Complaints aired about continued large gatherings on private Siesta Beach parcels near Beach Access 2 in spite of COVID-19 warnings about social distancing

County cites one property owner who erected signs and later a fence to try to enforce national and state directives issued to prevent spread of infections

Editor’s note: This article was updated early in the afternoon of March 27 to add more details about the location of fencing on private beach property between Beach Accesses 2 and 3.

This still from a video a Beach Road property owner provided to county leaders shows a crowd of young people in the area of Beach Access 2 and the property seaward of Beach Road at the Intersection of Avenue Messina. The seaward lots are privately owned. Contributed image

Starting Monday, March 16, Siesta Key property owner and manager Michael Holderness began complaining to the Sarasota County commissioners and County Administrator Jonathan Lewis about the gatherings of spring break groups on Siesta Key’s beaches.

Holderness’ concern, he stressed, was the need for social distancing, as advised by national and world health authorities as a means of fighting the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

Holderness is founder and CEO of Beachside Management LLC.

A day later, he started expressing vexation about the crowds on fellow Siesta Key resident Mike Cosentino’s property at 10 Beach Road, adjacent to Beach Access 2. His email that time was directed to Howard Berna, manager of the county’s Environmental Permitting Division.

Berna advised Holderness to direct his complaints to the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office.

By March 18, another Siesta Key property owner, Patricia Geruso Blumberg, who owns the property at 47 Beach Road, was joining Holderness in email complaints to county leaders and staff. Holderness and Blumberg’s concern in those communications was the need for better signage, making it clear that members of the public could not park illegally around Access 2 or block Beach Road south of the Avenida Messina intersection.

This aerial view shows the same general vicinity of Beach Access 2. Image from Google Maps

In response to that email, Lisa Cece, special district coordinator for the county, wrote on March 18,  “A request was made for increased enforcement of this area by the County yesterday. All signage is in compliance with state requirements for posting, and the Sheriff has all of the District documentation for enforcement. [The Sheriff’s Office] will again make sure all staff [members] understand the parking prohibition that is in effect.”

Later that day, Holderness responded to Cece, noting one “huge fight” near Access 2 and repeating his complaint about “gatherings every night this week …”

By March 19, however, Holderness found himself in trouble with the county’s Code Enforcement Division.

Citing his frustration that the county leaders did not plan to close private beaches on March 21, along with the public shoreline areas over which the county has authority, Holderness wrote another email to county staff members. Including Berna again among the recipients, Holderness complained about the potential for people to gather in large groups on private beach parcels.

This is a close-up of one of the signs Michael Holderness erected on privately owned beach property near Access 2. Contributed photo
A photo posted on a Facebook group page for Siesta residents shows a cluster of signs Mike Holderness said he placed on private beach property. Courtesy photo

As a result of his worries, Holderness erected signs around part of his private beach property south of Access 2, advising that only people with wristbands would be allowed there. “So now I’m harassed TODAY for closing my beach,” he added in his email, with emphasis. “Closing the main beach PUSHES ALL LOCAL KIDS BACK TO OUR LANDS AND NOW [PUTS] OUR HEALTH AT RISK,” Holderness stressed in that email.

A local Realtor who saw Holderness’ “Guests with Wristbands Only” signs alerted The Sarasota News Leader to the situation on the morning of March 20.

In response to News Leader questions, Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation on the Key, reported that, indeed, Holderness’ signs were on private property.

However, the News Leader learned through a public records request that a county Code Enforcement officer had cited Holderness for violations of two provisions of Chapter 124, Section 111, of the county’s Unified Development Code, which deals with prohibited signs.

The Notice of Violation pointed out that the County Code does not allow “Off-site advertising signs,” expect as specifically permitted in the code. Second, “Portable signs are prohibited, whether illuminated or not,” except where specifically permitted by the Unified Development Code. The citation added, with emphasis, “A portable sign is any sign not permanently attached to the ground or other permanent structure or a sign designed to be transported, including, but not limited to, signs designed to be transported by means of wheels; skid-mounted signs; signs converted to A- or T-frames; menu and sandwich board signs.”

The Notice of Violation ordered Holderness — again with emphasis — to remove the signs from the vacant parcel by March 27 “and do not allow this violation to re-occur.”

Failure to correct the situation, the notice continued, would result in “an Affidavit or Statement of Violation to be filed with the Code Enforcement Special Master,” who would conduct a hearing on the issue. “If the Code Enforcement Special Master finds a violation exists,” the notice said, “penalties up to $1,000.00 per day for each day the violation exists may be imposed. Penalties up to $5,000.00 per day for each repeat violation may be imposed.”

Holderness told the News Leader in a March 25 email that he had removed the signs.

The Cosentino situation at 10 Beach Road

An aerial map shows the seaward-most parcel Mike Cosentino owns (outlined in red) off North Beach Road next to Cosentino’s property at 10 Beach Road. Image from the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office

With Holderness continuing to express anger about members of the public gathering in large groups near Access 2,

Cece, the county’s special district coordinator, pointed out in a March 22 email response that Mike Cosentino’s private property located at 10 Beach Road — like the others immediately south of it — extends even into the Gulf of Mexico. (County historic photos of Siesta Beach show that, decades ago, parcels in that area seaward of Beach Road were at least partly underwater. The accretion of sand on the shoreline in succeeding years has made it appear that the private parcels are part of public beach.)

In this 1974 aerial of the vicinity of Beach Access 2, the groin on the Cosentino property is shown mostly in the Gulf of Mexico. The blue outline encompasses the parcel at 65 Beach Road, and the red line represents the county’s Gulf Beach Setback Line. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Cece added, “I have made an additional request for enforcement of no parking, and no ‘stopping, standing or parking’” at Beach Access 2.

