The population of Venice jumped by about 25% over the last decade, to about 25,463 according to Census data. It’s no surprise then growth and development remain key issues of debate in City Council races this year.
This November, Council member Helen Kirchner Moore faces a challenge by Sandy Sibley for her District 3 seat. Meanwhile, candidates Jim Boldt, Jen Lewis and Chris Simmons will battle it out for an open Seat 4 office. Florida Politics spoke to candidates about their vision for the Sarasota County municipality’s future.
Both Relators in Venice, Moore and Sibley have spent time on the opposite sides of the transaction table and now go head-to-head on the city ballot.
Moore spent five years on the Venice Planning Commission before being elected to the City Council three years ago. As she seeks a second term on the board, she hopes voters value that experience.
“With experience you know what you can and cannot do, and you know individual City Council members should not have private, pet politics and come with axes to grind,” Moore said.
But Sibley, unsurprisingly, feels what the city needs now is a change of perspective at City Hall.
“There are differences between us and I plan to bring a lot for the voters and the population of Venice,” Sibley said.
Sibley believes the top issue in the city is implementation of development regulations because of the possibility of buildings taller than five stories coming into downtown Venice. She said the beachfront downtown remains a treasure in the small community, and more should be done to preserve its character. She still recalls the first time visiting the area as she looked for a Florida home.
“Honestly, when you drive onto Venice Avenue across that bridge into downtown, it’s an immediate reaction,” she said. “I knew this is a piece of Old Florida I want to live in.”
But Moore said protections for the character of downtown exist. As the city creates land development regulations that fully enforce the comprehensive plan, one updated during her time on the Planning Commission, there’s a possibility buildings could be allowed a minimal amount more height but that’s in exchange for stricter requirements in planning at the ground level.
“There is a lot of misinformation around land development,” Moore said. “The sizes of buildings are limited. Those changes would add a couple inches higher buildings downtown than what is now the limit but at the same time we will remove exceptions and variances.”
Sibley for her part doesn’t offer much specific criticism of Moore except to say she doesn’t voice enough opinions or clearly iterate her positions at the dais. Moore feels strongly the city has been on the right course for most of the past decade, particularly financially. While she’s critical of Mayor Ron Feinsod and worried about more politicians arriving with messages that don’t involve city politics, she feels proud of the direction Venice is headed.
When Vice Mayor Rich Cautero elected not to seek a third term, it left an opening on the Council. Three candidates, Boldt, Lewis and Simmons, are vying for the Seat 4 post.
Boldt also sees growth as a major issue for the city but believes the community has done well reaching the point it is at today.
“The City of Venice, while it has done a fantastic job of keeping up and staying ahead, will have a challenge moving forward,” he said.
With 5,000 homes coming online in the immediate future, the city expects explosive growth in coming years and must bolster infrastructure to keep up. That can be done, he believes, while preserving a clean and healthy environment with a high quality of life intact.
“We are going to have growth no matter what and we should embrace it. It’s good for the city,” Boldt said. “But we need to stay two steps ahead of infrastructure needs so we don’t scramble to spend a lot more money than we have to to make things right.”
Lewis, also a real estate agent in the region, said it was a love of nature that led her to live in Venice and she’s running to address the challenges in the waterfront community. That most notably includes combatting red tide.
“We can as a city stop polluting with fertilizers and septic in the intercoastal and Gulf of Mexico,” she said.
An avid paddleboarder, Lewis believes the natural environment to be what draws many, including herself, to the community in the fist place. But she couldn’t hit the water moving here in 2018 because of historic red tides. A few years later, more algal blooms made it impossible for months this year to hit the water.
But she also believes the city isn’t doing enough to preserve historic buildings and character.
“We have way too many historic smaller original homes being torn down with cookie-cutter McMansions going up on postage-stamp-sized lots,” she said.
Both moved to Venice in recent years but have visited for more than a decade. Boldt ran a business in Atlanta before moving here and spent a career in chemicals. Lewis worked in radio and billboard advertising, primarily in Minnesota and later Tampa. Both are also first-time candidates.
Simmons, a retired counter-intelligence agent, also filed for the seat and is running on an environmental agenda. He penned a piece for the Venice Gondolier on how voters could “protect our little piece of paradise. In that, he said he had left a life in a sprawling Virginia community and didn’t want to see unsustainable growth hurt his new hometown.
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports he was also active in Hands Along the Water, a 2018 effort to draw attention to the harmful impacts of red tide.
A fourth candidate previously filed for the seat. Ronald Courtney withdrew his candidacy and his name will not appear on the ballot.