SKA board announces vote not to become involved with Siesta resident’s lawsuit over Beach Road vacation

Michael Cosentino argues that the nonprofit should call a special meeting to let him explain his case, but the president says the SKA has no intention of getting entangled in legal action against the county

Michael Cosentino addresses the Siesta Key Association on Oct. 6, 2016. File photo

The Siesta Key Association (SKA) board has voted not to become involved with a Siesta resident’s lawsuit against Sarasota County over the May 11, 2016 County Commission vote to vacate a 357-foot portion of North Beach Road.

That was the news the president and vice president gave about 60 people attending the SKA’s regular meeting on April 6.

The SKA board members that day also did not accede to repeated demands of plaintiff Michael Cosentino for them to schedule a special meeting during which he would be able to present arguments supporting his 12th Judicial Circuit Court complaint. In that, he contends that the County Commission violated the county’s Comprehensive Plan in approving the road vacation.

“We have already voted as a board that this is not an issue that we feel has a life for us right now,” SKA Vice President Catherine Luckner told Cosentino.

“The board vote is not unanimous on this,” Cosentino responded.

“Yes, it is,” she said.

“Mike has filed a lawsuit,” President Harold Ashby told the audience. “This issue is going to be decided in the courts, based on the facts and the law, not based on what Mike says … and the Siesta Key Association has no interest in joining a lawsuit against the county in the courts over an issue [pursued by someone else].”

The board supports public access to the beach and walkability on the island, Luckner told Cosentino, and the resolution the County Commission approved last year ensures both in regard to North Beach Road.

Although bollards have been installed on either end of the vacated road section to prevent vehicle access, signage county staff erected in late December 2016 makes it clear that the public can continue to use the road for other purposes. Charles Bailey III of the Williams Parker law firm in Sarasota — the attorney for the three couples who petitioned for the road vacation — pointed out during the May 11, 2016 public hearing that any member of the public would still be able to walk, ride bicycles or electric vehicles, or walk dogs along the 357 feet after the vacation was approved.

Bollards finally were installed in late January at the ends of the vacated segment of North Beach Road. File photo

The public has not been able to drive on that part of the road since 1993, as a result of a county decision related to repeated storm damage to the pavement.

Furthermore, Ashby said on May 6, “Nobody has requested a special meeting.” Even though Cosentino kept calling for one that evening, Ashby added, “we haven’t seen anything [in formal writing].”

Delving into the bylaws

In response to a Sarasota News Leader question to clarify his comments during the April 6 discussion, Ashby wrote in an April 8 email, “Since no request for a special meeting has been made, I can only speculate on what the stated purpose for the meeting might be. My assumption is that any special meeting would afford Mr. Cosentino yet another opportunity to address an assembled group of people to promote his cause. The SKA Board needs to decide if SKA is an organization that should be made available to its members for such a purpose. It would break new ground and potentially change the way SKA serves its members in a radical way.”

Ashby added, “Since the Beach [Road] issue has been decided by the County Commission and is now the subject of litigation to which SKA is not party, there is no action available to SKA with respect to this matter. There is nothing for SKA or [its] members to decide, hence I can think of no legitimate purpose for having a special meeting. Nevertheless, the Board will consider a valid request, if received.”

SKA President Harold Ashby. Rachel Hackney photo

On April 6, Cosentino contended that the SKA should hold a special meeting because the nonprofit’s bylaws provide for such a session when at least 100 members have signed a petition seeking one. He has 101 signatures, he told the board members, though he plans to try to collect at least 50 more. If the board members refused to call for a special meeting, he added at one point, “I’m going to file a suit against you guys.”

In his email to the News Leader, Ashby pointed out that the organization’s bylaws were not written clearly. If the board chooses to have a special meeting, Ashby continued, “Many procedural factors will have to be considered because there is no process outlined in the Bylaws for the conduct of a special meeting which is further testimony to the fact that the special meeting language is a mistake in the Bylaws. For example, to hold a special meeting of members, members must be notified. However many of our members do not provide [an] email or mailing address because they don’t wish to be notified [of SKA business]. They just want to support us.”

He further noted, “Also, since members cannot vote, the legitimate purpose of the meeting is questionable. Any polling taken at the meeting cannot be considered representative of the membership because all members were not notified of the meeting. Members not present would not be polled. There would be no proxies because no votes are allowed. There is no rule for a quorum of members because members do not vote. Any votes taken would be taken in violation of the Association’s Bylaws.”

The SKA debate

Ashby was wrapping up the board members’ reports during the April 6 SKA meeting when Cosentino brought up the issue of the road vacation. Cosentino pointed out that board members signed a letter that was put into the record of the May 11, 2016 public hearing. That letter asked the County Commission to delay action on the road petition as well as on an application submitted by one set of the North Beach Road property owners — Dennis and Wendy Madden. They were seeking a Coastal Setback Variance so they could tear down 12 dwelling units that do not conform to current building standards and replace them with six new units, county staff testified.

