Couple says illegal parking and alleged alcohol and drug issues at Beach Access 1 causing significant problems for them and their neighbors
(Editor’s note: This article was modified on the morning of June 28 to correct information about which parking spaces are proposed for elimination.)
On April 9, 2014, the Sarasota County Commission voted 3-2 to approve a plan for 16 public parking spaces on North Shell Road, to enhance public enjoyment of Beach Access 1.
Spots were to be carved out on both sides of the road, the board agreed.
During the public hearing that day, a Solymar resident, Paul Eklund, complained about cars parked all over the road during the height of tourist season. He counted 44 on March 1 and 42 on April 6, he told the commissioners, adding, “And these are not unusual numbers.”
Chuck McGovern, who said he lived at the western end of the road, pointed out, “We just want enforceable parking in designated parking spaces.”
Five other people joined the two men in urging the board members to ameliorate the problems with which they were contending.
Almost five-and-a-half years later, a couple living on North Shell Road — with support from six of their neighbors — formally will ask the county’s Traffic Advisory Council to eliminate a number of the 16 spots. Greg and Michelle Olson cite not only illegal parking issues but also alleged offenses such as drug use, excessive drinking, and drinking and driving among visitors to Shell Beach at Access 1.
Sarasota County Property Appraiser Office records show that the Olsons bought their 33,166-square-foot parcel in April 2017 for $3.5 million.
Their petition was scheduled to have been heard on June 3; however, a lack of quorum that day has pushed back the hearing to Sept. 9, Brianne Grant, county media relations specialist, told The Sarasota News Leader.
In 2014, then-Chief County Engineer James K. Harriott Jr. and his staff proposed three different options for the commissioners to consider in an effort to ease residents’ concerns while providing more orderly public access to Shell Beach. Each design called for a rope-and-post system to clearly delineate the county parking spaces.
A memo Harriott had prepared for the commissioners in advance of that 2014 meeting noted that the board members had asked staff 11 months earlier “to explore the feasibility of providing organized parking along North Shell Road.” The memo added that “parking is … hard to enforce by our Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office.”
Harriott and other staff members had conducted meetings with residents, the memo said, “in an effort to address their concerns and design parking [options].”
Commissioner Nora Patterson — a long-time Siesta Key resident — and Commissioners Christine Robinson and Charles Hines approved the 16-space option. Commissioners Joe Barbetta and Carolyn Mason supported an option for 10 parking spaces on only one side of the road, citing residents’ concerns about line-of-sight and other safety issues.
Even after the board vote, Harriott and other staff members continued outreach to property owners on North Shell Road.
Homeownership and beach access
Even before the County Commission voted in May 2016 to vacate a 373-foot-long segment of North Beach Road, the issue of public access to the water had festered among Siesta residents.
Once, people could drive along a stretch of Shell Road, enjoying the vistas of Big Pass and the Gulf of Mexico. An October 1978 article by Anne Johnson in the Siesta Key Pelican said Shell Road was “[c]onsidered by many the most scenic view on Siesta Key.” A person started that drive on the segment that leads these days to Beach Access 1. From there, the road formed a rough U-shape, eventually rejoining Higel about half-a-mile south, Johnson wrote.
Yet, homeowner complaints resulting from storm damage to part of the road and a subsequent County Commission vote to vacate the affected area left Beach Access 1 as the sole remnant of water access for the public on Shell Road.
Almost exactly four years after the County Commission approved the 16 parking spaces on North Shell Road, a new pair of residents began complaining at a Siesta Key Association meeting (SKA) about dogs on the beach at Access 1.
The woman in the couple told then-Sgt. Jason Mruczek, the Sheriff’s Office substation leader, that people had turned Access 1 into a “dog beach.”
The previous morning — April 5, 2018 — she said she had seen two dogs relieving themselves on the shoreline.
Dogs are on the beach there “all day long,” the woman pointed out, in spite of the county ordinance that prohibits dogs on the public beach because of health concerns. (See the related story about stormwater in this issue.)
“We’re left with the trash and the urine, and it’s really getting out of hand,” the woman told Mruczek.
Additionally, she said, parking has “gotten out of hand at night.”
When Mruczek asked whether she meant people were remaining in the area after 9 p.m., she replied, “Oh, yeah. Yeah. I’ve got you guys on speed dial.”
Mruczek told her that deputies had been enforcing the closing of the beach access to parking at 9 p.m., but, even so, anyone could walk on the beach after that hour.
