Judge rules against request for an emergency hearing but calls for the regular scheduling of arguments in the matter
On Aug. 24 — one day after Sarasota attorney Charles Bailey III appeared before the Sarasota County Commission to try to set the record straight about the board’s vacation of part of North Beach Road — Tommy E. Gregory, his associate at the Williams Parker firm, asked the 12th Judicial Circuit Court for an emergency temporary injunction to stop a Siesta Key resident from using “false information and deceptive advertising” in an effort to overturn that commission decision.
Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Rochelle T. Curley denied the motion for an emergency hearing involving Michael Cosentino and a Florida not-for-profit corporation that Cosentino established in June, Reopen Beach Road. However, she did order that a hearing on the matter would be set under normal scheduling procedures.
Her decision came on Aug. 31.
Cosentino this week brought up the court action when he addressed members of the Siesta Key Village Association (SKVA) and the County Commission. In both instances, he pointed out that he had prevailed against Bailey. What he did not say was that in his Aug. 30 affidavit responding to Bailey’s motion, he wrote that he had removed a page from his Reopen Beach Road website that had the heading, Closing Soon A Beach Access Near You. That page continued, “If the county would give away this $3.5 million dollar section of Siesta Key’s BEACH ROAD — DIRECTLY ON THE #1 BEACH IN THE WORLD — is anything truly safe?”
Cosentino added in his affidavit that the page “shall remain” off the website “until [the judge rules] on this matter.”
On Sept. 7, during the Open to the Public portion of the County Commission’s morning session, Cosentino said a lawsuit was filed against him and Reopen Beach Road for “spreading false and misleading information.” He continued, “I don’t have a college degree; I’m a carpenter.” Yet, he added, he spent a weekend writing answers to the filing, “and the motion was summarily denied.”
During the Sept. 6 SKVA meeting, Cosentino offered a slightly different version of events: “I spent three days last week writing affirmative defenses because [Gregory’s and Bailey’s clients, Dennis and Wendy Madden] sued me for a temporary injunction to shut down my website, to shut down me and make me shut up, the website shut up, the Facebook page shut up. … And their motion was denied last week. It’s the first of many victories that will be coming our way.”
The Maddens were one of three couples who petitioned the County Commission for the vacation of the 360-foot-long segment of North Beach Road in front of houses they owned. The Maddens also won board approval on May 11 to combine the North Beach Road property with a parcel they own on the Gulf of Mexico, so the total area would allow them, under Zoning Code provisions, to tear down 12 dwelling units they rent to island visitors and erect a three-story structure with six dwelling units. The new building, Bailey pointed out, will comply with current construction standards while the existing ones do not.
In his Aug. 24 motion, Gregory wrote that Cosentino is working to gain the necessary number of signatures of registered Sarasota County voters to nullify the road vacation through an amendment of the County Charter. A second proposed charter amendment Cosentino is seeking says, “The County shall not sell, and shall retain ownership of, County-owned Parks and Preserves, and shall not vacate or sell County-owned road segments or rights of way along or abutting any beach, river, creek, canal, lake, bay, gulf access or waterfront vista. The County shall encourage maximum right of way use for public access and viewing of waterfront vistas.”
If those amendments were to be put on the ballot for voters to consider, Gregory wrote, and they were to pass on the basis of the false and misleading information Cosentino and Reopen Beach Road are providing to community residents, “the Maddens will be irreparably harmed.”
Florida State Statute 101.161 “requires that voters … be told, in clear and unambiguous language, what the primary effect will be if a proposed Charter amendment is adopted,” Gregory continued. “The Florida Supreme Court repeatedly has instructed that proposed amendments cannot ‘fly under false colors,’ and that ballot questions cannot ‘hide the ball’ to obtain necessary voter approval,” he wrote.
Yet, with their proposed amendments, Gregory contended, Cosentino and Reopen Beach Road have been doing exactly what the court has forbidden. They indicate that voting for the amendment to rescind the road vacation is necessary to preserve public access to the land that has been vacated, Gregory added. Cosentino and Reopen Beach Road also have indicated that passage of the amendments will lead to the reopening of Beach Road for vehicular use, Gregory wrote.
