Sheriff’s Office cautions couple about compliance with state law regarding public access to beaches
In August 2019, the Board of Directors of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) began working with the owners of the property at 3935 N. Shell Road — who are SKA members — to help them with safety issues, SKA President Catherine Luckner told about 80 members of the nonprofit during their regular meeting on Jan. 9.
Luckner disputed what she referred to as a “pretty aggressive narrative that had started” earlier in the week. It indicated that those property owners — Greg and Michelle Olson — were trying to limit the public’s right to use Beach Access 1.
“That narrative is absolutely false,” Luckner stressed. She emphasized that Sarasota County’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR) has no intention of limiting public access to the beach at the end of North Shell Road.
Asked for county comments on that point, Media Relations Specialist Brianne Grant emailed The Sarasota News Leader the following statement from Beaches and Water Access Manager Cindy Turner: “Sarasota County has many public beach access points along our 35 miles of beaches. Siesta Key alone has 13 public beach accesses, including Shell Road or Siesta Beach Access 1, plus Siesta Public Beach and Turtle Beach. The beaches and public beach accesses are open to the public to enjoy. Siesta Public Beach, Turtle Beach, and the 13 Siesta public beach accesses are not private,” Turner added. However, she continued, “[T]here are also private beaches/properties along Siesta Key adjacent to public beach accesses. Private property owners cannot block access to public beach accesses/property.”
On Jan. 9, Luckner told the SKA members that, after visiting Beach Access 1, she could assure them that neither the lateral nor the perpendicular public access to the beach had been blocked off by a barrier the Olsons had erected. She encouraged members to take a look at the situation for themselves.
During a Jan. 7 telephone interview, Luckner told the News Leader she had seen videos the Olsons had taken of incidents at North Shell Road that had prompted their calls for law enforcement assistance. “It’s horrible,” Luckner added of the general situation for homeowners on the road. “We have to make it a safe place.”
In addressing the SKA members on Jan. 9, she said, “I think I speak for all of you in that we don’t want anybody to be disenfranchised from a place of peace where they live.”
The first full week of January, news media reports focused on efforts by the Olsons to protect themselves from a wide variety of disturbances, including alleged illegal drug use and damage to their property.
On Jan. 7, Kaitlyn R. Perez, the community affairs director for the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, told the News Leader that from July 1, 2019 to that day, the Sheriff’s Office had logged “a total of 92 calls for service on North Shell Road.” Since May 2017, she added, the total was 120.
“I do not have that broken down by year,” she explained in her email, “but can obviously tell you … the majority of calls have been since July 2019.”
Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office records show the Olsons bought the property in April 2017.
In January 2019, the Olsons filed a petition with the county’s Traffic Advisory Council (TAC) in an effort to eliminate the public parking spaces for Beach Access 1 that exist between their property and the shoreline. In their narrative in that petition, they alleged repeated illegal drug and alcohol incidents along North Shell Road and at Access 1, writing that they and their neighbors “fear for our safety.”
They added, “The team of Sheriffs that respond to our constant calls are … incredibly supportive.” Nonetheless, they continued, the Sheriff’s Office does not have sufficient staffing to be able to “dedicate an officer 24/7 to Shell Beach.”
The Olsons also wrote that the parking spaces they wanted removed from the road “are positioned in a way that [allows] ‘cover’ for [illegal] activities to take place, as [people] hide behind their cars.”
They ultimately did not have enough signatures on that petition to make it valid, county staff told the News Leaderin September 2019. As of late last week, county Public Records staff reported that the Olsons had not filed a revised petition.
To support their claims about their allegations, the Olsons pointed out in their TAC petition that they and their neighbors “continually find illegal drug paraphernalia (crack pipes, bongs, etc.) all along the street.”
In addition, they wrote, “[W]e 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.”
Trying to protect themselves
An article in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune last week focused on the fact that the Olsons had constructed a barrier along their property line to try to prevent people from trespassing.
Midafternoon on Jan. 7, Michelle Cellini, special projects administrator for Sheriff Tom Knight, sent an email to Michelle Olson, responding to comments Olson had made in an email to the Sheriff’s Office. Perez provided the News Leadera copy of that reply from Cellini to Olson:
“As you know and we have previously discussed,” Cellini began, “the private and public area of a beach in Florida is difficult to determine and controlled by an ambiguous law. The Florida Constitution states that the title to beaches below the mean high-water line is held by the state in trust for all the people. Florida Statute 177.27(14) defines mean high water as ‘the average height of the high waters over a 19-year period. For shorter periods of observation, ‘mean high water’ means the average height of the high waters after corrections are applied to eliminate known variations and to reduce the result to the equivalent of a mean 19-year value. The mean high-water line is defined in Florida Statute 177.27(15) as ‘the intersection of the tidal plane of mean high water with the shore.’ This is the law provided to us as we train and instruct deputies how to rightfully respond to calls for service at the many beaches in Sarasota County.”
“As I’m sure you recall when the Sheriff and I visited your property last summer,” Cellini continued, “we discussed various issues you were having. When discussing the beach specifically, we recommended you work with the local government to determine your private property areas. We did not recommend that you place a barrier yourself, as it could possibly cause additional problems. I will reiterate that the proper process is working with the local government to resolve your issues. We are happy to continue assisting you within our abilities and the scope of the law.”
