Longboat Key: Will our future be as bright?

Editor & Publisher

Longboat Key is an experiment in perfection — like God getting the perfect haircut.

Intrinsically, Longboat Key is a place of surreal beauty  — the curve of the shore along Beer Can Island, the wandering paths in Durante Park, the views of Sarasota from New Pass and the constant dance between sunlight, sunset, clouds and water create a symphony that makes you want to stop the car and stare in awe. In fact, Longboat Key is as beautiful and sensual as a lover in the evening light.

And like a sensual lover in evening light, we always want to come back for more.

And while this beauty is partly natural and intrinsic, it is also by careful and very controlled design. And that is where the good feeling is rapidly coming to a halt. We are at a crossroads, a turning point, in maintaining what makes Longboat Key unique, precious and commanding of the very highest property values.


The Island of No

First, let us look at the some of the attitudes, the laws and the values that helped create the Longboat Key we enjoy today. Then let’s look at how some of these values are slipping, eroding and in some cases are under complete assault.

To anyone who wanted to build, we were known by many as the “Island of no.” And that “no” attitude extended instinctively as a community to many realms.

It meant no to tall condos — we self-consciously wanted to not look like Fort Lauderdale. In fact, Murf Klauber and Herb Field started the Colony under a self-imposed building code of no building taller than the tallest palm tree.

It was this attitude that would have reflexively said “no” to any Key Club redevelopment plan that added a wall of condos along New Pass, or an over-built Hilton site.

We are today twisting our land-use laws and parking and open space regulations around to accommodate additional units at the Hilton. On its face, it is great to add to the business vibrancy of the Key. But few seem concerned about the outcome. Few seem concerned about the idea that more density and building on a site traditionally equates with a lower room rate and a diminished experience for the high-end guest. So we are trading down?


Is it disturbing you?

Longboat always said “no” to adding endless streams of traffic. The idea of sitting in front of the Key Club for 20 minutes in season staring at the BP station was seen as not a good use of time, not a desired signifier of strong business.

Additionally, we said “no” to development applications that did anything to strip away open space, encroached on a view, or might disturb residential neighborhoods.

And take the Mar Vista development proposal: we are contemplating continued expansion in dining seats, and yet recently relaxed the number of spaces needed per patron. In West Palm Beach, the Hamptons and Sag Harbor, one space is required per three restaurant seats. We demand far less at one space per four seats.

In other words, protecting the residential property values and the integrity of that community is paramount in ultra high-end communities. We are moving the Bradenton Beach and Clearwater Beach direction of continuously watering down requirements and employing a pro-development planning and zoning board that vets proposals by saying “yes.”

Now let’s move onto an issue we all might have to unfortunately stare at someday — cell towers.


Towering in front of you…

Today we have a cell tower policy so strict it is the legislative equivalent of saying you can only have a child by virgin birth. Unfortunately, that, too, is under assault.

In Nantucket, the Hamptons, Sag Harbor and most premier towns, the limits are, strict and clear and written into the code.

We are in the middle of passing new telecommunications law that removes any height limitations on cell towers in the Comprehensive Plan. We are going to say that cell towers are not governed by the height limitations within the zoning districts they reside. Then we are going to create a hierarchy for consideration that puts cell towers at the bottom of the list. That part is smart and if the criteria are followed, will work.

But the problem is we are proposing allowing cell towers of up to 110 feet. All of the communities I have spoken about — communities all with superior property values than ours — use clear and definite language that is far more restrictive.

We should absolutely import the type of language into our evolving codes that has served these other top-tier towns. Take the following opening language from the Sag Harbor, New York, Telecommunications regulations:

“The Telecommunications Act of 1996 affirmed the Village of Sag Harbor’s authority concerning the placement, construction and modification of wireless telecommunications facilities. The Village finds that wireless telecommunications facilities may pose significant concerns to the health, safety, public welfare, historic character, aesthetic qualities and environment of the Village and its inhabitants.”

The whole tone is one of control and preservation of values. Then their code stipulates:

“The applicant shall furnish a visual impact assessment, which shall include: A Zone of Visibility Map, which shall be provided in order to determine locations from which the wireless telecommunications facility may be seen.”

This is something that should be an absolute requirement of any tower applicant on Longboat Key.

Then look how location is addressed:

“Towers shall be permitted only as a last alternative after all other transmission alternatives have been proven not to be effective to eliminate substantial gaps in service within the Village.”

“The Village may disapprove any site located provided that the Village finds that the proposed site is not in the best interest of the health, safety and welfare of the Village and its inhabitants and will have a deleterious effect on the aesthetic nature and character of the community, the neighborhood and on nearby property values. If the need for a new wireless telecommunications facility can be proven, the maximum permitted height of a wireless telecommunications facility shall be no higher than the minimum height necessary to eliminate substantial gaps in service within the Village, whether in whole or in part. In no event shall a tower be higher than 75 feet.”

Proposed towers and their associated equipment shall be set back a minimum of 110% of the height of the tower above finished grade from all property lines and existing structures.”

These are the most important two details — maximum height under any circumstance is 75 feet! And we have a narrow island, fewer hills and trees and we are contemplating allowing far taller towers despite property owners crying out against the idea.

