Coastal Setback Variance also approved for new construction to replace old buildings that do not meet current standards
It took about three hours and 45 minutes, a last-minute proffer from the petitioners in one public hearing and discussion about interpreting a section of the Sarasota County Comprehensive Plan, but the County Commission this week finally agreed to abandon a 360-foot segment of North Beach Road on Siesta Key, which has been closed to through traffic since 1993, staff pointed out.
The segment is between Avenida Messina and Columbus Boulevard.
The board also approved a Coastal Setback Variance petition filed by Dennis and Wendy Madden that will allow them to tear down five nonconforming structures with a total of 12 dwelling units between North Beach Road and Avenida Veneccia so they can erect a new three-story, six-unit structure that will comply with all current building standards.
The commission voted 4-1 on both requests, with Commissioner Christine Robinson in the minority. Robinson was most vocal about the Comprehensive Plan’s language regarding not only public access to the water but also connectivity of road systems. She told Charles Bailey III of the Williams Parker law firm in Sarasota — the agent for the petitioners — that she kept coming back to the language in Section 1.1.13, which says, “The County shall not vacate road segments on waterfronts along any creek, river, lake, bay or Gulf access point and shall encourage right-of-way use of these areas for coastal beach and bay access.”
“It doesn’t give an out,” she said.
Parcels the petitioners own seaward of the affected section of North Beach Road are on the Gulf of Mexico, Bailey explained. Therefore, the 360-foot part of North Beach Road at the focus of the hearing is not on the waterfront. “In effect, we are going to convert this into a beach access,” he added of the road segment.
“I think it’s the burden of the applicant to demonstrate the end result, which is better public access to something,” Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo said, adding, “A comprehensive plan should be approached comprehensively.”
Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out, “There has to be some wiggle room in our Comp Plan in situations where this ‘shall not’ doesn’t make sense.” He told his colleagues he could go along with the concept of the waterfront access being linked to the parcels on the Gulf side of the road.
Hines then asked County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh whether the commission could require the petitioners to stipulate that they would provide a public easement over those seaward parcels to allow for public access. DeMarsh said such a “walking easement” could be negotiated with them.
After discussing the matter with his clients, Bailey told the commissioners, “We would proffer to enhance the access forever [with] a 5-foot pedestrian or bicycle access out to the sandy beach that doesn’t exist today. … That would formalize and provide a legal description that would be recorded in the public records.”
Additionally, Bailey told the board, current pathways to the beach that cross the petitioners’ parcels would be allowed to remain open to the public.
A number of speakers who live on Siesta Key had voiced concern about maintaining public access to that affected portion of road if the board approved the petition for abandonment. Moreover, seven members of the Board of Directors of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) asked in a letter — and through public comments by board member Joe Volpe — that the commission continue the public hearings, to allow more time for Siesta Key residents to be made aware of the requests.
Baily already had testified that if the board approved the road abandonment, that would ensure “forever and in perpetuity the public’s continued use of the right of way for walking, biking and things they’re not allowed to do now — sitting, watching sunsets and anything you can do on the public beach. We’re going to enhance and expand the use of the right of way and make it safer.”
That area of Siesta Key is known as Sunset Point, Bailey told the board, adding that the street was platted in 1925 as Avenida Puesta del Sol.
He stressed that members of the public would continue to be able to do everything on that part of the road that they could do before the public hearing, except drive motor vehicles, “and they’re not supposed to drive motor vehicles on it today.”
Furthermore, Bailey said he and the three couples seeking the abandonment would work with county staff to ensure that signage is installed to make it clear that the 360-foot-long segment will remain open to people on foot, on bicycle and on any other type of low-speed conveyance that County Code allows on Siesta Public Beach.
Chair Al Maio asked County Engineer Isaac Brownman whether it would be possible for “a nice, elegant, large, clear sign that says that this area is open to the public at all times — no vehicles” could be erected at the end of the abandoned section of road. “With the proper easement,” Brownman replied, “I don’t see why that would be a problem.”
In response to a question from Robinson, Assistant County Attorney Karl Senkow said he also believed the petitioners’ stipulation to maintaining public access would allow people to continue walking their dogs there — another concern raised during public comments.
During her presentation to the board about the road abandonment petition, Lin Kurant, the county’s Real Estate Services Department manager, explained that the 60-foot-wide segment of road has been repeatedly damaged by weather events through the decades, including Tropical Storms Fay, Isaac, Debby, Sandy and Andrea. In November 2012 — after Sandy’s passage by Florida on the way to becoming a “superstorm” in the Northeastern United States — the County Commission requested an independent engineering study be undertaken on that part of North Beach Road, Kurant said. The subsequent staff report — dated Oct. 23, 2013 — offered a range of options to stabilize the road, all of which exceeded $2 million, she added. The commission chose a “no action alternative” that entailed monitoring the road and maintaining it as necessary.
