Siesta Seen

Demolition of Fire Station 13 begun; County Commission gets ‘history lesson’ on North Beach Road and Beach Access 2 issues; Holderness urges commissioners to establish permitting program for short-term rentals; Siesta Village getting a makeover; and the snowy plovers continue to endure nesting trials

The demolition of Fire Station 13 gets underway just after 8:30 a.m. on May 14. Image courtesy Sarasota County via Facebook Live

Shortly after 8:30 a.m. on May 14, demolition of Fire Station 13 began next to Siesta Public Beach.

After the rubble has been cleared, construction of a new, two-story, storm-hardened facility will get underway, Sarasota County Fire Chief Michael Regnier and Sara Nealeigh, media relations officer for Sarasota County’s Emergency Services Department, pointed out in a Facebook Live chat at the site.

“We’re really excited about the construction starting off,” Regnier said, as heavy equipment in the background awaited its first “bite” at the building that dated to 1974.

Saying he liked to refer to the structure as “she,” Regnier added, “She has served us very well.”

This is a rendering of the new Fire Station 13. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Although weather events and, potentially issues related to the COVID-19 public health emergency, might delay the process, Regnier noted that completion of the new facility is expected in the spring of 2021. “Hopefully,” he emphasized, adding that he did not want to specify which month. “Maybe a little bit after [the spring].”

In the meantime, the firefighters/paramedics assigned to Station 13 are working out of commercial space right next door, at 5700 Midnight Pass Road, which the county rented last year and then modified for that purpose.

In response to a Sarasota News Leader question, Nealeigh wrote in an email later on May 14 that no issues had arisen for the crews operating out of the rental space. “The firefighter/paramedics are able to respond to 911 calls as normal.”

The expense of the new Fire Station 13 is approximately $.5.4 million.

“This is a great day for Sarasota,” Regnier added in the Facebook Live video.

The saga of North Beach Road and Access 2

New condominiums are going up next to the property Siesta Beach Lots LLC owns at the corner of North Beach Road and Columbus Boulevard. Bollards at the end of North Beach Road prevent motor vehicles from attempting to use the vacated segment. Rachel Hackney photo

On April 8, at the request of Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert, her colleagues joined her in directing staff to research and write for them a report explaining the recent history of events associated with Beach Access 2 on Siesta Key.

Provided for the commissioners on May 6, the document from the Office of the County Attorney offers a wealth of information going back to the 2015 petition for the vacation of a 373-foot-long segment of North Beach Road.

Not only does the report cover litigation Siesta resident Mike Cosentino has pursued over the May 11, 2016 board vote to approve that vacation, but it also details a variety of county Code Enforcement efforts involving Cosentino and a second Siesta property owner, Michael Holderness.

Among its tidbits is the fact that Code Enforcement staff issued a Notice of Violation to Cosentino on Jan. 29 of this year, alleging that he had violated a section of the County Code by storing catamarans on a vacant lot.

“The County has also issued an affidavit of violation and is awaiting a Code Enforcement Special Magistrate’s hearing,” the report notes.

County Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant explained to The Sarasota News Leadera couple of weeks ago that Special Magistrate hearings remain on hold, as Gov. Ron DeSantis and county leaders have been working gradually on the reopening of businesses and some services during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The Jan. 29 letter, provided to the News Leader in response to a public records request, identifies the location of the incident as the parcel Cosentino bought on North Beach Road, next to Beach Access 2, in September 2016. That land originally was identified in Sarasota County Property Appraiser Office records as having the address of 10 Beach Road. At some point, that was changed to 0 Beach Road.

A Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office map shows the 10 Beach Road parcel, outlined in red, in September 2016. Image courtesy Property Appraiser’s Office

The parcel comprises 7,569 square feet and is zoned Residential Multi-Family 1. Part of it has been underwater off and on through the decades, but, in more recent years, the lot has benefited from the accretion of the beach on the northern part of Siesta Key. Last year, the Property Appraiser’s Office listed the market value of the property as $42,600. The office records say Cosentino paid $50,000 for it on Sept. 8, 2016.

The most visible feature of the parcel is the aging groin that extends into the Gulf of Mexico.

The Jan. 29 letter informed Cosentino that he allegedly had violated Chapter 124, Section 120, Article 8(d) of the county’s Unified Development Code, which combines all the land-development and zoning regulations. That section regards parking, storage or use of certain recreational vehicles and equipment. It says the vehicles or equipment “may be parked and stored in residential zoning districts (except where specifically prohibited) provided the vehicle is operational with current license tags and is on the property of the owner or tenant who resides at the residence and is the personal property of the owner or tenant.” In bold, the letter adds, “Parking or storing of recreational vehicles or boats on a public rightof way or vacant property is prohibited.”

