Siesta Key Round Up

| July 1, 2016

By Rachel Brown Hackney
www.SarasotaNewsLeader.com

FDOT drops plans for roundabout at Midnight Pass Road/Beach Road intersection

Sarasota County Commission Chair Al Maio made about 100 residents very happy during the June 2 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting when he announced that the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has cancelled its plans for a roundabout at the intersection of Beach Road and Midnight Pass Road, just south of St. Boniface Episcopal Church.

Applause broke out during the meeting as soon as he made the statement, noting that he had learned the news during a recent discussion with FDOT District Engineer L.K. Nandam. “The vast majority [of island residents] didn’t want it,” Maio added of the roundabout. “I think [FDOT representatives] heard loud and clear what you all said.”

After the idea surfaced in late 2013, residents and county commissioners raised concerns that the structure would lead to even more traffic back-ups on a stretch of road that often becomes clogged during season.

FDOT does plan to improve the intersection to make it safer for bicyclists and pedestrians, Maio noted on June 2. “It’ll be better than what we have now.”

Robin Stublen, an FDOT spokesman, reminded SNL on June 7 that the department originally proposed three options for the intersection: the “Do nothing” approach; elimination of the continuous right-turn lane from Midnight Pass Road for traffic heading north at the intersection; and the roundabout. “We had to look at what we thought was the best fit for the intersection,” he explained. The plan is to go with elimination of that turn lane, he added.

A public hearing will be conducted on the proposal before FDOT undertakes any work, Stublen pointed out. However, he said that hearing has not been scheduled yet. FDOT will make certain adequate public notice is provided in advance of it, he added.

The last time FDOT representatives discussed the proposal before SKA members was in February 2015. As during previous such appearances at the organization’s meetings, audience members peppered the FDOT staff and consultants with questions and offered comments indicating an aversion to the roundabout. The goal with all such structures, Nandam told the audience, is to reduce the speed of the traffic, which results in fewer serious injuries when accidents do occur, especially those involving pedestrians and bicyclists. “The design will not allow for anyone to go over 20 to 25 mph,” he said at that 2015 meeting.

Yet, audience members refuted FDOT representatives’ assertions that the signalized intersection is problematic for people on foot or on bicycles.

A new Sheriff’s Office supervisor for the Key

During the June 2 SKA meeting, another announcement focused on a new Sheriff’s Office supervisor of personnel on the Key. Lt. Don Kennard, a 20-year veteran of the department, will be taking over that responsibility from Lt. Debra Kaspar, SKA Second Vice President Catherine Luckner said, adding that Kaspar had been promoted to the Investigations Division.

Kennard offered a “Hello” from the back of the St. Boniface Episcopal Church Parish Hall, where he stood with Sgt. Jason Mruczek, the chief of the Sheriff’s Office substation on the island, and Deputy Chris McGregor.

And speaking of the Sheriff’s Office …

Sgt. Mruczek reported during the June 2 SKA meeting that he had assigned deputies to keep an eye out for problems associated with the valet parking at Ophelia’s on the Bay, which were the focus of complaints during the May 5 SKA session.

Officers patrolling the area the previous four Sundays — when the restaurant serves brunch — “didn’t really see any problems with valet parking,” Mruczek said. They did write two tickets, though. One was for speeding and one was for improper passing, he noted.

Deputies will continue to keep an eye on the situation, he added.

As for Memorial Day weekend at the beach: Mruczek pointed out that Saturday and Sunday were the busiest days, though the holiday itself brought out plenty of people.

The primary problems officers handled, he continued, were related to parking, “which is the ongoing issue out here.” Some disputes erupted over people trying to save parking spaces, he said. “For the most part, we were able to settle them.”

Looking ahead to July Fourth, he noted, he has been discussing plans with the Sheriff’s Office’s Special Operations Bureau to make certain sufficient personnel and resources are on hand to deal with the crowds.

Mruczek then noted that he had been asked to address the issue of fireworks, which long have proven to be a problem on the island during the July Fourth holiday period. “Anything that shoots up in the air, anything that explodes, is illegal,” he explained. Officers will confiscate fireworks, he added. His hope, he continued, is to have a sign set up at the beach to remind patrons of the state law forbidding personal use of fireworks.

Lt. Kennard also pointed out that the Sheriff’s Office will post updates about July Fourth traffic on the Key on social media and on its website, so people will know what to expect that day if they plan to come over for the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce’s annual fireworks show.

