Sheriff’s Siesta substation sergeant fields myriad questions from SKA members, including one about a specific group of ATV users; commissioners spoil the latest spoil island plan; county board approves another step in the process to decommission the wastewater treatment plant; Siesta Fiesta is on the horizon; and the CodeRed system gets a plug
During peak tourist season, the leader of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office substation on Siesta Key generally fields a lot more questions when he appears at a Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting. That proved to be the case on April 6, when Sgt. Jason Mruczek kept his opening remarks simple and then opened the floor for audience member queries.
“After this weekend,” he told the approximately 60 audience members, “it should be calmed down a little bit for us.”
Moments before Mruczek stood to speak, SKA President Harold Ashby joked that, typically, two or three Sheriff’s Office personnel attend the nonprofit’s monthly meetings. “I see they’re out chasing spring break-ers,” he added. The department always steps up patrols on the Key during March, especially, and April, when college students from around the country are on spring break.
When Mruczek asked for questions, one man responded, “Do you have any guidance for the ATV vehicles going up and down Crescent Beach?” The man added, “They are really whizzing by, [especially when they are out in pairs]. … I would say that they’re going at least — or more than — 20 mph.”
Mruczek asked if the man knew which condominium complex or company the drivers represented, noting that he had heard no complaints from other people. Mruczek added, “They’re not supposed to be driving on the beach.”
“These are 4-wheelers,” the man replied.
Mruczek promised to investigate the situation. Then he asked the color of the ATVs.
“They are green ones,” the man told him.
In that case, Mruczek replied, the people the man had seen could be Sheriff’s Office deputies, as the department has green ATVs.
Laughter rippled through the audience.
If officers are not following proper procedures, Mruczek added, he would ensure they do.
On a related question, Lourdes Ramirez pointed out that she has seen “a lot of speeding boats” in Siesta’s canals this tourist season.
Again, Mruczek said he could not recall having read or heard any complaints, but that was a matter for the Sheriff’s Office Marine Patrol. “I’ll bring that up with them,” he added, noting that one or two boats should be on regular patrol in the canals this time of year.
Another person complained that speeding boats in the Intracoastal Waterway are endangering manatees. “They’re not slowing their boats at all,” a woman remarked about people on the waterway who should be complying with slow-speed regulations.
When Mruczek asked where she lives, she told him that she resides in a Gulf and Bay Club condo on the bay.
Mruczek said he would alert the Sheriff’s Office Marine Patrol about that situation, too, and he also would contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, so its officers could step up enforcement of the area.
Another woman brought up concerns about the valet service blocking traffic at the four-way intersection in Siesta Village, especially with the number of people who head to the beach at the end of Avenida Messina in the evenings to watch the sunset. Could the Sheriff’s Office start posting a deputy there to direct traffic?, she asked, adding that she has seen “people screaming out their [vehicle] windows” with traffic not able to move.
Mruczek indicated that, in spite of the multitude of vehicles that navigate that intersection in the evenings, accidents are rare.
The woman also pointed out, “People will not walk on the sidewalks [along Avenida Messina]. They walk down the street” — another factor that exacerbates the problems.
Mruczek told her he would talk with representatives of the valet service to try to come up with remedies to the congestion.
Michael Holderness suggested the valets find a better way to manage the service without blocking the roads at the four-way stop.
The woman responded that she knows the valets work as quickly as they can.
“There’s not enough room,” Mruczek added.
Another person broached yet a different traffic concern: “I’ve been driving up and down Midnight Pass,” he began. Recently, he has seen “car after car … flying down the middle [turn] lane, just cutting people off.”
“That’s something we do keep an eye out for,” Mruczek assured the man, noting that he would talk with the deputies who patrol the Key at night, to make certain they are watching out for such violations.
The man told Mruczek he has been observing drivers taking such illegal shortcuts in the daytime. “It’s annoying and unsafe,” the man added.
Spoil island plan spoiled again
Once more, county plans to finish the restoration of Palmer Point Park have fallen by the proverbial wayside. This time, the action came in the wake of commission and staff efforts to find every conceivable dollar to help pay for several high-priority projects, including the North Extension of The Legacy Trail to downtown Sarasota.
On March 29, as the County Commission participated in its most recent budget workshop, Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, explained the Spoil Island Restoration Project. The goals, he said, are to restore degraded coastal habitat, provide additional recreational benefits — including better fishing and boating opportunities — improve habitat for fish and wildlife, and foster ecotourism.
The county’s five-year Capital Improvement Program (CIP) budget for fiscal years 2017-21 included $100,000 for Palmer Point Park this year, as well as $2.3 million in the 2019 fiscal year for work on other spoil islands, he noted.
And just what are those islands? They were created by the dredging of the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) in the 1940s and 1950s, Osterhoudt said.
A 2004 feasibility study undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers identified six sites where improvements could be made, Osterhoudt continued. As a result, the county restored the Bird Colony Islands off the north end of Siesta Key in 2008, and the West Coast Inland Navigation District completed a project on Snake Island in 2014, he said.
Along with Palmer Point Park, the other sites proposed for restoration are Jim Neville Marine Preserve and Big Edwards and Little Edwards islands, Osterhoudt added.
Palmer Point Park, located on the north end of Casey Key, comprises about 2.5 acres. It has endured what one easily could call a series of travails.
In May 2011, the County Commission authorized a $559,650 contract with Tampa Contracting Services Inc. to remove and dispose of exotic vegetation; excavate and grade dredge spoil material; transport the excavated material; and supply and plant wetland and upland vegetation on the southeastern section of Palmer Point Park, staff documentation shows. It was the first spoil island restoration project designed to improve water quality in Little Sarasota Bay, returning the body of water to the level of health it enjoyed before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged the ICW.