On March 25, Cosentino addressed the county commissioners during the Open to the Public segment of their meeting, saying, “I appreciate the opportunity to dispel some mistruths being spread to county staff and on social media …”

Every morning and every evening, he continued, he conducts ceremonies with the American flag he flies from an old groin on the 10 Beach Road parcel. He said his goal is to “honor the sacrifices of our military and service personnel in protecting our country and our freedoms …” The ceremonies, Cosentino added, recognize “that we are the land of the free because of the brave.”

Mike Cosentino addresses the commissioners on March 24. News Leader image

At 8 a.m., he continued, he raises the flag to Reveille and then leads participants in singing the National Anthem. “That takes about 3 minutes.”

At sunset, he told the board, participants recite the Pledge of Allegiance and sing God Bless America and the National Anthem. As the flag is lowered, Cosentino said, Taps is played. That ceremony takes about 12 minutes, he added, noting, “This is done entirely on my land, where, yes, I choose to allow public use of my private property.”

“I have been and will remain in compliance with all directives as they pertain to my beach property,” he pointed out, noting that he has asked all visitors to abide by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ directive to allow groups to comprise no more than 10 people and for those persons to stand at least 6 feet from each other.

“I meet daily with our sheriff’s deputies,” Cosentino told the board. “Thus far, not even a warning has been issued; we are completely compliant.”

He invited the commissioners to come to any of his flag-raising or flag-lowering ceremonies.

One photo in the email chains last week involving Holderness and county staff did show that Cosentino had posted a sign, urging people to abide by the governor’s crowd and spacing directive in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “Please help us stay in compliance with this order at 10 Beach Road as we continue our nightly tribute to our military and service personnel who protect our county and our freedom,” the sign said.

At the bottom, the sign included Cosentino’s name and noted that he is president of Reopen Beach Road, a nonprofit he founded in June 2016 in an effort to overturn a County Commission decision in May of that year to vacate a 373-foot-long segment of North Beach Road that had been closed to traffic since 1993.

This is the sign Mike Cosentino has posted at his 10 Beach Road property. Contributed photo

In response to News Leader questions regarding the allegations that large groups have been gathering near Beach Access 2, Kaitlyn Perez, community affairs director for the Sheriff’s Office, wrote in a March 24 email, “We are aware of the frequent celebrations being hosted on Mr. Cosentino’s property. We have been called to address parking issues on nearby Beach Road, which have been handled with no issue. I do know our deputies were at Beach Access #2 several times on Saturday [March 21]. Everyone was either in compliance or [was] happy to comply after being informed of the beach closure. The individuals on the private property were in groups of less than 10 and maintained the recommended social distancing. As I am sure you know, there are barricades and signs in place that indicate the beach access is closed. Deputies are doing their best to maintain a presence in that area while also maintaining a presence at the main beach, Turtle Beach, and all the other accesses,” Perez added.

When the News Leader asked county staff for a formal comment about Holderness’ complaints, Media Relations Officer Sara Nealeigh responded in a March 24 email: “Sarasota County Government is not responsible for private property. Direction on private beaches would need to come from the state level. Questions related to private property rights and enforcement should be directed to law enforcement.

Sarasota County public beaches are closed. Lifeguards are working with law enforcement to inform and educate visitors that public beaches are closed and ask them to leave.”

The fence

This is a view of the fence Mike Holderness said he erected on private property he owns seaward of Beach Road. The flag on Mike Cosentino’s groin is visible at far left. Contributed photo

In the wake of the complaints about the gatherings and the signs Holderness put up on his private property near Beach Access 2, a Siesta resident alerted the News Leader late in the afternoon of March 25 that a fence had been erected on the private beach between that access and Access 3.

The resident included photos of Stop Work orders attached to the fencing, which had been issued by Sarasota County Environmental Permitting and Building Official staff.

This is one of the Stop Work Order signs posted on the fencing. Contributed photo

One sign, including the date of March 24 and the time of 2:30 p.m., explained that the fence/construction violated Chapter 54, Article XXII, of the County Code, per Howard Berna, the Environmental Permitting manager. A county Building Official employee had signed the Stop Work orders.

The property identified on that order is one of the parcels located seaward of Beach Road that Holderness bought in August 2016 from the heirs of the late Capt. Ralph Styles, who lived at 99 Beach Road. The two seaward parcels are listed in the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office records as belonging to Siesta Beach Lots LLC, whose registered agent is Holderness. Siesta Beach Lots was founded in early August 2016.

This aerial image shows the property, outlined in red, where Mike Holderness had the fence constructed. It is west of another parcel he owns seaward of North Beach Road. Holderness’ parcel at 99 Beach Road, at the Columbus Boulevard intersection, also is visible in the image. Photo courtesy Sarasota County Property Appraiser Bill Furst
More fencing stands on property — outlined in red — that is owned by Siesta Gulf View LLC. Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office records add this note in regard to the ownership of that parcel: “in care of Andrew Cooper, 145 Beach Road.” Image from the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office

On March 25, Holderness sent another email to the News Leader. Referring to county staff members, his subject line was “They demanded I remove the signage. In the body of the email, he wrote, “So i did but put up a fence to secure the beach. Got red-tagged for the fence. Literally forcing me to keep the beach open. Refused a private/public agreement so sheriff had a mechanism to [prevent] high-schoolers [from gathering in crowds on the beach].”

Holderness added that the county’s message should be “‘Stay home/Stay safe; beaches will be here another day’ vs. ‘Private Beaches are open to the public.’”