The letter sought more time for Siesta Key residents, the “public as a whole and county staff … to research … and understand the far reaching effects” of the road vacation petition and the application for the variance.

SKA Director Joe Volpe was among the public speakers during the May 11, 2016 County Commission hearing. File photo

It was signed by Ashby, who was elected SKA president on March 4, as well as Luckner and Directors Joe Volpe, Dan Lundy, Joyce Kouba and Robert Miller, along with then-director Helen Clifford.

Cosentino said on April 6 that he has been asking the SKA board “steadfastly for 10 months” to poll its membership to determine the majority’s position on the North Beach Road issues. (In addition to bringing suit against the county, he is fighting a countersuit brought against him by the Maddens.)

“I have been through thousands of pages of county documents, and we are literally using quotes from the county attorney” and other county staff, Cosentino pointed out of himself and his two attorneys, referencing documentation for his claims.

He told the SKA board members that he has a copy of the organization’s bylaws. Later, he read aloud Article III, Section 2, which says, “A special meeting of the members may be called at a date, time, and place established by the President or, in his/her absence, by the Vice President, or a majority of the Board of Directors. It shall be the duty of the President, Vice President or the Directors to call such a meeting whenever requested in writing by at least 100 members of the Association.”

“I want democracy to unfold,” Cosentino added, saying he welcomed “presentations from the other side” during the special meeting.

Ashby referenced a note on the April 6 meeting agenda that had asked members to limit their comments on a topic to 2 minutes. “You’ve had 5,” he told Cosentino.

Then Siesta resident Michael Holderness pointed out of Cosentino, “For the last 10 months, this guy has done nothing but harass this community” and harass visitors to the island.
“This is a man who’s taken the road, by the way,” Cosentino interrupted Holderness.

Holderness bought the house at 99 Beach Road and other property originally owned by one of the three sets of petitioners for the road vacation.

“I inherited this mess when I purchased the house,” Holderness responded.
“This is not a debate about Beach Road tonight,” Ashby said.

Michael Holderness. File photo

But Holderness continued on the topic, complaining — as he had earlier in the meeting — that a wooden sign Cosentino had hung at property Cosentino bought last year at 10 Beach Road had blown apart during strong winds on a recent Saturday and nearly hit people on the adjacent beach. Holderness added that Cosentino also had turned up rock music loudly on a radio station as a violinist began playing for a wedding on private property on the Gulf of Mexico side of the vacated road segment. Holderness shot video of the bride in tears, he told the SKA members. “[Cosentino] ruined this woman’s wedding.”

When an audience member asked about the board holding a debate on the road vacation, Vice President Luckner responded. Some of the directors who signed the letter in advance of the May 2016 public hearing, she said, attended the proceedings on May 11 and asked questions that members had posed to them in regard to the petitions. The board had relatively short notice about the public hearing, she added.

“We’re not unhappy with the outcome,” Luckner continued, noting that one goal of the island’s special zoning district — the Siesta Key Overlay District, which was implemented in 1999 — is to promote more walkability. The resolution the County Commission approved for the road vacation also promotes walkability, she pointed out.

Furthermore, the private property owners who petitioned for the road vacation gave up the right forever to ask the County Commission to consider construction on their parcels seaward of the road, Luckner noted. (That was one of the stipulations the petitioners proffered during the May 11, 2016 public hearing.)

The SKA board did not object to Cosentino’s lawsuit against the county when it was filed, Ashby said, but the County Commission vote made the issue final.

“That’s like saying that the Big Pass issue is finished,” Cosentino told Ashby, referring to the SKA’s efforts to prevent the dredging of the pass for the renourishment of South Lido Key. (See the related article in this issue.)

The house at 77 N. Beach Road is owned by the Caflish family. Weddings often take place on Gulf-front private property across the road from the house. Rachel Hackney photo

Ashby also said Cosentino did not have the right to gather signatures on his petition for a special session when he did so outside the SKA’s annual breakfast meeting on March 4. “This is private property,” Ashby continued, referring to the site of St. Boniface Episcopal Church on Midnight Pass Road, where the SKA holds its monthly gatherings. “We lease it,” Ashby added of the meeting space it uses. “Please respect our rights.”

“Please respect mine,” Cosentino replied.

When SKA member Steve Lexow then asked Ashby about Cosentino’s assertions regarding the bylaws, Ashby indicated that Cosentino had misinterpreted them. Ashby pointed to the language following the section Cosentino had read aloud. It says, “Notice of meeting shall include appropriate ballot and proxy forms and any other such material the Board considers appropriate.”

The members cannot vote, Ashby continued. “Members have never been able to vote. … It’s always been that way.”