However, a resulting dispute with the contractor over a sediment management plan for the dredge material led to the project’s cessation before completion, staff explained to the commission in November 2011.
Controversy also ensued during that first attempt to restore the island, because plans called for putting material removed from the island on barges and transporting it via the ICW to a site in the Vamo Road community south of Siesta. Then, the material would be trucked through the neighborhood. Needless to say, residents voiced more than a few complaints about that proposal.
As a result, staff switched to a new plan, which called for bringing the barges to a Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) right of way on the north side of the Siesta Drive bridge. Trucks would take the material from that site, along Siesta Drive, to access U.S. 41.
As late as 11 months ago, county staff was sticking with the latter plan. Spencer Anderson, a senior manager in the county’s Public Works Department, explained it during a May 2016 County Commission budget workshop.
On March 29, Osterhoudt told the commission that although staff had been proceeding with plans to finish the Palmer Point Park Project, responses to the bid it had advertised had exceeded the engineer’s estimate of $677,250. In fact, the lowest valid bid came in at $1,199,048.55, according to a slide he showed the board.
Given the total project budget, Osterhoudt said, that would leave an estimated shortfall of $425,000.
Since the design and permitting work had been completed, however, Osterhoudt advised the commissioners that they could take the $425,000 out of the $2.3 million allocation programmed in the 2019 fiscal year for spoil islands restoration and complete the Palmer Point Park Project. If they proceeded along that path, the approximately $1.9 million left for FY19 could be used for other county CIP initiatives.
Staff also wanted to offer an Option 2, he continued: Defer the Palmer Point Park Project and other spoil island restoration work — or revisit those efforts in the future when funding became available. That would make the total of $2.7 million available for other projects, such as The Legacy Trail extension.
Even if the board chose the deferment scenario, Osterhoudt noted, about $620,000 still would be available for spoil island initiatives, thanks to other funding sources, including a Community Foundation grant.
Yet another potential means of paying for the spoil islands restoration, he said, might be what staff has referred to as the “local pot” of funds that will come to the county through the RESTORE Act. About $5.5 million is anticipated by 2031 from the BP settlement over the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, he pointed out. The timeline for the county’s receipt of that money has yet to be determined, Osterhoudt said.
With no discussion, Commissioner Nancy Detert made a motion to go with Option 2. Commissioner Alan Maio seconded it, and it passed unanimously.
Another step along the pathway
During their regular meeting on April 3, the county commissioners took one more step — albeit a smaller one than those residents soon will be observing — toward the decommissioning of the Siesta Key Wastewater Treatment Plant.
With the unanimous approval of its Consent Agenda of routine business items, the board approved a temporary easement to Florida Power & Light Co. (FPL) to provide overhead electrical service during the transformation of the wastewater plant into the Siesta Key Master Pump Station.
After FPL has been able to schedule its work on a new electrical feed, an April 3 county staff memo said, “a permanent easement will be presented to the [commissioners] for their approval to meet the long-term needs of FPL and [the county’s] Public Utilities [Department].”
The memo pointed out that the county acquired the Siesta Key Utility Authority wastewater system in 2006 and that the plant — which stands next to the Siesta Isles neighborhood — is under a Florida Department of Environmental Protection consent order to be decommissioned.
After the pump station has been completed — which is scheduled for the end of this year — it will send about 1.5 million gallons of wastewater per day from Siesta Key to two of the county’s water reclamation facilities on the mainland, the memo added.
Time for another Fiesta
The 39th edition of Siesta Fiesta will take place April 29-30, with a street closure, Siesta Chamber leaders have pointed out.
The effort to keep Ocean Boulevard completely open for the 2016 event did not prove as successful as island business leader had hoped, they conceded.
Ocean Boulevard this year will host about 200 vendors with all sorts of artworks — from life-size sculptures to photography to one-of-a-kind pieces of jewelry, a Chamber flyer says. An additional green market will feature plants, body products and “tasty dips,” a Chamber news release notes.
The hours will be 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. As always, admission will be free.
And if you want to avoid the hassle of finding a parking place, head to Turtle Beach, where you can park easily and then board the Siesta Key Breeze, the open-air trolley service the county launched on March 20. The Breeze will take you directly to Siesta Village.
The trolley’s hours are 8 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week.
CodeRed sign-ups encouraged
Sarasota County staff is encouraging property owners to sign up for the free CodeRED alert notification system, which provides phone and text message alerts to property owners about important issues in their neighborhoods.
“Getting accurate and fast information on an event in your neighborhood can save you time, money and possibly even your life,” said Paula Parsons Grubb of Sarasota County Public Utilities in a news release. “The free CodeRED system can alert you to evacuations, severe weather warnings, water and sewer service interruptions, road closures, Amber Alerts and more,” she added in the release.
“Sarasota County does not share [registration] information with private third-party vendors,” the release pointed out.
During the SKA’s March 4 Annual Breakfast Meeting, Vice President Catherine Luckner strongly encouraged members to sign up for CodeRed. In the aftermath of county staff’s discharge into the Grand Canal of 3.3 million gallons of partially treated wastewater from the Siesta Key plant during torrential rains associated with then-Tropical Storm Hermine in late August 2016, residents’ ire was one factor in county staff’s decision to use CodeRed for environmental alerts, Luckner pointed out. (State guidelines allow such discharges in emergency situations when heavy rain or another problem might cause the overflow of untreated sewage from a wastewater plant into a body of water. However, at the time of the Siesta incident, Sarasota County had no policy calling for notice to be provided to the public, other than erection of signage at the Grand Canal.)
For more information about the system, call the county Contact Center at 861-5000 or visit www.scgov.net. Anyone may sign up for the service through a link listed under the Emergency Services tab, the release notes.