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Island Chatter May 2019

Staff report

The traffic laws and the Breeze

Since the Siesta Key Breeze open-air trolley began operating in March 2016, members of the public have complained about getting stuck behind it in traffic.

During the April 4 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting, Director Erin Kreis brought up the issue, but from a safety standpoint. Noting that she was asking the question for someone else, she told Sgt. Paul Cernansky, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation on the Key, “We’ve seen a lot of cars passing the trolley in the left-hand turn lane.”

Would the Sheriff’s Office be able to go after such offenders, she continued, if cameras mounted on the trolleys recorded the violations?

“We can’t do enforcement based on that,” Cernansky replied.

Officers have to witness a violation before they can write a traffic citation, he added.

Cernansky told Kreis that he was well aware of drivers’ frustrations. “Trust me, I feel like I’m always the one stuck behind the trolley.”

However, he stressed, “You can’t use a turn lane to pass.”

On the positive side of the equation, he continued, the Sheriff’s Office sees the trolley as taking one car off the road for each passenger. (Mark Smith, past chair of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, has used a more conservative count, saying he believes the ratio is one less vehicle for every two trolley passengers.)

In response to a request, Lisa Potts, communications specialist with Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT), provided the March ridership figure for the Breeze. It was 62,699. “We were busy!” she wrote in an email.

Answering another question during the SKA meeting, Cernansky said that drivers can pass the trolley only in situations when a broken yellow line divides the lanes of the road. Whenever solid double yellow lines separate the lanes, he emphasized, no passing is allowed.

Discussion also arose about the fact that the trolley cannot just stop anywhere to pick up passengers. “You can’t just be walking down Midnight Pass [Road] and wave,” as Cernansky put it.

We took the opportunity to ask Potts of SCAT for clarification about the trolley’s pickup and drop-off policy. In an April 8 email, she wrote, “Waving the trolley between stops is not authorized between Stickney Point Road and Siesta Village. Passengers must use the SCAT stops and Morton’s Siesta Market. However, passengers CAN wave the trolley between Turtle Beach Park and Stickney Point Road.”

Potts also provided a link to the trolley’s map and schedule: https://www.scgov.net/home/showdocument?id=38249

The Breeze normally operates Monday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., the schedule shows. Its hours on Friday and Saturday during high tourist season are extended until midnight, the schedule notes. The Breeze also runs on major holidays.

Cernansky suggested that SKA members with ideas about how to improve the traffic flow situation involving the trolley contact Siesta Chamber directors and staff. “They’re in the best position to [respond to the issues].”

Then new SKA Director Tom Surprise announced that the trolley and the associated traffic complaints are an issue he has been working on since he was elected to the board in March. He will be talking with Sarasota County staff about proposals, he added.

For example, Surprise said, signage pointing out that the center left-turn lanes are for left turns only would be helpful. Further, he noted, county staff needs to ensure that double yellow lines are painted clearly on the roadways to show where no passing is allowed.

Surprise indicated that he would have more information to convey to members during their May meeting.

A crash ‘baptism’ for another wall

Siesta resident Michael Shay, who manages the Siesta Key Village Maintenance Corp., has proven a very good reporter about traffic accidents on Ocean Boulevard that damage county and private structures.

One of the prime incident locations is the curve just north of the Gleason Avenue intersection.

On March 23, however, Shay noted that the latest “target” for an accident was the wall adjacent to the Oceane condominium complex, which is under construction on Big Pass, across from the Givens Street intersection.

Shay wrote of the “baptism overnight” for the “BRAND NEW cinder block retaining wall at Oceane.”

He saw the driver still in the truck at 7:15 a.m. that day, he added. The front of the vehicle was crumpled, he noted.

Kaitlyn R. Perez, community affairs director for the Sheriff’s Office, kindly provided a copy of the incident report.

The call came in at 2:30 a.m. on March 23, according to the report. The driver was Nicholas David Fouts, 34, of Bismark Way in Sarasota, the report said. Fouts was traveling north on Ocean Boulevard at an estimated speed of 35 mph, which is the posted speed limit, the report pointed out.

His vehicle was a 1998 Ford F150, the report said.

As Fouts approached the Givens Street intersection, the report continued, the vehicle veered off the road in the curve and struck the retaining wall and a temporary construction fence, “causing minor damage to the fence and wall.”

When an officer arrived on the scene, the report noted, Fouts said that he had to swerve to avoid hitting a car in the road. “However,” the officer wrote, “I was unable to substantiate his claim.” No witnesses could be found, the report added.

It was not known whether Fouts had consumed any alcohol or drugs, the report said. No drug testing was conducted, the report noted.

Fouts was not injured, the report continued, and he refused medical treatment. He did tell the officer that he would take care of getting a tow truck himself, because of the time of day.

“No one at the construction scene was present,” the report also noted.

The most damaged area of the truck was the right front section, the report showed.

