of the bargain? Trim the weeds and pick up the trash.
“We thought that’s a fantastic deal,” Brownman said.
5. Goin’ round the twist
Just before many of you left for the offseason, we took a parting shot (departing shot?) that riled up more than a few readers.
In our April 1 edition we fooled a number of you with a story about a new initiative to reverse the direction of Sarasota’s roundabouts.
It was a joke.
But we’ve answered enough of your concerned phone calls to have learned our lesson: DO. NOT. JOKE. ABOUT. THE ROUNDABOUTS.
As penance, myself and the rest of the Longboat and Sarasota observers’ staff begin each Wednesday morning by filling one chalkboard each with the following: “I will never joke about the roundabouts again.”
For the record, one should proceed counterclockwise through the roundabouts.
Here’s the good news, and it’s no joke. The Gulfstream roundabout is complete. No more construction, at least not at the new roundabout at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue.
Will it solve the bayfront traffic conundrum? In theory traffic should proceed in smoother fashion now. And before you kvetch about the traffic circles, consider this, according to the Federal Highway Administration:
“The net result of lower speeds and reduced conflicts at roundabouts is an environment where crashes that cause injury or fatality are substantially reduced.
“Roundabouts are not only a safer type of intersection, they are also efficient. ... Furthermore, the lower vehicular speeds and reduced conflict environment can create a more suitable environment for walking and bicycling.”
So slow down and enjoy the view — there’s worse places to get caught in traffic. (February in Vancouver comes to mind.)
6. Let’s gather!
Your timing couldn’t be better if you’ve just returned to Longboat Key. On Saturday, Nov. 11, the Karon Family Pavilion at the Town Center Green will be officially unveiled and host its inaugural event. The Veterans Day unveiling kicks off at 3 p.m. with a ribbon cutting, color guard and the national anthem. The Sarasota Orchestra also will be performing at the town center dedication event.
The groundbreaking was only a year ago, but now Longboat Key has something it has sorely needed: a true public event and park space — in other words, a place to gather.
The new stage is just beginning, though. Planning and discussion is already under way for third phase of the Town Center Green, which looks to include a Sarasota County public library. The county set aside $1 million in its fiscal year 2024 budget for design of the space.
Community input discussions for the phase 3 development will take place in early 2024. In the meantime, the Sarasota County Pop-up Library will be making regular appearances on the Key.
Other events on tap for the Town Center Green include the Market on Longboat Key, held one Monday a month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Market will host a variety of vendors, food trucks, music and local artists. The dates planned for 2023 and 2024 are Dec. 11, Jan. 15, Feb. 12, March 11 and April 15.
7. What’s in a bubble?
If you thought Longboat Key real estate was headed for a correction this offseason, think again! Slow-down, what slow-down? Rising interest rates? Never heard of ‘em.
While insurance companies question the wisdom of building houses on a narrow strip of sand in the Gulf of Mexico, luxury homebuyers remain undeterred and as a result still more record real estate listings closed this summer. Two of them in a single day, in fact.
On June 1, a house at 622 S. Owl Drive sold for $9.75 million, claiming the record for the highest residential sale ever recorded on Bird Key — briefly. Because later that same day, the neighboring house, 626 S. Owl Drive sold for $11.25 million. Practically a bargain after being listed at $12 million.
There were a number of big-ticket sales on Longboat this summer, with the highest single-family home sale of 2023 (so far) closing at $9.45 million for the 4,820-square-foot property with four bedrooms, four-and-a-half bathrooms, a four-car garage and a pool. It’s located at 6877 Gulf of Mexico Drive.
It seems likely that the record book will need rewriting, because a handful of Longboat Key homes under construction appear headed for list prices of $17 million or above.
The record for the Key was set in 2020 with the $16.5 million sale of the Serenissima estate located at 845 Longboat Club Road. That 19,000-square-foot home included luxury features like a grand salon that can accommodate 100 people, a 10-seat home theater, a sun room alongside the pool and a five-car garage.
What do sea turtles, seabirds and old power lines have in common?
All were the cause of delays to the Greer Island Spit Management Project. Or, as rising news reporter Carter Weinhofer had to learn: it's just called the Beer Can Island dredging project.
The $1.2 million dredging project was supposed to start in May, but nesting sea birds caused an initial delay. Then, in the heat of sea turtle season, these marine creatures also decided to make Beer Can Island a nesting spot.
Mote Marine Laboratory researchers acquired permits to relocate any other nests that popped up, but dredging crews needed to wait until the already-laid nests hatched. This pushed the start of the project to mid-July.
