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How's this for "good governance"?

Supporters pack Siesta Key town hall for incorporation effort

Derek Gilliam Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Hundreds of Siesta Key residents packed a local church Wednesday night to tell area lawmakers they support the island's incorporation into its own town. The large meeting room at Siesta Key Chapel did not have enough space to contain the crowd that showed up.

People watched through open windows after all the chairs filled. Others crammed into the building, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in any available space.

Some organizers estimated the crowd inside and outside was about 500 people, but the Herald-Tribune could not verify that number.

State Sen. Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota) started the meeting with a show of hands for who in the crowd did and did not support incorporation.

Previous Siesta Key coverage:Group of Siesta Key residents file paperwork to form the Town of Siesta Key More:First Siesta Key hotel project takes step forward despite outpouring of opposition And:Second Siesta Key Hotel moves forward after special exceptions approved by Planning Commission

A couple of hands peeked through the crowd when he asked for those who were undecided or support keeping the island as part of unincorporated Sarasota County.

A flood of hands then erupted with an explosion of cheers when it came for supporters of the incorporation to signal their intentions.

What followed was at times an emotional outpouring of frustration with Sarasota County's elected officials, as speaker after speaker shared simmering outrage over land use issues, a lack of responsiveness to topics Siesta Key residents feel are important, and an inability to alter what some see as predetermined outcomes.

Barbara Lancing was one of the first speakers of the night. She and her husband own commercial property on Siesta Key, and while the recent changes to the development code that removed a cap on the number of hotel rooms allowed on an acre of property would benefit them, they are strongly in favor of incorporation.

She noted to the crowd and members of Sarasota County's legislative delegation that since that change, she's received “offers you wouldn't believe” for the nearly two acres of commercial property she owns on the barrier island.

“We need to stop this, and we need to get the power with the people and representation for ourselves or this island will be lost forever,” she said.

Harry Anand, a board member of Save Siesta Key Inc., has been organizing the incorporation effort since earlier this year.

He noted that because Siesta Key has just 1.5% of the total population of Sarasota County, islanders don't have the voting power to impact change at the county level. He told the state officials that it wasn't just land-use issues, listing off code enforcement, a lack of collaboration with the Sheriff's Office, and “illegal hotel houses” as other topics of concern to residents.

Anand compared the taxable value on Siesta Key, which he put at 28% of all assessed value in Sarasota County, to the population of the island, noting he believes a municipal government could be created with the lowest property tax rate in the state of Florida since Siesta Key had such a large tax base.

“We feel that local residents who live on this island can be better stewards of this island,” he said.

He also tried to counter the viewpoint that Siesta Key forming into a new town ran contrary to conservatism, even though residents inside the incorporated town would see a tax increase, albeit an increase residents vote on and impose on themselves.

“True conservatism is driven by the love of what you have, but at the same time tempered by the fear that it could all disappear,” he said. “That's why we are all here. We love what we have, and what we are seeing right in front of our eyes is the fear that this will all disappear.”

Lawmakers split on incorporation push

For the incorporation effort to become successful, a majority of the area's six-member legislative delegation must support the effort, then the Florida Legislature would have to pass a bill that would then need to be signed by the governor.

After that, a majority of registered voters inside the proposed town would have to vote in support of a referendum.

State Rep. Fiona McFarland (R-Sarasota) said at the beginning of the meeting the decision to incorporate was a big decision, one she wanted to make sure was not being taken only in anger.

By the end of the meeting, she said she would vote in support and sponsor the bill in the Florida House of Representatives.

Gruters also noted he would vote in support of the incorporation effort when it goes to the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation in early January.

“I'm with you, and I'm a yes vote,” he said.

The other two elected officials in attendance were not as convinced.

Rep. Tommy Gregory, a Republican representing parts of eastern Sarasota and Manatee counties, said he was a hard no when he walked into the meeting, but that he was keeping an open mind.

He also said that even if the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation votes in support, he believes that the bill will not get a hearing before the full bodies of the Florida House and Senate, as there are many “fiscal conservatives” in the Legislature.

“I want to tell you that now so you have it in the back of your brain,” he said to a crowd that booed and yelled. “You could get a victory at Sarasota County at your delegation, the bills could get filed and not move.”

Rep. Will Robinson, the chairman for the Sarasota County Legislation Delegation, said he had been criticized for not scheduling a vote on the issue.

“This has a very very steep hill to climb in the Legislature,” he said. “If we do not go about the process right way, it will not get through.”

He told the crowd he couldn't tell them how he would vote because he has not gotten all the information but called what he heard “incredible information.”

He did tell the crowd that he has scheduled a meeting where the delegation will have a vote on the issue of Siesta Key incorporation at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 4 at the Sarasota County Commission chambers.

Rep. James Buchanan, a Republican who represents southern Sarasota County, and Rep. Michele Rayner, a Democrat who represents parts of Hillsborough, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota counties, were not in attendance.

If both Robinson and Gregory do not vote for the incorporation, the effort would need Buchanan and Rayner to vote in support before it could get a hearing in the Florida Legislature.

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