The officer did email Gilbane Building Co. of Sarasota, which is handling the Oceane construction, the report said, so the company could follow up with Fouts about the damage. The deputy estimated the total at $1,000.

The officer estimated damage to the truck at $3,000, the report added.

Little Sarasota Bay in better health than it may appear

During the April SKA meeting, guest speaker Mark Alderson, executive director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, took a question about the health of Little Sarasota Bay. (See the related story in this issue.)

“It looks like [that body of water] is dead,” a man in the audience told Alderson.

Relatively low nitrogen concentrations are found in Sarasota Bay, Alderson said, “but they are slightly elevated in Little Sarasota Bay overall.”

(Nitrogen is the most significant fuel for red tide blooms, scientists have explained.)

Still, if one compared the nitrogen figures for Little Sarasota Bay to those of the Indian River Lagoon, Alderson pointed out, “We’re light years ahead of that. But we can do better, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

The Indian River Lagoon, he noted, was one of the primary water bodies affected by the “massive green slime” produced by the freshwater blue-green algae that again plagued East Coast waters last summer.

Alderson also told the audience member that even though Little Sarasota Bay “may look dead, we do have some of the highest juvenile fish counts in Little Sarasota Bay.” That body of water was somewhat protected from the red tide bloom, he added.

The northern part of Sarasota Bay, Alderson continued, “was totally decimated,” especially the areas around Longboat Key, Cortez, along with lower Tampa Bay.

Studies undertaken by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) suggest that it will take 12 to 18 months “for the fishery to recover” in the northern part of Sarasota Bay, Alderson said.

A boating tale

In early March, Michael Shay reported that a boat appeared to be aground on the sand bar in Big Pass. He first spotted it on the morning of March 9, he added.

A couple of days later, it appeared to be listing, he pointed out. He was concerned that it was taking on water.

Sgt. Paul Cernansky, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation on Siesta was contacted. Cernansky was aware of the boat in the pass, but he said he believed the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) would be handling the case. If not, then he suggested the boat might be in the Sarasota Police Department’s jurisdiction.

When Melody Kilborn was contacted, public information coordinator for FWC’s Southwest Region Office, she said in a March 14 telephone interview, “We’re not currently working it as a derelict vessel.”

The boat finally disappeared on the afternoon of March 15, but SNL had to wait a couple of days — because of coverage of County Commission meetings — before it could try to follow up with Genevieve Judge, communications coordinator for the Sarasota Police Department.

When Judge was first reached late that week, she was unable to reach anyone with the Police Department’s Marine Patrol. However, she promised to get back to us early the following week.

On March 18, Judge sent an email, saying that she had learned from the department’s Marine Patrol that the Sheriff’s Office’s Marine Patrol and FWC were handling the case. She did add that she understood the boat had been towed to the 10th Street Boat Ramp by Sea Tow of Sarasota.

Then we contacted Kaitlyn R. Perez, the community affairs director for the Sheriff’s Office, she wrote in a March 19 email, “What we learned from our Special Ops Bureau (through Mike Solum at the county) … is that FWC worked this.”

Solum, she pointed out, is the county employee in charge of the waterways.

Perez continued, “Sea Tow took the boat to the 10th St. boat ramp. The owner has been in contact with FWC. They are in the process of having the title signed over to either FWC or Sea Tow,” she added.

“We have nothing to do with this case so we will defer to FWC and hopefully they can give you some more guidance,” Perez wrote.

On April 2, Kilborn wrote in an email, “It appears that this particular vessel was handled by Sarasota County’s boating and waterways section and the FWC was not the lead at any point regarding its removal. It is our understanding that this vessel has been removed from the water,” she added, suggesting we “reach out to Sarasota County to confirm and receive additional details, as I do not have any. I do not have any information regarding the vessel’s owner or the reason the vessel got there in the first place.”

Finally, on April 3, SNL spoke by phone with Elas Wallace, operations manager of Sea Tow in Sarasota.

“This was kind of a headache,” he said. Wallace was unable to share much information, though he did say that the woman who owned the boat “was a character.”

She apparently was moving the vessel from one location to another when she and a man with her had a disagreement, Wallace continued. “I’m not really sure [about the circumstances],” he pointed out, but he did add that he understood “video had surfaced on Facebook.”

“It’s a crazy scenario,” he said.

He also understood, he continued, that the boat had been in Venice and that the owner was heading back to Madeira Beach, in Pinellas County, when the incident occurred.

“We did remove the boat from the sandbar [in Big Pass],” said Wallace. He had no further information about what had transpired since then, he pointed out.

However, Wallace did say, “Florida should really require people who have boats to have insurance,” just as people who own vehicles must have insurance.

Wallace also explained that Sea Tow’s operations in cases involving derelict vessels are funded by the state.

As the business name indicates, Wallace added, “[T]owing is what we do for a living.” However, Sea Tow is a membership-based company, he pointed out.

Sea Tow of Sarasota handles cases from Casey Key all the way up to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, he said. “We try to take care of the community.”