Having heard multitude of complaints about Nokomis and Lido Key parks, County Commission calls for staff report on county ‘hot spots’ for illegal activities

Lido residents make second appearance before board this week

Laly Ballard, president of the Casey Key Association, addresses the board on May 22. News Leader image

After listening to comments from residents of both Lido and Casey keys in regard to public safety issues at county parks, the Sarasota County commissioners on May 22 directed staff to provide them a report regarding what Commissioner Ron Cutsinger characterized as the “hot spots” for illegal activity.

That report will include a survey of responses to incidents logged by the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office and local police departments at the facilities that the report will cover, as well as details about the handling of holidays at the county’s most popular parks, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis noted.

A document provided in the agenda packet for the commission’s regular meeting on June 4 said the report is to be delivered to the board members by July 18. However, Lewis told the commissioners during their regular meeting on June 5 that it is expected to be ready by July 12.

The document summarized the commission’s May 22 direction this way: “Prepare a report providing an overview of County parks regarding public safety. The report will specifically focus on hot spots identified by staff. Ideas regarding enforcement of County park rules and certain other reported concerns will be included.”

Although staff usually is allowed 30 days to complete what is called a “board assignment,” Lewis noted on June 5, he had agreed to a longer period for this report, given how comprehensive it would be.

After the commissioners have received it, he added, he suggested that staff schedule a discussion of the findings during a regular board meeting. Then, after the commissioners have delved into the findings, he indicated, they could direct staff to proceed with potential policy changes.

Lewis did caution that some of the issues speakers have described cannot be handled through county action.

Commissioner Neil Rainford responded that he plans to address the reports of DJs playing loud music and the routine launching of jet skis from Ted Sperling Park on South Lido, noting that those issues are “under our purview …”

The May 22 discussion came just three days after one person was shot and killed and another was fired on at the North Jetty Park in Nokomis, just south of Casey Key.

During the Open to the Public comment period during that meeting, Laly Ballard, president of the Casey Key Association, stressed the need for enforcement of laws and county regulations at county facilities. “There needs to be a police presence,” she told the commissioners, citing the “unruly, irresponsible behavior” that has been documented. Those words, she noted, “don’t even perfectly describe what’s going on on any given day, down at the beach and on the jetty and in the park.”

She talked of fistfights, drunken and disorderly activities, and use of illegal drugs.

“This behavior is allowed to happen from morning to night,” Ballard added. Even though North Jetty Park closes at 10 p.m., she said, she sees vehicles headed there later at night. “What are they doing at the North Jetty? Certainly, nothing good.”

Ballard told the board members, “We need your help in providing us with enforcement on these beaches. … We’ve created a horrible environment for all types of people that come there every day.”

Christopher Tribelli, treasurer of the Casey Key Association, read from posts on the I Love Nokomis public Facebook page, which described visitors’ observations at North Jetty Park the day of the shootings.

This aerial map shows the location of North Jetty Park in Nokomis. Image from Google Maps

Among the posts that The Sarasota News Leader reviewed on that page in the aftermath of the May 19 incident was the following written by a woman: “I was [at North Jetty Park] yesterday. I saw the party and I thought that it’s so nice for these people to be able to celebrate someone/thing in such a beautiful place. WHO thought they needed to go to a party in the middle of the day armed with a GUN???? I don’t understand how someplace and something could literally turn tragic over a fight. Over what?????? Is it worth it????? WALK AWAY. Who cares? ‘Ok, you’re right, I’m wrong, let’s agree to disagree.’ I can’t believe what this world is turning into, and WHY????? I’m scared. Such a happy, calm, peaceful, tranquil place.”

One man wrote this response to other comments: “It’s an unfortunate thing that I’ve never seen happen there before in my 30 years here. Hopefully will not happen again but nothing will stop me from going there.”

During the commission’s May 22 Open to the Public comment period, three Lido Key residents described the situations with which they have been contending for years, including — as Celine O’Connor put it — “unruly, unwanted and dangerous activities happening at all hours [in the county’s Ted Sperling Park on the southern tip of Lido].”

She contended that most of the culprits are visitors from out of town — especially groups from Orlando and Tampa — who “are blatantly breaking every code in the book. … The county needs to take … meaningful action to stop the degradation of this beautiful South Lido nature reserve,” O’Connor added.