Public Works Program Manager Charlie Mopps said another issue caused a slight hiccup: old, sunken power lines. This sounded the alarms, but it was later deduced that the power lines were remnants and would not be an issue for the project.
“I’m not going to say that it was easy, but it wasn’t as difficult as it could be,” Mopps said.
The project wrapped up on Sept. 7. Now, Canal 1A is traversable, which restored riparian rights for boat owners in the area.
Sand gradually creeps along the shore and has continued to block access to Channel 1A off of Beer Can Island. It's not the first time this has happened, but this time Public Works officials hope it'll stick.
This latest dredge removed 19,000 cubic yards of sand from the area of Beer Can Island. The sand was moved upshore, toward the groins placed perpendicular to the North end beaches. This, Mopps said, should lengthen the time in between maintenance dredging. Fingers crossed.
9. Nice to meet you
Longboat Observer reporters Carter Weinhofer and Petra Rivera aren't the only fresh faces you'll see around Longboat this season.
The newly adopted budget for fiscal year 2024 included an addition of seven full-time town staff positions. That, combined with significant investments in police and fire department salaries and benefits, created an increase in the town's budget.
Nevertheless, the approved budget added a grants coordinator, IT security analyst, IT business analyst, logistics coordinator for the Fire Rescue Department, a plans examiner/building inspector, a parks service worker and an additional finance employee.
Grants Coordinator Kalee Shaberts hit the ground running, implementing a more streamlined grants application process for the town and submitted numerous grants.
There's also Ron Scott, the town's new IT security analyst. His main job is like a cyber bodyguard for the town's network. Day-to-day tasks vary for Scott, but his main focus is to enhance the town's cybersecurity.
Tara Pavgouzas put her 26-year career with the Philadelphia Police Department behind her and moved to Sarasota. Now, she's the new logistics officer for the Longboat Key Fire Rescue Department, taking stock of the department's resources and making processes more efficient.
In the Planning, Zoning and Building Department, Elma Felix took over the position of planning manager. This isn't one of the new positions, but Felix said she has found Longboat Key to be the perfect fit for this next chapter in her career. She has an admiration for Longboat residents' passion for preserving the character of the island.
If you see any of these fresh faces around this season, make sure to say hi!
10. Rise of the machines
No one saw it coming. At least not until the construction tape went up around a conspicuously large area near the entrance of Longboat Key’s Publix.
The tape is gone now, and in its place lie the hallmarks of the relentless march of technocratic efficiency.
Yes, the Publix Super Market at Shoppes of Bay Isles now has self-checkouts available for customers.
The machines, cold and calculating, are always open for business and never need a sick day. However, the standard checkout lanes are still open for customers with the social skills and leisure to enjoy a more personal shopping experience.
Of course, we’re just kidding. When the checkout lines are all 10 or 15 deep and we’ve got a quart of ice cream sweating on its way to becoming a milkshake we’re apt to bolt for whichever checkout line will shuffle us to the exit fastest. Unless we snagged a spoon on our way past the salad bar. If you don’t mind a raised eyebrow, there’s a sweet satisfaction in paying for an empty carton of Cherry Garcia.
Bonus: A star is born
This summer a golden retriever melted hearts when he befriended a manatee off the coast of Longboat Key.
Mochi’s owners parked their boat to do a little fishing one day in early August. Toni and Dan Pavlovich explained Mochi loves a bit of fishing, too, because he likes to hold fish in his mouth for a bit, with a soft bite, before releasing them.
But on this particular afternoon a manatee floated up to Mochi. For 10 minutes, the golden retriever and manatee “booped noses.” The manatee would come to the surface, and Mochi would touch his nose to the manatee’s snout. Then, the manatee swam away.
But an hour later, the manatee returned to play some more with Mochi. The two hung around the back of the boat, touching noses and blowing bubbles.
The resulting photos, video and story were a hit with Sarasota and Longboat readers, who shared the story all over social media. The result was one of the Observer’s most read and shared stories year to date.
James Peter is the managing editor of the Longboat and Sarasota Observers. He has worked in journalism in a variety of newsroom roles and as a freelance writer for over a decade. Before joining the Observer, he was based in Montana and Colorado.
Carter Weinhofer is the Longboat Key news reporter for the Observer. Originally from a small town in Pennsylvania, he moved to St. Petersburg to attend Eckerd College until graduating in 2023. During his entire undergraduate career, he worked at the student newspaper, The Current, holding positions from science reporter to editor-in-chief.