The letter directed Cosentino to “[r]emove all boats from the vacant parcel and do not allow this violation to re-occur.”

He was ordered to take action no later than Feb. 14.

“If the Code Enforcement Special Master finds a violation exists, penalties up to $1,000.00 per day for each day the violation exists may be imposed,” the letter continues. “Penalties up to $5,000.00 per day for each repeat violation may be imposed.”

Media Relations Officer Grant informed the News Leader that no penalties would be imposed in such cases until after a hearing has been conducted.

Code Enforcement Officer Charles Marchione signed the letter.

As it turns out, the county also has attempted to pursue a remedy in a similar situation involving Holderness, who is the principal of Siesta Beach Lots LLC.

Catamarans are visible on the seaward side of North Beach Road, on private property owned by Siesta Beach Lots. Contributed photo

On March 10, the OCA report explains, Siesta Beach Lots filed suit against the county over “an alleged code violation associated with the storage of boats on vacant property …” County staff issued the limited liability company a Notice of Violation, citing the same section of the Unified Development Code that it referenced in the Cosentino Code Enforcement case. The Holderness case also involves catamarans.

Siesta Beach Lots contends in its complaint in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court that Section 124-120(d)(2) of the County Code “would be unconstitutional as applied because of riparian rights of ingress and egress to and from navigable waters.”

The Office of the County Attorney “has moved to dismiss this complaint on the grounds that Holderness has failed to exhaust administrative remedies available through the code enforcement process,” the report adds.

Short-term home rental permitting program urged

In opening regular County Commission meetings in recent weeks, Chair Michael Moran has emphasized that county staff and the board members are “trying to discourage people” from attending the sessions to make comments during the Open to the Public periods, which typically are for topics not on the day’s agenda. The goal, Moran has pointed out, is the need for social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, anyone wishing to offer comments is encouraged to email them to the commission, Moran has noted. A webpage on the county website provides links to comments submitted for specific meeting dates.

On May 5, Moran did note that he had a request from Siesta resident Michael Holderness to read aloud comments Holderness had emailed the board members in advance of that meeting. When Moran asked whether any commissioner wanted him to take that step, his colleagues made it clear that they did not.

Michael Holderness attends a Siesta Key Association meeting in October 2016. File photo

At the top of the document, Holderness wrote in red type, “Dear Chair, we are due 3 minutes [for public comments] and request that this is read out loud, so this time all [commissioners] fully understand the request.” No board member would have “room for any confusion or misinterpretation this time around,” Holderness continued. “Thank you kindly,” he added.

Then Holderness proceeded to plead with the commissioners to direct the Office of the County Attorney (OCA) “to work with Mr. Holderness’ team so to develop a permitting process to combat all the legal short-tem [rentals] within Sarasota County unincorporated areas.”

After vetting the issue, he continued, the OCA “can bring back the DETAILS you need to finalize this [Holderness’ emphasis]. … OCA CANNOT and WILL NOT do anything until [the commission] votes in said marching order,” the comments added, again with emphasis.

Holderness pointed out that, as part of the state response to the pandemic, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued Executive Order 20-87, which prohibited short-term vacation rentals. Yet, Holderness noted, “The number of illegal short-term rentals on Siesta Key is estimated around hundreds but most likely could be in the thousands.”

Holderness called for the commissioners to implement a permitting process for short-term rentals, which he called the “most efficient way” to stop the illegal rentals and to effectively manage the legal ones, “even during the pandemic.”

Former Siesta Key Association (SKA) Director Joe Volpe has called for such a permitting process, too, as a means of ensuring the safety of persons — especially those in groups as large as 20 or more — who rent homes on Siesta.

To underscore their concerns, Volpe and SKA Secretary Jean Cannon have cited advertisements published by online accommodations platforms, touting numerous large new homes within close proximity to Siesta Public Beach. Cannon has talked of living near two houses on Beach Road whose owners market the structures as being able to hold up to 24 people. Yet, she and Volpe have asserted that the owners are not required under the County Code to make fire extinguishers available, for example. They also have pointed to garbage piles left at curbside for days between Waste Management’s weekly collections on the island.

The house at 645 Beach Road is under construction in June 2017. File photo

In August 2019, during an SKA meeting, Sarasota County Fire Chief Michael Regnier explained, “The Fire Department has no jurisdiction over a residence.” That goes back to the long-held tenet that “a man’s home is his castle,” Regnier said.

