Libby Sloan and Margi Ryder leading the charge to convince Sarasota County staff that the situation warrants action
Sometimes rules need to be broken for the greater good.
That is the view residents of Bay Tree Club have taken in regard to a situation they believe literally involves life and death.
And they are not going to give up until they have tried every means of getting the rules changed or at least bent.
It all started in December 2015, Libby Sloan explained to The Sarasota News Leader on April 9, as she and Margi Ryder met with a reporter. They live in the part of the Bay Tree Club condominium complex next to Little Sarasota Bay, at 8625 S. Midnight Pass Road.
The structure is just north of the Turtle Bay and Tortuga Club condominiums.
As Sarasota County prepared to renourish Turtle Beach, more people seemed to begin heading south to that destination as an alternative to the increasingly crowded Siesta Public Beach, Sloan said. More people, obviously, translated into more vehicles passing Bay Tree Club every day, especially during the height of tourist season, Sloan and Ryder explained.
Yet, no crosswalk exists between the Bay Tree Club buildings on the bay side and those on the Gulf side. With a higher traffic volume came increasing stress for people who routinely crossed South Midnight Pass Road in that area.
Additionally, Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) had a bus stop adjacent to the Bay Tree Club driveway on the east side of the road, Sloan pointed out. “People would cross the street to wait for the bus.” (That stop recently has been replaced by a sign marking the site as a stop only for the Siesta Key Breeze trolley, she noted.)
Because of the bus stop, Sloan continued, “We decided … it would be a great idea to have a crosswalk right here.”
Subsequently, Sloan said, Bay Tree Club representatives contacted Sarasota County Commissioner Alan Maio, who sent their request for a crosswalk to appropriate staff for review.
They did not want anything fancy, Sloan and Ryder emphasized. All they had in mind was paint on Midnight Pass Road to indicate that a formal crossing existed there.
The initial response, Sloan said, was that a crosswalk could not be provided in the requested location because sidewalks were not on both sides of Midnight Pass Road, just on the west side.
“That seems to be the ‘Golden Rule,’” Sloan added of the sidewalk criterion.
The decision spurred Sloan to dive into research mode. Using Google Maps to take a close look at other stretches of Midnight Pass Road, she discovered that the crosswalk at the Sea Winds condominium complex, located at 6703 Midnight Pass Road, does not connect to a sidewalk on both sides. On the east side of the road, she pointed out, “They just have a piece of cement that was put in by the county.”
County staff members did not budge, Sloan said, when she pointed out that situation. They then told her too many driveways were in close proximity to the Bay Tree Club site, “and it was a risk [to put in a crosswalk].”
“Obviously, it was excuses,” Sloan added, “as opposed to reasons why they couldn’t do it.”
Bay Tree Club has many older residents and a number of handicapped residents, the women pointed out to the News Leader. A 97-year-old woman who uses a walker crosses the road daily, they said.
One man in his 50s who suffered a stroke takes about 10 minutes to get across the road. “He goes to the pool every day” on the Gulf side of the complex, Ryder explained. “The residents are very good about helping him,” she noted. “We’ve gone out in the street” and watched for traffic.
On April 9, Betsy Lynch, who has lived in Bay Tree Club almost two decades, volunteered to demonstrate for the News Leader just how difficult it can be for someone to get across the road in the face of oncoming traffic. Lynch uses a type of cane, so she has to take her time.
As this reporter watched from the east side of the road, Lynch began her trek. Within moments, a white SUV approached from the north. Lynch kept her eyes on it as it neared her. As she was at the midpoint of the road, it flew past her without slowing.
“Are you serious?!” Ryder exclaimed. “He was far enough back that he could easily have seen you,” she called to Lynch.
“The majority of people will slow down,” Sloan said, “but you just don’t know.”
Lynch told the News Leader that she once fell on the sidewalk on the Gulf side of the road and none of the vehicles traveling past her stopped.
“I stood out here a couple of weeks ago on the [Gulf] side of the street with a big container,” Ryder said, “and counted 15 cars, and, finally, one car stopped to let me cross the street.”
The situation always is worse in the afternoons, Carol Anne Pearson, another Bay Tree Club resident, told the News Leader. “Way more people in the afternoon.”