She cited use of “modified loudspeakers blasting music and reckless jet ski races just off the shore.”

This photo, taken by a Lido Key resident, shows stereo equipment set up in the trunk of a car at Ted Sperling Park. Contributed photo

The previous weekend, she said, the county’s hiring of private security personnel to man the park “made a huge difference.” That action underscored the need for a park ranger to be in place every weekend, O’Connor added.

David Rayner of Lido Key told the commissioners, “Ted Sperling Park is dangerous and unsafe. Over the course of 2022 and 2023, there were 320 police incidents of accident, nuisance or crime reported at the park.”

Rayner added, “No other park in the county has this poor a record.”

Then he pointed out, “On May 12, the park reached a new low, operating well beyond its ability to provide parking for its visitors … A brawl broke out that required a Sarasota Police Department responder to pepper-spray the combatants to restore order.” None of the four persons arrested were county residents, he noted.

“Professional disc jockeys and car, trunk and boat stereos pump out literally thousands of watts of competing songs,” Rayner continued. “Monday morning garbage pickup is intense.”

Rayner pleaded for the county to use park rangers to enforce the county’s regulations and noise ordinances. He also asked that the county staff close the park at sunset and that the commissioners approve an ordinance prohibiting the beaching of boats and jet skis at the park.

Renewing their pleas about Ted Sperling Park

During the commissioners’ regular meeting on June 5, five Lido residents. This time, two of them showed the board a PowerPoint presentation that included not only photos but also videos shot over Memorial Day weekend.

David Rayner, who was the first of them to speak, told the commissioners that he and many other residents of the barrier island have taken to calling Ted Sperling Park “the weekend neighbor from hell.”

Next up, Gina Vutera, who completed the PowerPoint presentation, pointed out, “Every single park rule [is] being disregarded.”

This information about Ted Sperlling Park is found on the county website, scgov.net

The crowds are threatening nesting sea turtles and the endangered least terns who have a colony in that area of Lido Beach, she added. (Rayner had mentioned the danger to manatees, as well, with the dozens of boaters and jet skis in the water.)

Vutera said that visitors also are bringing in dogs, which the county bans on beaches. Further, the garbage that piles up draws crows and raccoons, she noted. (Audubon Florida staff who work to protect beach-nesting birds during the spring and summer have stressed over the years that crows, especially, will predate eggs, while dogs will scare birds away from nests, leaving eggs to rot.)

This composite of photos taken in Sperling Park were included in the June 5 PowerPoint presentation.

On Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend, another resident, Tammy Garner, told the commissioners that she collected 22, 30-gallon bags of trash from the park.

“We want to keep this issue in front of you, because we want a solution,” Vutera stressed. “We understand you are sympathetic,” she acknowledged.

However, she pointed out, someone needs to be “on the ground” other than Sarasota Police officers. Someone needs to be enforcing county park rules and issuing citations, Vutera added.

The ”word on the ground,” she continued, is “ ‘Come to Ted Sperling; there’s no enforcement. They’re going to give you a slap on the hand, and that’s that.’ “

Garner then talked of working with Vutera to take photographs of the people partying in the park and endangering the wildlife; the photography angers the visitors, she pointed out. “It is out of control,” she said of the activities she has witnessed. “I have been spit on; I have been hit; I’ve been cursed at.”

“Mountains of glass” pile up in the park, Garner continued, even though county regulations also ban glass on the beaches.

The music played by professional DJs can be heard three buildings away, behind high-impact-resistant windows and doors, she said.

Jane Conrad, the final Lido speaker on June 5, pointed out that the DJs started playing music at 7:30 a.m. on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend.

“You need to get this park under control, ’cause we won’t have a park any longer,” Garner emphasized. “I don’t know of any other park with mangrove tunnels, manatees and sea turtles and dolphins.”

Celine O’Connor reported that, on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, 30 jet skis — which had been delivered overnight on a trailer — were out in the water, zig-zagging near family members who were swimming.

This photo shows people on jet skis in the water off Ted Sperling Park. Contributed photo

One of Rayner’s slides referenced advertising of jet ski parties, hosted by commercial sponsors, at the park.

Conrad added that she and her husband had seen people on jet skis playing “chicken” in the water, and one jet ski driver nearly ran over a kayaker.