As for the bigger new houses on Siesta that can accommodate 20 or more people, he continued, those also are considered residences, “plain and simple,” according to the law, even if they are zoned for multi-family residential.

So many regulations are on the books, Regnier noted, and it is essential for staff to make the correct determination before it proceeds with enforcing specific fire code requirements.

Still, Regnier continued, “I have a fire marshal that is very much in tune to what is happening on Siesta Key” and all other areas of the county, in regard to residential multi-family dwellings.

Attached to his public comments for the County Commission on May 5, Holderness provided a screen image from one online rental platform regarding a home that he said was zoned for residential single-family use. Such a home cannot be rented more than once every 30 days, the County Code says. Holderness also attached a copy of a county fact sheet about short-term rentals.

On May 5, none of the commissioners offered any remarks on the comments Holderness had submitted.

A makeover for the Village

A company under contract with the county to handle landscaping in Siesta Village has been making progress on some beautification projects, the News Leader has learned.

Newly planted fountain grass is thriving in a bed near Beach Access 5. Photo courtesy of Lisa Cece

Lisa Cece, special district coordinator for the county, who oversees the Village upkeep in cooperation with the Siesta Key Village Maintenance Corp. (SKVMC), wrote in a May 8 email to the News Leader, “You might notice the Village is getting a makeover with new plantings. Today, Wilhelm Brothers [employees] are grading beds,” leveling them to remove years’ worth of accumulation of various plants.

Following that initiative, she continued, the SKVMC directors will decide on new plantings. “By early summer, the Village should have a much more colorful look …”

Coontie palms are growing in a bed at Terrace East. Photo courtesy of Lisa Cece

During the original county beautification project — which was completed in early 2009 — coontie palms, for example, were among the landscaping features, Cece noted. New coonties have been added in the Village, including an area by Terrace East, Cece wrote.

Bright green fountain grass, for another example, is growing near Beach Access 5, at the western end of the Village.

After the planting has been completed, she added, “new mulch will be applied.”

Predation continues to plague plover nesting

In her most recent update about the nesting snowy plovers on Siesta Key, Kylie Wilson, coordinator of the Audubon Florida

Bird Monitoring & Stewardship Program in the county, once more had bad news.

On May 3, she had reported that a nest had been discovered in the area on the beach owned by the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, which has a buffer around it to protect any nesting birds. “This nest was found with 3 eggs so we can’t anticipate exactly when it will hatch but we do know the female has been incubating for at least one week,” Wilson added.

“This plover seems to be in a good spot, very well camouflaged!!” she pointed out.

Then, on May 11, Wilson reported, “Sadly our nest in the [Conservation Foundation] buffer failed,” and the cause is assumed to be predation …”

This is an aerial view of the property on Siesta Beach owned by the Conservation Foudnation of the Gulf Coast (outlined in red). Image courtesy Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office

She was uncertain of the culprit, she continued. However, she noted, “I did see crows in the enclosure as well as ghost crab holes so it could have been either.”

Nonetheless, Wilson added, “Ms. Sanibel has reappeared and she had a one egg nest …” Ms. Sanibel is a plover so named because she has a band on one leg from a past sojourn on Sanibel Island.

Unfortunately, that nest, too, was predated; the incident happened the same day the nest was discovered, Wilson noted. “The cause this time was definitely crows as I found a set of tracks next to the empty nest. I happened to be at the predated nest when Ms. Sanibel and her mate returned, likely to lay the next egg. It was pretty heartbreaking to watch her look confusingly at the empty nest but she seemed to bounce back quickly; she and her mate copulated and then ran into the [Conservation Foundation] buffer and started frantically working on a new scrape to lay the remainder of her clutch.”

Ms. Sanibel (with the banded leg) and her mate make an effort to start a new nest. Photo courtesy of Kylie Wilson

Wilson explained, “For those who don’t know — Snowy Plovers typically lay one egg a day over a period of three consecutive days, sometimes longer. They will not start to incubate until all the eggs are laid so it is possible for there to be a nest on the ground and no adult at the nest. If a nest is predated before the entire clutch [has been] laid, the female will lay the remainder of her eggs elsewhere.”

Wilson has asked that the public to please keep in mind the following:

  • Do not feed birds or leave trash at the beach.
  • Keep dogs off the beach. (County regulations forbid dogs on the public beach, anyway.)
  • Give the birds space and stay away from posted areas.