If successful, the charter amendments would cost the county $450,000 to hold a countywide special election, timing may get tricky
By Roger Drouin
Sarasota County residents continue to sign a pair of petitions related to the increasingly tense fight over a 357-foot stretch of Beach Road.
There are two separate charter amendment initiatives spurred by longtime Siesta Key resident and carpenter Michael Cosentino — the first, if approved by voters, would prohibit the county from vacating public lands, including beach and waterside roadways, and parks and preserves; the second would overturn the county’s decision to relinquish a portion of Beach Road, the last road remaining on the Key with a direct view of the Gulf.
Cosentino is leading a passionate campaign against the County Commission, contending the board broke its own rules when it agreed in 2016 to vacate a stretch of public right of way along Beach Road to three landowners there.
Although Cosentino says petitions continue to pour in, the effort to ask voters to weigh in has some way to go before reaching the ballot box.
As of last month, Cosentino and a group of volunteers behind the political action committee “Reopen Beach Road,” was just above a quarter of the way towards the number of petitions needed to get both charter-amendment questions onto the ballot.
If successful, the effort could cost the county $450,000 to hold a countywide special election.
Cosentino wants the roadway improved and open to the public. The county, meanwhile, has accused Cosentino of conveying misinformation. The county agreement sets out a 60-foot-wide-right of way, and an additional five-foot-wide permanent beach access path at its south end, although it does not explicitly discuss improvements to the right-of-way.
As of last month, on the first issue of protecting public spaces, the group had collected 3,788 petitions that were OK’d as valid by the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office, which is tasked with making sure that valid signatures are from county residents. On the issue of overturning the Beach Road vacation, the group had collected 3,792 valid petitions, according to the Supervisor of Elections office.
In order for the initiatives to get on the ballot, the separate issues would each have to garner 13,866 petitions each. The charter amendments “are our only hope,” for defending Beach Road and public spaces, Cosentino said.
Several questions remain:
• Will the group be able to get the required number of signatures?
It is fairly uncommon for a citizen-led initiative to make it on the ballot in Sarasota County, Ron Turner, the county’s Supervisor of Elections told Siesta Sand. “It’s not something that happens that often,” Turner said.
In 2006, a successful citizen-led charter amendment effort asking voters whether to use voter-verified paper ballots and random audits in forthcoming elections reached the ballot box. But typically, charter amendments that make it onto the ballot are the result of efforts led by the county’s Charter Review Board or the County Commission.
• And secondly, if the number of signatures are achieved, a big question revolves around the timing and cost of such a ballot initiative.
A charter amendment can be timed to appear on a primary general election ballot at no additional cost to the county. But Cosentino told Siesta Sand that the group is aiming for a date next year that would not fall close to an election. In this case, the cost to hold a special countywide election is approximately $450,000, bore by the county’s general tax fund, Turner said.
• Another significant question arises: What if the county approves construction of a Beach Road development before, or roughly simultaneous, with a successful charter amendment drive?
The Supervisor of Elections Office’s duty is to place the amendment questions on the ballot, unless ordered not to do so by a judge, Turner said. “There is no quick or easy answer to that question,” Turner said. “I would have to do what I legally am required to, which is conduct an election, unless it is stopped by a court.”
For his part, Cosentino, who has also filed a lawsuit against the county, challenging the Beach Road decision on the grounds that it violates the county’s comprehensive plan, says isn’t worried about the long-term outcome. He points to the court case decision Pinecrest Lakes, Inc. vs. Shidel, involving a community north of Tampa. In that case, a judge ordered a developer to completely demolish several multi-story buildings that challengers argued was inconsistent with the county’s Comprehensive Plan and was built when the appeal case regarding the project was in court.
“Go ahead and build what they want to build,” Cosentino said about any potential developments on the tip of Beach Road. “When we prevail, we will tear that —- down.”
Cosentino argues the cost of the election could have been avoided if the county had proceeded with initial plans in 2009 to improve Beach Road and retain its ownership as is. That project came with a $500,000-plus cost, but it would have been a better investment — Cosentino argues — than the cost of a special election. A later county study in 2013 showed a cost of $3 to $4 million to add improvements that could preserve the road.
The proposed amendments
Amendment 4.1: “The County shall not sell, and shall retain ownership of, County-owned Parks and Preserves, and shall not vacate or sell County-owned road segments or rights of way along or abutting any beach, river, creek, canal, lake, bay, gulf access or waterfront vista. The County shall encourage maximum right of way use for public access and viewing of waterfront vistas.”
Amendment 4.2: Would rescind the abandonment of, or have the county re-acquire, the section of North Beach Road that the commissioners voted to turn over to the Maddens and the two other sets of petitioners.
Publishers Note: Representing Reopen Beach Road, Mary Anne Bowie, FAICP Urban Planning and Sustainability Advocate will be presenting the two charter amendments at the July 6 Siesta Key Association meeting. The meeting will be at St. Boniface Church located at 5615 Midnight Pass Road. The meeting starts at 4:30 PM.