By Rachel Brown Hackney
On July 6, as the Sarasota County Commission held its third public hearing on proposed revisions to its Comprehensive Plan, five members of the public argued against a 4-1 vote the board took on May 11 to abandon a 360-foot segment of North Beach Road that has been closed to traffic since 1993 because of its deterioration. Four pleaded with the commissioners not to weaken the portion of the Comprehensive Plan dealing with vacation of road segments or access points on waterfronts, while two others — including one who has filed suit against the county over the North Beach Road action — urged the commissioners to revisit that specific decision.
Yet, only Commissioner Christine Robinson — who cast the “No” vote on May 11 — asked that the public record show her objection to the revision as part of the county’s 18-month effort to update the Comprehensive Plan. Late on July 6, the board voted unanimously to transmit to the state the plan, incorporating modifications it did approve that day. Following that state review, the document will be back before the board in late October for final adoption, Planning Division Manager Allen Parsons pointed out.
Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck of Control Growth Now told the board, “I’m shocked, quite frankly … at what you’re proposing to do to your Comprehensive Plan on the very policy that made illegal what this commission did in vacating [a part of North Beach Road] that provides beach access … and turning it over to private interests.” Michael Consentino, the Siesta resident who filed suit against the county in early June, had alerted him to the proposed change in language, Lobeck explained.
The current policy in the Parks section of the Comprehensive Plan says, “The County shall not vacate road segments on waterfronts along any creek, river, lake, bay or Gulf access point and shall encourage right-of-way use of these areas for coastal beach and bay access.” The proposed change — which would be Parks Policy 1.1.12 — says, “The County should not vacate road segments or access points on waterfronts along any beach, bay, creek, river, or lake, and should encourage public right-of way use of these areas for public shoreline and water access.”
Lobeck pointed to the fact that staff had proposed replacing “shall” with “should.” That “encourages you to do something as opposed to requiring it,” Lobeck said. “It’s sort of beyond my imagination that [the Comprehensive Plan revision] can happen,” Siesta resident Katie Hayes told the commissioners. “Shall” and “should,” she added, “are very different. … I don’t know how it can happen easily,” she continued, referring to the proposed update, “but I think you all should vote against it.”
As for North Beach Road, she continued, “I’m in favor of keeping [it] open.” Consentino himself said of the May 11 vote on the road abandonment, “I just think that you simply made a mistake on this. … I don’t think that there’s anything nefarious. … I’m going to try to help you see the light.”
When Consentino took the opportunity to offer further public comments on the afternoon of July 6, he told the board, “I’m pointing out that ‘shall’ is extremely important.” It should stay in the policy, he added, and not just because of his lawsuit.
Katie Gerhardt, who identified herself as a real estate appraiser and a Realtor, told the board that when she was a child growing up on Siesta Key, people could drive along Shell Road and look out over the Gulf of Mexico. Later, part of that road deteriorated and private property owners put up barricades to prevent public access, she continued. “Eventually, it was given to those property owners, and now we have lost that beautiful scenic drive.”
Referring to the North Beach Road segment, she added, “I believe that this stretch … is probably the only spot on Siesta Key we can drive by and see the beach and the Gulf up-close and personal.”
Lone dissent on the board
After Robinson lodged her objection to the proposed changes in the policy, Commissioner Charles Hines responded, “She’s baiting me …” Robinson laughingly replied that she was not.
Referring to the existing policy, he continued, “The ‘shall not’ has created some serious issues in regards to factual situations where it makes no sense [for the county to keep maintaining a road segment].” The policy prevents a person from providing a reason why the board should not vacate a portion of a road, he explained.
One reason Hines voted in favor of abandoning the North Beach Road segment, he said on May 11, was because the attorney for the three couples who had petitioned the board for the action pointed out that the couples also owned parcels on the Gulf side of North Beach Road. Therefore, the attorney — Charles Bailey III of the Williams Parker firm — said North Beach Road technically was not on the waterfront.
While he had to be careful not to address Consentino’s case against the county, Hines pointed out on July 6, “I am in favor of changing this [policy].”
Nonetheless, Hines said, he would not have a problem “with language … that makes [the change] stronger,” making it clear “that there should be a significant reason [to abandon a road section]. … But to totally say, ‘You shall not’ just, in my opinion, does not make sense. It’s too, too restrictive.”
For example, he pointed out, the board should be able to approve a road abandonment petition when “there is no public benefit [and] there is no foreseeable public benefit,” but, instead, the potential for liability if the county continues to maintain a specific section of road.
“I don’t know how to qualify this anymore to make it stronger,” he added of the proposed language. “I think this change is appropriate … but it’s not something that should be done lightly at all.”