When Mruczek asked for questions from audience members, after he completed his report, one woman reported that her husband routinely walks the beach around 6:30 or 7 a.m. Recently, she noted, he has been seeing people sleeping on benches in the picnic area and empty beer cans littering the grounds.

Mruczek promised to talk with county Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources staff about those situations and to ask the deputy who patrols that part of the Key early in the mornings to try to document them.

“Obviously, there is no overnight camping in county parks,” he told the audience.

The Stickney Point Road bridge project

Lauren Hatchell, a consultant to FDOT, told SNL this week that the department formally signed off in a May 19 letter on the completion of repairs to the Stickney Point Road bridge.

Delays for various and sundry reasons led to that project lasting quite a bit longer than FDOT originally planned. Coastal Marine Construction of Venice won the $5,396,928 contract for the project in early 2015 and began work in April 2015. The original timeline called for completion of the project early this year.

The work entailed concrete and seawall repairs, improvements to the tender/control house, painting, and repairs to the bridge’s mechanical and electrical components.

After FDOT awarded the contract, the news release it issued pointed out that the bridge was built in 1968 and that the improvements were designed to extend the service life of the structure “another 10 years until a long-term solution is determined.”

Siesta Key Community Fireworks – On Siesta Key Beach Will Be Held Monday, July 4th

The Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce (SKCC) is proud to announce the 26th Anniversary of the 4th of July Community Fireworks Celebration, Monday, July 4th, at Siesta Key Beach. The fireworks show will launch at dusk at the Siesta Key Public Beach (948 Beach Road) and is free and open to the public.

The Chamber works in partnership with the Siesta Key Village Association and Visit Sarasota County to present the celebration and also receives generous community donations from local businesses, accommodations, and residents. Donations of all levels are greatly appreciated. Sponsorship packages of $500 and above include parking passes and access to the preferred viewing and hospitality area. To make a donation, please visit siestakeychamber.com, or call the Chamber office at 941.349.3800.

Siesta No. 2 on Dr. Beach’s latest list

With all the attention Siesta Public Beach has received over the past week after Dr. Stephen Leatherman — Dr. Beach — named it No. 2 on his latest list of the top beaches in the U.S., SNL found one item rather curious: The formal press release issued about the winners noted that, as of this year, “extra credit is being awarded to [those] that prohibit smoking …”

As most Sarasota County residents know, Siesta won Dr. Beach’s top ranking in 2011 — and tourism in the county has boomed since then, especially on the Key. In 2011, Sarasota County prohibited smoking on public beaches. However, as a result of a December 2012 court decision involving the City of Sarasota, the County Commission learned it no longer would be able to enforce an ordinance that banned smoking outdoors on public property.

Sheriff’s Office deputies stopped enforcing the prohibition on Siesta’s beach, Sgt. Scott Osborne, then chief of the office’s Siesta substation, told SNL in January 2013. Even before legal counsel advised that the deputies no longer should write $100 citations if they saw someone lighting up, Osborne pointed out that officers’ practice had been to warn people that smoking was not allowed, and only on the rare occasion did a person fail to comply with the warning.

The Dec. 10, 2012 ruling by Judge Maryann Boehm of the 12th Judicial Circuit Court found that “prohibiting the use of tobacco products in non-designated areas of city parks … is unenforceable and in conflict with the state statute known as the ‘Clean Indoor Air Act.’”

The purpose of that law, which was passed in 1985 but did not go into effect until 2003, according to the Florida Department of Health, “is to protect people from the health hazards of secondhand tobacco smoke ….”

A July 21, 2011 opinion issued by the Florida Attorney General’s Office in a case involving the St. Johns River Water Management District — provided to SNL in 2013 by the County Attorney’s Office — is one example of the opinions Boehm referenced. It says, “In sum: The Regulation of smoking is preempted to the state pursuant to [the Clean Indoor Air Act], and the … District may not adopt a policy prohibiting smoking or tobacco use that is broader than the terms of [that statute].”

On June 1, county spokesman Drew Winchester confirmed for SNL that the state law is still in effect.

The formal news release that went out this year with Dr. Beach’s Top 10 list also explained that because he was marking the 26th anniversary of his annual pronouncement, he had decided to begin anew, “so all beaches have a chance again of making the list.”

Previously — as Visit Sarasota County staff had pointed out — after a beach hit the No. 1 spot, it had to be “retired.”