Along with the regular traffic, the women explained, 18- wheelers delivering food and beer to the restaurants south of their complex travel up and down Midnight Pass Road.
Yet, another reason county staff gave them for not being able to install the crosswalk, Sloan told the News Leader in an email, was that it “would give a false sense of security to the pedestrians. (This one is our favorite of all the ‘reasons’ we have been given.)”
Further county action
County staff did conduct two different traffic counts in the vicinity, Sloan and Ryder noted. The first was completed in the month of May, they said, after the height of tourist season. As expected, Sloan continued, the numbers came back low. Rohini Bobba, who works in the Public Works/Mobility Division, suggested that staff could try again, Sloan continued.
The next attempt was in the month of February.
“We had people walking back and forth” between the bay and Gulf sides of the complex, Sloan said, “and we probably had three times, four times the traffic, and, still, [the sidewalk request] was refused. … There wasn’t enough foot traffic, [county staff reported, to warrant a crosswalk].”
Sloan nonetheless commended Bobba for her interactions with the Bay Tree Club representatives. “She has been very helpful.”
“In my opinion,” Sloan said, “They’re just looking for excuses. They just perhaps don’t want to make a precedent. But I do find Sea Winds is enough of a precedent.”
In an email to Sloan, dated April 13, 2017, Robert Fakhri, manager of the county’s Traffic Engineering and Operations Division, seemed to sum up the situation from the county’s perspective: “[S]taff made site visits and concluded that the location you requested was not a feasible location. The conclusion was based on the following: There is no sidewalk on the west side of Midnight Pass Rd. for the sidewalk to connect to, there are three driveways in the vicinity of the crosswalk resulting in too many conflicting movements [and] the crosswalk location in close proximity to the bus stops and the curvature of the road will pose sight distance problems.”
“How can the crosswalk make the situation any worse?” Ryder asked during the News Leader interview.
Fakhri continued, “The limited road [r]ight of way and the existing concrete [Florida Power & Light Co.] poles do not allow the placement of a sidewalk on the west side of the road anyway.”
He concluded the email by writing, “In addition studies show that for [a] two lane undivided roadway such as Midnight Pass pedestrian crash rates were about the same between marked and unmarked crosswalks.”
During the interview, Ryder talked of her frustrations that in 2012, the Florida Department of Transportation installed 14 crosswalks with lighting alert systems along Midnight Pass Road between the intersections of Beach Road and Stickney Point Road. “We have none from Sea Winds to the Point,” Ryder noted, referring to the end of the road on south Siesta Key. The only exception, she said, was faded paint on the road at Turtle Beach Park.
A standard pedestrian crossing sign does mark that spot, and a painted notice on the road just north of the park entrance warns drivers of a pedestrian crossing ahead.
That faded crosswalk “connects to the side of the road where there is no sidewalk,” Ryder pointed out in an April 11 email to the News Leader, “debunking the previous [county] objection. The crosswalk is also after a curve in the road and 3 driveways!”
On the morning of April 18, Ryder found that the crosswalk at the Turtle Beach Park entrance was sporting a fresh coat of paint, making it highly visible once again. Signs on both sides of the road warn people of the pedestrian crossing, she pointed out.
“We just get the impression that down here, we don’t generate tourist revenue like the north end [of Siesta Key],” Sloan told the News Leader on April 9; “that we’re kind of second-class citizens.”
Sloan and Ryder refuse to give up. Recently, they contacted Gene Kusekoski, who was named president of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) in early March.
He came to the Bay Tree Club last month, Sloan and Ryder reported, so he could get a firsthand look at the situation.
As a result, Kusekoski brought up the issue during the April 5 SKA meeting, although he did not identify the location. “You wouldn’t think it would be hard [to get a crosswalk painted on the road],” he said. Nonetheless, he continued, the residents are “facing all sorts of regulations.”
Kusekoski indicated he hopes the SKA will be able to help them. He accompanied Sloan and Ryder to a meeting on April 18 with Commissioner Maio to discuss the Bay Tree Club situation. Ryder told the News Leader afterward that Maio said he would look into ways he might be able to help them.
The women are contemplating other steps, as well.
“This is a safety issue,” Ryder stressed on April 9. A crosswalk, she added, is “not a nuisance.”