Cellini then noted the number of calls for service from the Olsons over the past 2½ years, including the statistics that Perez had provided the News Leader.”
“In the year prior to your purchase of 3935 N. Shell Road,” Cellini wrote Olson, “we received less than ten (10) calls for service. Please continue to contact us and we will respond to your call in the same rightful manner as we do for the more than 420,000 citizens we have in our community.”
A variety of complaints
In response to a public records request, Perez of the Sheriff’s Office provided the News Leaderthe list of calls for service on North Shell Road beginning on July 9, 2019. The list includes allegations of illegal parking, noise disturbances, sightings of suspicious persons, indecent exposure incidents, trespassing incidents and misdemeanor counts of criminal mischief.
The News Leader counted 26 illegal parking complaints, 23 suspicious person/suspicious vehicle/suspicious incident complaints and six trespassing complaints, among others. A number of the remaining calls were marked “Officer Public Service.”
Perez also provided copies of several of the incident reports. For example, on June 15, 2019, the Sheriff’s Office received a call about two people outside a North Shell Road home, one of whom “was exposing his genitals and making a vulgar motion with his hand,” the report said.
After reviewing video of the incident — which the complainant showed the officer — the officer wrote that he saw the suspect walk from the beach “toward a vehicle parked next to the victim’s residence. The suspect then proceeded to remove his penis from his pants while looking up …” The remainder of that line was redacted.
The report added a description of the motions the suspect made with his hands before he “placed his penis back into his pants and walked away.”
The report identified the suspect as Joseph J. Wegzyn, 31, of Sarasota.
The complainant recognized a person accompanying Wegzyn as Daniel Fletcher, the report added. Fletcher, then 34, is also a Sarasota resident, the report said.
Later the same day, the report continued, the officer spoke with Wegzyn, who told the officer “he was being stupid at Beach Access 1 (3940 N. Shell Road). Mr. Wegzyn stated that he had been drinking and walked over to the side of the vehicle to urinate. Mr. Wegzyn stated that he wanted to apologize for his inappropriate behavior and stated that he wouldn’t return to the area,” the report noted.
The complainant “was unsure at [that] time if she wished to pursue charges against Mr. Wegzyn,” the report said.
The second person in that incident — Fletcher — also was the focus of a complaint that came in to the Sheriff’s Office about 11 a.m. on Dec. 25, 2019. The narrative in that case said Fletcher previously had been warned about not trespassing on the caller’s property.
“On video surveillance,” the report said, as he leaves Access 1, Fletcher “is seen crossing over the ropes [the complainant had used to mark her property line].” Fletcher told the officer he “did not feel that he was on the [victim’s] property,” the report continued.
Then the officer checked with a member of the Sheriff’s Office staff, who confirmed that the order not to trespass again on the property was given to Fletcher on Sept. 25, 2019 and “was still in effect,” the report noted. “The victim wanted to press charges,” the report added, “stating this is an ongoing issue.”
The Sheriff’s Office did not arrest Fletcher, Perez pointed out; it handled that case through a process called “direct file” with the State Attorney’s Office for the 12thJudicial District. After reviewing the report, she wrote, the State Attorney’s Office would determine whether to charge Fletcher.
Parking problems and late-night noise
Several of the Sheriff’s Office case cards Perez included in the public records she gave the News Leader were focused on illegal parking incidents. In one example — reported on July 24, 2019 — the officer responded to a noise disturbance just before 3:30 a.m. The officer “located subjects on beach” and advised them about the parking hours and the private property line, the case card said. “[S]ubjects were cooperative and left without incident.”
The posted beach hours, the Olsons pointed out in their petition to the Traffic Advisory Council, are 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
In a second example — reported on July 28, 2019 — the responding officer wrote that he advised the driver of a car parked in front of the Olsons’ gate that the driver could not leave a truck there. “[H]e moved his truck with no issues,” the case card added of the driver.
A third incident, reported on July 29, 2019, involved persons fishing from the beach after 10 p.m. They left after the officer asked them to do so, the case card noted.
On Aug. 3, 2019, the Sheriff’s Office responded to a trespassing complaint on North Shell Road. The report on that incident, which was called in at 4:45 p.m., said, “Complainant has a fenced in rear yard, with additional properties going all the way down past the water line. Complainant has decorative planters on the outside of her fence. The complainant had sprinklers [watering] new plantings in the planters.”
A male “climbed onto the rocks,” the report continued, “and reached through the fence.” The man “then turned the sprinklers in a different direction so the spray would not reach his beach gear. The sprinkler was not damaged,” the report added. “The subject was gone” when the officer arrived, the report said.
In another trespassing case, reported on Dec. 25, 2019 at 10:30 a.m., the complainant told the Sheriff’s Office about damage to a “large yellow sign” advising people not to trespass on private property and that the area was under video surveillance.
That report said, “The complainant has been attempting to work with the county and an attorney as to where her property lines are in reference to [the shoreline].” She had a company complete a survey of the Mean High Water Line “and marked it with survey stakes.”
Video showed a male “approximately 15-20 [years of age] pulling down the rope and wood post that divides [the complainant’s] property” from Beach Access 1, the report continued. The male “then bent the metal trespass sign in half and threw it on the ground” before walking in the direction of Higel Avenue, which intersects with North Shell Road, the report said. The damage to the sign was put at $130.