With or without smokers, it is evident from Dr. Beach’s comments on his website that Siesta remains near and dear to his heart. The listing says, “With some of the finest, whitest sand in the world, this beach attracts sand collectors from all over. Siesta Beach has clear, warm waters ideal for swimming. The beach is hundreds of yards wide in the shape of a crescent, due to anchoring of onshore rocks to the south. This beach is great for volleyball and other types of recreational fitness.”

The state tourism office, Visit Florida, also took the opportunity to promote Siesta and two other Florida beaches that made the 2016 list. The others were Grayton Beach State Park in the Panhandle and Caladesi Island State Park in the Dunedin/Clearwater area.

Of Siesta, Visit Florida wrote on its website, “Dr. Beach declared this beautiful shoreline the best beach in the United States in 2011. … Clearly, he hasn't forgotten his old favorite. And who could blame him?”

Beach concessions contract renewed

As part of its May 24 Consent Agenda of routine business items, the County Commission renewed its contract with Socially Responsible Real Estate Initiative Inc. (SREI) to operate the concessions at Siesta Public Beach through Aug. 31, 2021.

The agreement calls for SREI to “achieve gross annual sales of no less than $1,540,000. “The original contract — signed on March 29, 2011 — called for the firm to achieve gross annual sales of no less than 70 percent of $2,196,150 during the fifth year of the contract.

That original agreement also called for the company to pay the county $34,100 per month as the base compensation. Additionally, it was to pay 2.001 percent of gross annual sales up to and including $1 million; 3.5 percent of gross annual sales over $1 million, up to and including $2 million; and 5 percent of gross annual sales exceeding $2 million during any year that followed the completion of all the new upgrades at the beach park.

A staff memo provided to the board in advance of the unanimous vote on May 24 points out that the East Concession and West Concession have been renamed Siesta Sun Deck Concession and Siesta Sand Plaza Concession, respectively.

The agreement previously called for the East Concession to be open for only four hours a day, three days a week. “Due to anticipated increased demand for the new Sun Deck,” the memo continues, “the operating hours … were increased to a minimum of eight hours a day, with the possibility of staggering opening and closing times. The concession must be open no later than 9:30 A.M. and close no earlier than 5:30 P.M., seven days per week, 363 days per year.” The memo adds that the concession is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

The new agreement also allows SREI to operate one “Hair Wrap and Body Art vending booth” outside its concession area, in place of its mobile concession trailer. County approval of any graphics and signage for that booth must be gained in advance of its opening, the agreement points out.

Help keep our Beach clean

After Memorial Day weekend, our beautiful beach environment was left in a terrible state, with overflowing garbage, litter and debris of every type.

There was outrage expressed by our Members and our Siesta Key community who care deeply about our home. The outrage has been channeled to action.  Take action during what may be the worst period of the year for trash and debris …July 4 weekend.

Great opportunity for Volunteers  July 4 weekend. LIBERTY CLEANUP  JULY 5  (SARASOTA COUNTY Keep Sarasota County Beautiful) http://foscp.org/news/volunteer-liberty-litter-cleanup-july-5.

SKA Volunteers needed. Please join forces with Volunteer VERONICA MURPHY, volunteer from Siesta Key.  Help distribute Pick Up bags to families and group gatherings on the beach. Share the "pack it in, pack it out" message.

"We bought 900 bags to distribute, maybe 400 during Saturday and Sunday and 500 on July 4. 800 of these are biodegradable, if anyone asks and anyone can buy bags and distribute on their own as well.   We need afternoon people, maybe those that can walk to or ride bike to access points from ACESS 3 to public beach. We are trying to look at the folks on the beach, see who may need a bag, remind the beach goers  pails are at the top of the beach as they exit” stated Veronica Murphy.                                                                                                                                            

Contact VERONICA at veronicamurphy615@gmail.com to volunteer for any period of time, walk some of the beach, sharing BAGS for cleanup. Encourage a culture of care for our beautiful #1 FOREVER Siesta Key Beach! 

Turtle Beach airealSouth Siesta Renourishment Project assessments

Although a public hearing before the County Commission had been advertised for June 8 regarding property assessments associated with the recently completed South Siesta Renourishment Project, staff asked that it be postponed, a note on the agenda said. Board Chair Al Maio remarked on that, as well, during the meeting that day.

No one had signed a card to address the matter, Maio added, before asking County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh whether the board needed to vote on a specific date for the future hearing.