Cosentino himself has repeatedly pointed out that the road was closed to vehicular traffic in 1993 because decades of storm damage made it unsafe for drivers. However, he has maintained that the county should erect a seawall or provide some other means of permanent protection for the road, repair it and then allow traffic on it once again.
Gregory noted in his motion that the resolution the County Commission approved in its 4-1 vote on May 11 included “the conveyance and recording of a public access easement across the 60-foot right of way …” Additionally, at the request of Commissioner Charles Hines, Bailey’s clients agreed to a 5-foot permanent easement leading from the vacated road segment to the Gulf of Mexico. His clients also gave up the right to request county approval in the future to construct buildings on the parcels they own seaward of the road, even though the beach has continued to accrue over the years, Bailey has explained.
Cosentino told the SKVA members on Sept. 6 that after the County Commission in 2012 called for an independent engineering study of the deterioration of Beach Road and ways to reopen it permanently, people “flexed the political muscle” to prevent the board from pursuing any of the stabilization options that were proposed.
North Beach Road information sheet
On Aug. 26 — three days after Bailey addressed the County Commission on the North Beach Road matter — The Sarasota News Leader learned that an information sheet had been created by county staff to explain the facts about the board’s May 11 vote. County spokesman Drew Winchester told the News Leader in an email that County Administrator Tom Harmer “felt it was necessary to provide accurate details regarding the board’s decision to vacate North Beach Road.”
The sheet includes much of the information that Bailey outlined in public on Aug. 23. It says the intent of the easement the property owners granted on the vacated road segment “is to allow access to pedestrians, pedestrians with leashed domestic pets, bicycles, and other human-powered or low-speed electric propelled means.”
It also notes that the property owners “may construct bollards, rope barrier posts or other improvements at both ends of the vacated right-of-way to prohibit vehicles. This may replace the barricades that have been in place since 1993.”
During the Sept. 6 SKVA meeting, Vice President Mark Smith, a Siesta architect, pointed out that the road will continue to be open to the public; it is just closed to motorized vehicles. “There’s still access to the beach,” he added. The county is saving $2 million, Smith continued, “[which], in my opinion, for these three houses, makes sense.”
Cosentino had cited the $2 million figure in conjunction with one of the remedies provided in the engineering study.
When Cosentino interrupted him, Smith responded, “Let me talk.”
“If you’re going to talk, you should speak accurately,” Cosentino told Smith.
“I am talking accurately,” Smith replied.
“How are [the commissioners] saving [money]?” Cosentino asked.
“They’re not spending it,” Smith told him. Furthermore, Smith continued, “Access is not going to be decreased with what the county’s doing. What the county’s doing is getting off the hook for protecting these properties from storm damage.”
Smith added, “I’ve been trying to get $150,000 out of the county to put parking [spaces] in [Village rights of way], and I can’t do it. Do I see a need to put $2 million on a road for six houses? No, I don’t.”
Cosentino accused Smith of “glossing over” the facts. In 2012, Cosentino continued, the County Commission sought a permanent means of making the road passable for vehicular traffic, “and we’re on the hook for all the money for the repairs with or without the road [being open].”
Cosentino told Smith, “You’re taking the same very narrow definition of access that the county is taking.”
Back before the BCC
On Sept. 7, Cosentino again appeared before the County Commission. He thanked Commissioner Christine Robinson for her lone vote against “giving public land away to private individuals to pad their profits.”
Cosentino added to the other board members, “You guys are wrong. You have been wrong.” Even County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh was wrong again that morning in saying that the board’s May 11 action was final and could not be reversed, Cosentino contended. Chapter 2 of the Sarasota County Charter discusses situations in which false testimony is given under oath, Cosentino pointed out. In reading through the materials and the testimony provided for the May 11 public hearing, he said, “trying to find discrepancies between reality and truth is about as difficult as an Easter egg hunt on a pool table.”
He then extended “a little bit of thanks” to Chair Al Maio for agreeing to meet with him later that day. “Ms. [Carolyn] Mason, Mr. [Charles] Hines, Mr. [Paul] Caragiulo,” he told the other commissioners, “you need to smell the coffee. We’re going to win.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated on Sept. 16 to correct the name of the attorney who filed the motion for the injunction.