The woman also noted that when deputies used to hand out $20 tickets for illegal parking, people would laugh at them. With deputies having begun writing $75 tickets for parking violations, she continued, at least people had proven more responsive to the threat that they would be fined.
Both the woman and the man with her declined to identify themselves to The Sarasota News Leader, citing concerns about backlash for their comments.
At the next SKA meeting, in May 2018, Mruczek reported that he believed the Sheriff’s Office had “had a lot of success with enforcement” on North Shell Road.
Eight months later, though, the residents of 3935 N. Shell Road — Greg and Michelle Olson — filed an application with the Sarasota County Traffic Advisory Council (TAC), requesting the removal of all the parking spaces on both sides of the road between their house and the cul-de-sac.
The TAC is one of numerous county advisory boards. Its webpage on the county website says it advises the County Commission and makes recommendations “on matters pertaining to traffic, parking, speed regulations, safety, and the placing of traffic control devices within unincorporated Sarasota County.”
Of the eight board members, one is a representative of the Sheriff’s Office and another is a member of the Florida Highway Patrol. The council is scheduled to meet on a quarterly basis. Its sessions are conducted in the same Chambers at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota as those of the County Commission.
Generally, the County Commission takes final action on petitions to the TAC.
Details about their request
In their Jan. 24 petition to the TAC, the Olsons included seven reasons for seeking the parking space reduction on North Shell Road. Many of their points reprised issues raised at the April 2018 SKA meeting.
Foremost, however, they wrote, has been consistent difficulty “entering and exiting our driveway due to cars repeatedly parking beyond the [‘No Parking’] areas of the cul-de-sac …”
That is “of grave concern,” they stressed, because Greg Olson has health issues. In fact, they continued, their driveway was blocked once when they needed to go to the emergency room. They cited that situation as the impetus for their decision to petition the TAC.
Not only did they encounter problems that day, they pointed out, but the “constant illegal parking and blocking of our driveway” also prevents emergency vehicle access to their home in the event of an urgent medical situation.
As for the alleged drug and alcohol incidents: The couple wrote that they and their neighbors “fear for our safety. The team of Sheriffs that respond to our constant calls are … incredibly supportive,” the couple continued. Nonetheless, the Sheriff’s Office does not have sufficient staffing to be able to “dedicate an officer 24/7 to Shell Beach,” they added, though they pointed out that that “is warranted to curb the illegal activities occurring morning, noon and night.”
The Olsons also wrote that the parking spaces they want removed from the road “are positioned in a way that [allows] ‘cover’ for [illegal] activities to take place, as [people] hide behind their cars.”
To support their allegations, they pointed out that they and their neighbors “continually find illegal drug paraphernalia (crack pipes, bongs, etc.) all along the street.”
In addition,” they wrote, “we have patrons [of the beach access] who regularly urinate and defecate alongside their parked cars in the aforementioned spaces. We have beer cans tossed over our privacy wall daily [and] several neighbors have documented vandalism at their homes which was the result of constant attempts to trespass (jump our privacy walls), again by high and intoxicated individuals.”
Further, they cited “a blatant disregard for the posted beach hours” prohibiting people with vehicles in the area between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. daily.
The Olsons added that they and their neighbors “are awoken at all hours of the night with loud music, intoxicated patrons screaming and again choosing to urinate and defecate all over Shell Rd. on their way back to their vehicles.”
Then they noted that Access 1 has “become known as the ‘dog beach.’”
“This regularly causes a health hazard,” they wrote, as the dogs “urinate and defecate, without their owners properly removing the pet waste; in addition, we wake up most mornings to barking dogs on the beach before [6 a.m.].”
No. 6 on their list cited illegal, double parking of cars “in the designated handicap spot.”
Further, they noted, contractors are unable at times to access their property because of all the vehicles parked in the cul-de-sac. “The traffic issue on North Shell Road has become overwhelming,” the Olsons added.
Finally, they wrote that, along with cleaning up all the “drug paraphernalia, beer cans/bottles, human waste, feminine hygiene products etc.,” they have had to pay to have their privacy wall repaired, because a vehicle struck it and damaged it in December 2018.
The Olsons concluded their email, “We are hopeful that you would give thoughtful consideration to our request. We also welcome you to come and visit and witness first-hand the activities that occur on Shell Beach. We trust that this is not how you would want a beach within your jurisdiction to be operating.”