Before DeMarsh could respond, County Administrator Tom Harmer pointed out that the public hearing would have to be re-advertised, so no commission vote was necessary.

In response to a SNL question about the June, county spokesman Jason Bartolone explained in a 9 email, “Staff are still finalizing the construction costs to get the most accurate number for the assessments, which led to the postponement.”

He added, “The hearing has been rescheduled for Aug. 23,” noting that the board will be on its annual summer break from late July through early August.

Staff had provided a detailed accounting of the costs of the project that it had in hand in advance of the June 8 meeting, which put the total at $21,925,000. The document noted that the design expense was $725,237, with $19,121,738 for the construction, though an accompanying note indicated the latter was not the final figure. Another $2,078,025 was allocated to a variety of other expenses, including construction management, project management, legal issues and advertising.

The document in the agenda packet also pointed out that $7,952,130 came from Tourist Development Tax revenue set aside for beach restoration projects, while $430,000 was carried over from the previous renourishment.

A staff memo provided to the board with the agenda packet noted that the total cost of the first renourishment, which was completed in 2007, was $11,349,490.64. The primary reason the cost nearly doubled in nine years was “high demand for dredging services post-Hurricane Sandy,” the memo said.

However, the percentage of the total cost of the second renourishment that will be funded through property assessments “is expected to decrease slightly due to available funding from other sources,” the memo added.

The cost detail sheet showed the “total number of living units on properties and vacant properties with direct beach shoreline frontage” in the area to be assessed is 395.

The assessments are planned to start in the 2017 tax year, the memo notes. A seven-year amortization period is planned, with a 3.25-percent annual interest rate, the memo says, though it points out, “A property owner may pay the assessed cost in full at any time.”

The assessments for the previous renourishment ended with the 2014 tax year, the memo says.

 On June 13, less than a week after the County Commission postponed the public hearing, board members gathered at the beach to celebrate the recently completed project.

It added more than 1 million tons of sand to about 2 miles of shoreline; the sand was dredged from three areas located seven to 10 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, a county news release said.

"Renourishment projects like this one help protect our community from the threat of coastal erosion," said commission Chair Alan Maio in the news release. "Our board has made a major commitment to funding renourishment projects that will preserve the beaches that make our community so special." In lieu of a ribbon cutting, the event featured a ceremonial tossing of sand.

Seagrass mitigation plan expected in late June

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is finalizing the seagrass mitigation plan required by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) for the permit application the USACE and the City of Sarasota filed in March 2015 for the proposed $19-million Lido Key Renourishment Project, SNL has learned.

Lt. Col. Susan J. Jackson (U.S. Army Reserve) told the SNL in late May that the USACE manager for the project, Brandon Burch, reported to her that the team was preparing to submit its responses to FDEP by mid-June. However, SNL learned on June 15 that the timeline had been pushed back, probably to late June. That was the latest word from FDEP, spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller told the SNL.

The seagrass mitigation plan is one of the last elements of the FDEP application process the USACE and the City of Sarasota must complete in an effort to obtain FDEP permits. In March, the FDEP’s manager overseeing that process — Greg Garis — issued a six-month extension to the USACE to complete “a suitable seagrass mitigation plan,” as Michelle R. Pfeiffer, senior project manager with CB&I Coastal Planning & Engineering Inc. in Boca Raton, characterized it in a March 16 email she wrote to Garis. CB&I is a consulting firm working with the USACE on the Lido initiative. The extension will end on Sept.16.

Additionally, Jackson wrote in a May 26 email to SNL, “[A]n [Environmental Impact Statement] is unlikely since we correctly conducted the [National Environmental Policy Act] process.”

Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2), a nonprofit organization based on Siesta Key, long has called for the USACE to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that would include a thorough assessment of any potential effects of the planned dredging of Big Sarasota Pass for the Lido project — as well as any other impacts on native habitat and wildlife.

On behalf of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), Robert Luckner, a member of that nonprofit group’s Environmental Committee, also asked the Sarasota County Commission during its March 23 meeting to request an EIS.

The SKA and SOSS2 representatives have pointed out that Big Pass never has been dredged, and past studies have shown that its ebb shoal is a critical factor both in maintaining the stability of the beach on Siesta Key and as protection for the island during major storms or a hurricane.

Jackson also told SNL recently that the former manager of the Lido project for the USACE, Milan Mora, was promoted several months ago to chief of the Water Resources Section.