“We’re waiting for some serious injuries and deaths to happen,” she told the commissioners.

A comprehensive analysis sought

On May 22, when the commissioners had their routine opportunity to offer reports to their colleagues, Commissioner Rainford was the first to suggest that, as a board assignment, staff delve into problems at county parks and provide a report.

“Obviously, we had a robust discussion today about safety in the parks,” Rainford pointed out. However, he continued, since North Jetty Park is within Commissioner Joe Neunder’s District 4 territory, he would defer to Neunder for any formal request.

“I think that great minds think alike,” Neunder responded.

Following the comments that morning of Ballard of the Casey Key Association, Neunder told her that he would like to set up a meeting with her and her association board members, “to put my boots on the ground” in surveying the areas of concern. He added that perhaps he also would talk with leaders of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, to gain more information about situations that that agency’s personnel had encountered not only at North Jetty Park, but at the other Nokomis facilities that the county owns, including Nokomis Beach Park, which is located at 100 Casey Key Road.

“That would be fantastic,” Ballard had responded.

Commissioner Joe Neunder. File image

During the later discussion about the board assignment, Neunder reported that in his more than 35 years as a county resident, “I can honestly say I haven’t heard of some of those situations [that residents had described that morning]. I do think a board assignment or something of that nature would be helpful,” he continued. “As we continue to grow and as more people come into our area, we must always continue to support our community and our parks, and it starts with the safety of our community.”

Neunder further noted, “Everybody wishes to enjoy … our coastal community, whether it’s Lido Key or Manasota Beach” in Englewood, in the southernmost portion of the county.

“If it were the will of the board,” Neunder said, “if [County Administrator Lewis] could come back to us with something meaningful in a relatively short period of time, I would certainly appreciate that.”

Debating which parks the report should focus on, Rainford pointed to “any … where we have traditional gatherings [with a] large amount of residents” and visitors.

“Certain parks are hot spots,” Commissioner Mark Smith, a Siesta Key resident acknowledged. “Ted Sperling Park is a particular challenge,” Smith added, noting Lido residents’ comments that day about environmental damage they had observed as a result of people boating and using jet skis in that area.

Smith further pointed out that the birding habitat on that island “is just overrun by people.”

“Interestingly enough,” Smith continued, it is his understanding that since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hired a contractor to dredge Big Sarasota Pass — which lies between Siesta and Lido keys — to renourish South Lido Key Beach over a period in 2020 and 2021, people who used to have social gatherings at the big shoal in Big Pass started heading over to Ted Sperling Park.

This photo shows the shoal in Big Pass as the dredging was underway in August 2020 for the renourishment of South Lido Key Beach. Image courtesy of Michael Holderness

Smith added, “Even if you lock down the parking lot [at Sperling Park], they’re coming there by sea.”

He called for creative solutions to keep the parks “family-friendly and safe, and help nature.”

Chair Michael Moran said he would assume that the staff research and the resulting report would focus on regional parks.

County Administrator Lewis reminded the commissioners that, in December 2023, they approved an interlocal agreement to give the Sarasota Police Department the authority to handle public safety issues in Ted Sperling Park. Earlier in May, he added, they approved a similar document regarding the North Port Police Department.

Because so many of the county parks are within municipal jurisdictions, Lewis told the board members, “You had no ability to enforce your codes. … You have put us in a much stronger position.”

Lewis pointed out that law enforcement personnel in the Cities of Sarasota and North Port “are very ready and willing to come help us with those [county facilities in their jurisdictions].”

However, referring again to Lido, he said that the county has no jurisdiction over the use of jet skis.

Staff will provide the board members a package with information, as requested, Lewis added. Then, the commissioners can direct staff to undertake more related work, if they wish.

“It sounds like a meaningful start to me,” Moran responded.

Neunder did suggest that county staff collect law enforcement reports from the various jurisdictions, detailing incidents that have taken place in the parks, such as those that residents had described that morning. That data, he said, would help the commissioners “to drill down” into the problems that have been documented.

Lewis noted that, over the past couple of years, Sheriff Kurt Hoffman has assigned extra personnel to enforce the laws and county regulations on Siesta Key during holiday periods. Lewis added that staff would include such information in the report.

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