And then other communities require that neighbors really be notified. Not just surrounding neighbors, but a real affected area.

“The applicant shall notify all landowners, in writing, whose property is located within 1,500 feet of any property line of the lot or parcel on which the new wireless telecommunications facilities are proposed to be located and any property owner or organization directly impacted by the proposed facility, as determined by the Board, by certified mail, return receipt requested, no less than 10 calendar days prior to the scheduled date of the public hearing.”

That says it all. If we are going to alter the rules that have kept towers off the Key, let’s be real about our feigned desire to find better alternatives. In other words, 75 feet should be the absolute maximum allowed and a view study should be paid by the applicant detailing the impact on every affected property owner. That is the Longboat Key we should and could be.


Fencing in trouble…

We once spoke of Longboat Key in the same breath as West Palm Beach, Marco Island, The Hamptons and Nantucket.

Think about this: in the past five years chain link fences are starting to divide Gulf of Mexico Drive and Country Club Shores. It is a metaphor for our movement from aesthetically superior and pristine roadway to the Pinellas Park look. All we need is a pit-bull mix jumping against that chain link fence and a shirtless 65-year-old with a beer belly yelling from the lanai to complete the view. We need to say “no” to exposed and unscreened chain link fences.


A warm, gross step in the wrong direction…

Then there is the issue of dog beaches. I have to start with the disclaimer: I love dogs and have a golden retriever and have had black labs most of my life as well. These, if anything, are real water dogs. And guess what, my dog laughs at he concept of lazy and lonely dog owners driving to the Gulf with their pet in the front seat with toe nail polish on to lay in a bassinette on the beach.

Most dog owners and dog lovers would always prefer to walk a dog at Quickpoint or Durante. If any area were to ever be considered to allow free roaming or dog swimming, these are the perfect spots. They have trails, are shaded and humans do not swim and walk barefoot there.

But the idea of dogs on our precious Gulf-front beaches is insane. Who wants to go for a swim and see their neighbor’s dog defecating on the sand 50 feet away? What if the neighbor defecated there as well and picked it up with a baggie? Is that much less gross?

Those who want a dog beach moment need to spend more time with there grandchildren and less time over-humanizing their pets and making weird demands that no dog would ever do in nature. Next they would want cute doggie bikini and Speedo contests at the doggy beach.


Dispatching our dispatch

Lastly, I want to talk about the possibility of the Town removing all dispatch services from Longboat Key and allowing Sarasota County to take over.

And this is where former Commissioners would have had very aristocratic instincts — we want to maintain control, never give up that control and exceed any level of service the County can offer.

One of the arguments for moving the service that I have heard is that we will set the level of service we want and the County will dispatch accordingly. In other words, we now send officers for many, many things most cities would not.

Today, when a resident returns home and calls and says, “I left my potted plant no the left side of my stoop and now it has moved to the right, can you send an officer out?” Vroom — Longboat Key is on the scene.

In Sarasota, the attitude today would be, “Why don’t you keep watching the potted plant and when you see some real criminal activity, call us back. ”

In other words we have developed and desire and are accustomed to a level of service that exceeds the County. That is my intrinsic fear: the cultural disparity between the County operations and Longboat Key. We clearly exceed them. It is like Mercedes trying to run its operation with Chrysler. They can guarantee all they want, but partnering with a bland institution that intrinsically provides a lower level of service for its constituents is worrisome.

And I trust our Town Manager and he is doing his due diligence on the issue. But I wish our Commission took a parallel path —one that puts Longboat Key truly first. That path is to ask our police chief and dispatch personnel that cost aside, what technology, tool or practice could take our existing services — every one of them and make them exceed what we are doing today.

The struggle should always be to do what we do better and better and then be willing to pay that price. That is a premier community and that is the kind of Town visitors want to become a part of.

And that goes to the heart of the issue — the crossroads so to speak.

Are we going to take every Town department, every code and every aspect of what we do as a community and make it stronger? Are we making our codes custom to Longboat or are we looking to the mainland for our future?

If that is the future and we do not continue to elevate levels of service and enhance our offerings on Longboat Key, a simple analysis of most every department over time will result in the same answer: The county can do it for less. That will go for emergency personnel and firefighting, police and pubic works and certainly for Information Technology and building services.

Think of this: if the level of service could be guaranteed, would we allow someone in Pakistan to dispatch our police and fire if they spoke clearly and accurately?

Some day it will be technologically feasible, and someday there will be a group who says, “Hey, if they can guarantee us the same level of service in some sort of performance contract, why not?”

It sounds melodramatic, but step-by-step, like a drip from a bad roof rotting a building, we are weakening our codes and diminishing the significance of what is truly a grand and noble and unique experiment — the Town of Longboat Key.

We trust our commissioners and our town staff to define Longboat Key in its most glorious and most valuable and distinct light. Protect our Key, do not initiate economic development experiments and relax codes in the guise of stimulating redevelopment. Chances are you are merely taking what is grand — our lovely island — a step closer to ordinary.

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1 Response for “Longboat Key: Will our future be as bright?”

  1. alan janssens says:

    Eventually, the citizens of Manatee County will realize …. this is their island too. There’s a new economic base to work on. Go Longboat!!!!

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