Joe Volpe with trash bag holder SKA June 2 2016SKA board still working out details of pilot trash collection program at Access 7

For quite some time, members of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) have been working on a means of encouraging people to throw away garbage they accumulate on Siesta Public Beach. Board member Joe Volpe told SNL this week that the organization is very close to getting the necessary Sarasota County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department approval for a trial program at Beach Access 7.

During the June 2 SKA meeting, Volpe showed the approximately 110 people present a type of metal container for plastic trash bags that he had found through his research; it seems to be sturdy enough to withstand the Gulf-side environment — and it easily can be attached to a post.

If the structure looked familiar, the added, that was because it is the same type of holder used for produce bags in grocery stores. In December 2015, the SKA board announced it was at work on a proposal for a dispenser of plastic bags that could be erected at the beach accesses; people could grab bags as they headed toward the Gulf, deposit put all their trash in the bags during their shoreline outing and then throw away the bags at the end of their visit.

Volpe explained on June 2 that the initial idea about using plastic grocery bags — such as those available at Publix — proved unworkable because they do not have much capacity. His further research, he told the News Leader this week, led him to a California company that makes the produce bag holders and the much larger bags it can dispense. Additionally, he noted, one roll has 750 bags, which will mean fewer restocking trips for SKA members.

The cost per bag, he added, is about 1.25 cents per bag. Moreover, he said, he wanted to be sure the holder was sturdy enough so someone could not “yank on [a bag] and the whole thing would come unrolled.” With this device, he continued, “It takes effort to pull [the bags] off.”

During the SKA meeting this month, Volpe voiced excitement because the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) was interested in sponsoring the trash collection initiative. However, he told the News Leader this week that the state agency had established a June 30 deadline for the SKA to win that funding support, and because county staff had not signed off on the project as of that time, the FWC money will not be available.

That means the SKA will pay for the pilot program, Volpe said, though the possibility exists that FWC could assist in the future.

FWC is not the only entity outside the county to show enthusiasm about the SKA proposal for keeping the beach cleaner. When he was conducting his research, Volpe told the News Leader, he contacted Dr. Stephen Leatherman — aka Dr. Beach of Florida International University — to ask whether Leatherman had any suggestions about a trash collection plan. And while Leatherman did not, Volpe said, he was interested in the SKA’s efforts.

          As for the county: Volpe said his latest communications with Shawn Yeager, manager of the Beaches and Water Access Division of the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, made it plain the clear plastic bags would not work. The fear county staff has, Volpe continued, is that turtles would mistake the bags for jellyfish and try to eat them.   Therefore, Volpe continued, he is trying to make certain he can get the bags in black. Of Yeager, Volpe added, “He has to put the final blessing on [the pilot program].”

In response to a News Leader request for a comment, county spokesman Drew Winchester contacted Nicole Rissler, deputy director of the Parks Department, who emailed the following response: “Sarasota County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources staff have been working collaboratively with the Siesta Key Association (SKA) to determine [parameters] for the pilot program they are proposing. Nothing has been approved yet, but staff is continuing to work through details both internally, and with SKA.”

Volpe pointed out to the News Leader that it took the SKA about a year to get radar signs placed on the island to show drivers how fast they are going, in the nonprofit organization’s effort to reduce speeding. Therefore, he is determined to work through the logistics of the trash collection initiative, so it can begin.

More info on Siesta fireworks

The Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce still is accepting donations and sponsorships for the annual July Fourth fireworks show on Siesta Public Beach, Ann Frescura, executive director of the Chamber, told SNL on June 20.

“We’re working on the funding, and we’ve had a very good response from the community,” Frescura said in a telephone interview.

Earlier this year, Chamber President Mark Smith explained during an SKA meeting that the improvements at the public beach, which were completed in February, had led to changes that could jeopardize future fireworks shows. The expense of the annual display on the Fourth is about $45,000, he pointed out, adding, “About $30,000 of that gets blown up.”

“We feel good about the pledges that have been made,” Frescura told SNL, speaking of the 2016 fireworks shoe. As for the future: With any community event of this level, she continued, “it’s smart and wonderful if you can get ahead of the game.”

The Chamber has established certain sponsorship levels, she pointed out. Those who participate will have access to a preferred viewing area for the pyrotechnics, as well as a hospitality area provided by the Chamber staff on the beach. The Chamber packages also feature a limited number of parking spaces and name recognition on signage. Any contribution is most welcome, Frescura said. For more information or to become a sponsor, visit the Chamber online or call 349-3800.

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