Organizer Mike Cosentino hopes to gain enough signatures to get the initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot and overturn a May 11 County Commission vote
Siesta Key resident Mike Cosentino is not relying on a legal challenge he filed against Sarasota County to overturn the County Commission’s abandonment of about 360 feet of North Beach Road. Working under the guidelines of the Sarasota County Charter, he is campaigning to reverse the board’s 4-1 decision on May 11 by amending the Charter.
Cosentino needs 5 percent of all registered county voters to sign petitions to put two Charter amendments on a ballot — ideally the one voters will see as they participate in the Nov. 8 presidential election, he told The Sarasota News Leader this week. Amendment 4.1 says, “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 in May to turn over to three sets of adjacent private property owners. The couples, through their attorney — Charles Bailey III of Williams Parker in Sarasota — provided proffers that they would continue to allow any non-vehicular access to the segment, which has not been open to motorized traffic since 1993. They also agreed to provide an additional 5-foot easement for pedestrians or bicyclists that would ensure the public could continue to cross land they own on the Gulf of Mexico, next to that section of road.
The Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office confirmed for the News Leader this week that Aug. 22 is the last day it can accept any ballot language for voters to address during the Nov. 8 presidential election. However, the Sarasota County Charter also provides for a special election to be scheduled within 60 days after the filing of proposed changes with the supervisor of elections, given that the office can certify a sufficient number of registered voters have signed a petition calling for those changes.
The elections office staff also confirmed for the News Leader that the cost of a special election would be approximately $350,000.
As of this writing, 295,024 people were registered to vote in Sarasota County. Thus, Cosentino would need slightly more than 14,750 of them to sign the petitions to the amendments on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Petitions and the legal challenge
Asked during a telephone interview this week how the petition drive is going, Cosentino told the News Leader, “Actually, very well.” He did not provide a number of signees, but he pointed out that many people who were unaware of the board’s decision in May have learned about it since then and have been eager to support his initiatives. “I have not met a person yet that I explain the situation to that doesn’t agree with me.”
And while county staff confirmed for the News Leader this week that the county still has not been served with the complaint Cosentino’s attorney filed against the county on June 10, Cosentino explained that the law allows up to 120 days for that service to take place.
He has been taking advantage of that time, Cosentino pointed out, to educate the public about what has transpired. “It’s what always happens with these things,” Cosentino said. “No one knows what’s going on.”
The complaint argues that the County Commission violated a provision of the county’s Comprehensive Plan in approving the abandonment of part of North Beach Road. Policy 1.1.13 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.”
Only Commissioner Christine Robinson opposed the road abandonment, citing the Comprehensive Plan as her reason.
Cosentino told the News Leader he has continued to research the background of the deterioration of North Beach Road and the commission’s action this spring. “I’ve spent 500 hours on it,” he said on Aug. 16. “It’s been my full-time job … for 12 weeks now.” He added, “Our case is solid.”
Making their pleas publicly known
Cosentino and other residents have taken the opportunity to appear before the County Commission during the Open to the Public segments of board meetings, imploring the board to reverse its May 11 vote.
Most recently, on July 13 — during the last regular meeting of the commission prior to its annual summer break — Siesta Key resident Jill Lyons talked of being “adamantly against” the abandonment of part of North Beach Road. She has lived on the island for 20 years, she pointed out. “I really thought that there was no way the county commissioners would have given away this valuable piece of property.”
She added that she respectfully requested the board “reverse this vote.”
“This is one of the best pieces of property that all the residents of Sarasota [and tourists] can enjoy,” Lyons said. “It could be promoted to be one of those best scenic drives in all of Sarasota and even the country.”
When he took his turn at the podium that same day, Cosentino showed the board a photo he had taken of the road section that morning. Sand covered the pavement, he pointed out, and vegetation obscured the sidewalk.
He then provided a rendering that he had commissioned a graphic artist to prepare. It illustrates how the section of North Beach Road might appear if the county had opted to go with one of six alternatives Taylor Engineering of Jacksonville suggested in an October 2013 study for the county about how to repair and preserve the road for vehicular traffic. The firm examined about 800 feet of North Beach Road, from the intersection with Columbus Boulevard north to the Avenida Messina intersection. The option Cosentino referenced called for construction of a concrete seawall, with an estimated cost at that time of $1,838,500.
“This right here is the action that you guys paid for and refused to use,” Cosentino told the commissioners.
The same study projected the cost of taking no action to restore the road segment at $5,835,525 over 50 years. That was almost three times the expense of the seawall, he added.
Regarding that option, the report says, “[T]he County would continue to respond to emergency situations as they occur in the area.”
If the board will not reverse its May 11 decision, Cosentino told the News Leader this week, he believes it should vote to put his amendments on the Nov. 8 ballot. Nonetheless, he concedes that probably will not happen. Therefore, a special election would be necessary after he has secured the number of signatures he needs on the petitions. “Obviously,” he said, “it would be kind of stupid to have an election after the [November] election.”
Cosentino added, “Realistically, [the commissioners] would want this on the ballot [in November] so they can see how the people feel.”
Petitions are available at a number of locations on and off Siesta Key, as noted on the website Cosentino established, http://www.reopenbeachroad.com. Among them are the Old Salty Dog restaurant and Blasé Café in Siesta Village, Alpine Steakhouse, Economy Tackle and Massage Envy. The documents may be downloaded from the website, as well.
Cosentino also has continued to raise funds through the website to support his legal challenge. The related gofundme page said on Aug. 17 that $3,900 of the $50,000 goal had been donated by 45 people within the past two months.