Commissioners Smith and Neunder finally win board support for ‘Idle Speed/No Wake’ signage in Blind Pass Lagoon on Siesta Key

Other commissioners initially question whether county staff should be asked to undertake the necessary work to achieve that goal

This is an aerial view of Blind Pass Lagoon just south of Turtle Beach. Photo by Debbie Zeilman for the Sarasota County Water Atlas

It took close to 10 minutes of discussion on Jan. 30, but the rest of the Sarasota County commissioners finally voted in favor of a motion put forth by Commissioner Mark Smith in response to a request from residents who live on Blind Pass Lagoon on south Siesta Key.

Commissioner Joe Neunder, who represents that part of the barrier island in his district territory, readily seconded the motion, which directed county staff to begin the process of working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to erect an “Idle Speed/No Wake” sign in the lagoon.

In raising the issue during his report to his colleagues as part of their regular meeting on Jan. 30, Smith referenced an Oct. 16, 2023 memo that Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), had written to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis.

The memo explained that county administrative staff had asked PRNR staff “to determine the process necessary to request a change of the speed zone within Blind Pass Lagoon (Turtle Beach Lagoon) from Slow Speed Minimum Wake to Idle Speed/No Wake.”

The memo pointed out, “Any municipality or county seeking approval for a boating-restricted area ordinance under Section 327.46(1(c) [of the Florida Statutes] must submit the application to [FWC’s] Division of Law Enforcement, Boating and Waterways Section. FWC has provided PRNR with the Local Ordinance Review Checklist and Flowchart to assist with this process. Among other details,” the memo continued, “a certified copy of the adopted county ordinance or a draft for review must be submitted with the application.”

Smith explained during the Jan. 30 meeting that residents who live along the lagoon had approached him and Commissioner Neunder with the request for the new signage.

A sign is located at Turtle Beach Lagoon, where people put in watercraft, Smith noted, and another “No Wake Zone” sign is visible at the Little Sarasota Bay end of the lagoon. However, no reminders exist between those signs, he said.

Further, Smith noted the “rather laborious process” necessary to get a new sign erected. Thus, he was asking for his colleagues’ support to let county staff pursue that process.

This graphic shows the location of Blind Pass Lagoon. Image from Google Maps

Looking first at County Administrator Lewis and County Attorney Josh Moye, Chair Michael Moran said he saw no indication from either that the request is “out of our scope or authority …”

Lewis responded that he just needed a board motion before staff could proceed with the necessary work.

After Smith made his motion, he explained that his intent was to allow staff to work on the local ordinance and checklist necessary for FWC to erect the new sign.

This is a portion of the FWC checklist. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Rissler of PRNR had provided details about the process in her October 2023 memo, including the need for the local ordinance:

  • Staff would draft the ordinance, if directed to do so. Then, if FWC approved it, the ordinance would be added to Chapter 130 of the county’s Code of Ordinances, authorizing regulation of vessel speed or operation in the lagoon.
  • Staff also “would conduct professional outreach to the US Army Corps of Engineers and to the US Coast Guard to ensure the area in question is part of the navigable waterway.”
  • Further, staff would have the staff of the Office of the County Attorney review the draft ordinance “to ensure the language and messaging is appropriate and enforceable.”
  • Then the Local Ordinance Review Application, “and all associated support material,” would be submitted to FWC’s Water Management unit “for review, consideration, and approval to move forward with formal application.” If FWC granted approval of the ordinance, the memo continued, PRNR “would move forward with the Ordinance change and provide a follow-up to FWC with proof of published ordinances.”
  • “FWC would then process the proposal for official determination.
  • “If approved by FWC, this would be advertised for public comment and then final approval,” the memo said.

More questions

Commissioner Neunder acknowledged during the Jan. 30 discussion that he is not a boater, so he is not familiar with the applicable rules and regulations.

Therefore, he asked whether Smith’s proposal for the staff work would be appropriate.

County Administrator Lewis replied that Smith was asking for staff to follow the state process for erecting the new signage. “It’s not a de minimis amount of work” Lewis added.

Then Neunder told his colleagues that he did spend time with residents who live on Blind Pass Lagoon. “The speeding, the wave running … from time to time can get a little out of control,” he noted. “I’m happy to support [Smith’s motion].”

At that point, Moran explained that, earlier, he was trying to learn from Lewis and County Attorney Moye “whether we have authority to do this,” referring to handling the necessary paperwork for another party to decide on the request.

Lewis told him that the board does have that authority.

Then Commissioner Neil Rainford asked Smith, “Is there no signage at all?”

“There’s a sign as you leave the lagoon,” Smith restated his prior comments, along with a sign at the end of the lagoon, where it enters Little Sarasota Bay, “but there’s nothing in between.”

Rainford replied that he would support the motion.

Commissioner Ron Cutsinger. File image

Yet, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger asked, “Are we tasking our staff to do work that would be better done by those who are requesting it?”

“This is the only way we can get it done,” Smith told him. “This is the only way that we can get a buoy or a sign that says, ‘Slow Down’ in the lagoon, and that’s if we get [FWC approval].”

Yet, Lewis told Cutsinger that other entities could submit a request for the signage.

“Have we talked [to the staff of the West Coast Inland Navigation District] about this?” Cutsinger asked.

“It’s not really regulated by them,” Lewis responded.

“How often in the past has the request come from the county itself?” Rainford asked.

Lewis told him he was not certain of the answer.

“Would this set a precedent?” Rainford then asked, inquiring, additionally about whether “a conglomerate of business owners” on the lagoon were making the request.

Smith responded that residents who “live up and down the lagoon asked for this.” They had approached him for assistance, he said again.

“That is my district,” Neunder pointed out. “There were some egregious speeders” who went through the lagoon during the 60 to 90 minutes that he spent on-site, talking with residents, he added. “I thought the sheriff should go out there and sting ’em — write citations.”

Then Neunder pointed out that any time the commissioners could make a situation safer, “especially with watercraft,” it should do so.

“I can support the motion,” Moran said. However, he added, he would hope that county staff members “would feel empowered” to report back to the commission if they felt a re-evaluation of the decision were appropriate, if the motion ended up being approved.

When Moran called for the vote, it was 5-0 in support of Smith’s motion.