As for the Maddens’ request: Weiqi Lin, a member of the county’s environmental permitting staff, explained that Dennis and Wendy Madden would need to have the road vacated by the county to unify property they own — including the parcels with the nonconforming structures and one seaward of North Beach Road — to create sufficient square footage to support the new dwelling units in compliance with the county’s Zoning Code. The new building, Lin continued, would be three stories high over a parking area, and it would have cabanas, decks, a retaining wall, a swimming pool and driveways.
At the most, he explained, construction would be 67.2 feet seaward of the county’s Gulf Beach Setback Line (GBSL). The new building would comply with the Florida Building Code and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requirements for construction in a floodplain, he noted.
Bailey pointed out that the structure that is most seaward is a retaining wall that already stands on the property.
Given the existing parcels the Maddens own, Bailey said, the couple could construct five houses; instead, they were proposing one. The plan also called for ensuring that no construction ever would be allowed on the three lots the three sets of petitioners own seaward of the stretch of North Beach Road sought for abandonment.
During his presentation about the road abandonment petition, Bailey pointed out that the county has had barricades in place at either end of the road segment to try to prevent motor vehicle access by anyone but the petitioners. Yet, he said, “it’s shocking how many vehicles actually travel onto the beach.”
Bailey provided the board a photo Dennis Madden took last week, showing a man driving a Vespa onto the beach and being stopped by Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office deputies.
Along with the Maddens — who listed their address as Ada, MI, in their application — the petitioners were J. Edward Ramsey and Christy S. Ramsey of Bristol, IN; and William Caflisch and Sheila S. Caflisch of Sarasota.
The only driveway access on the affected portion of North Beach Road leads to the Maddens’ property, testimony showed. All three couples are able to reach their parcels from either Avenida Veneccia or Columbus Boulevard, staff noted.
Bailey emphasized that the road is “completely washed out.”
The study the county paid Taylor Engineering to do, according to the Oct. 23, 2013 staff report, showed alternatives ranging in expense from $233,421 every two years for maintenance only up to $3,340,000 for beach renourishment of that area. “The typical design life for hardened [shoreline] protection structures,” including three referenced in the Taylor study, is 50 years, the report says.
The $233,421 figure, the report notes, was based on emergency repairs the county undertook in November 2012 after Tropical Storm Sandy’s passage by the coast.
Before Bailey began his presentation on the road abandonment petition, he told the board, “We were just ambushed with this letter [from the SKA].”
In June 2015, Bailey said later, he provided SKA President Michael Shay a copy of the application from his clients, and he and the couples have spent the past year undertaking public outreach on Siesta Key to ensure residents knew about the proposals. Shay had informed him that the SKA’s executive committee had reviewed the application and did not feel the necessity of seeking a vote of the full board on the matter, Bailey added.
“I hope I didn’t start a Civil War [within the SKA],” he noted of his comments.
The letter says the board was not made aware of the plans until the organization’s regular meeting on May 5, when Bailey discussed it under “New Business.” Volpe stressed that during his comments. “I’m under oath,” he told the commissioners.
In response to a question from Commissioner Robinson about why not all of the board members had signed the letter, but it was sent on SKA letterhead, Volpe explained that the bylaws did not allow the board members to vote on the matter over the phone, and no board meeting was held subsequent to the May 5 meeting to afford them an opportunity to take a vote.
The letter adds, “We feel the applicant could offer modifications in the entire Proposal before [the County Commission], resulting in a beautiful and economic improvement to their property. However, there is not sufficient specificity in the language regarding the protection of public access.”
Volpe told the commissioners, “We want time to properly evaluate this like we normally do.”
Along with Volpe, the directors who signed the letter were Second Vice President Catherine Luckner, Secretary Joyce Kouba, Helen Clifford, Dan Lundy, Robert Miller and Harold Ashby.
Among other public comments, Ronald Belardinelli, an Avenida de Mayo resident, protested that the road abandonment petition was “a play on the privatization of that [part of the] beach. … It needs to be stopped.”
Five other people testified about their concerns that public access to the area would end up resulting from the county’s abandonment of that part of the road.
Further board concerns
In response to another concern from the public and the board, Bailey was adamant that the petitioners do not plan to remove the remaining parts of the roadway.
When Commissioner Hines questioned whether the board’s granting of the requested Coastal Setback Variance could make it possible for the Maddens to build a fence on the property that is seaward of the road, Assistant County Attorney David Pearce checked with other staff members and replied that the conditions to which the couple already had stipulated would make it impossible for fencing to be installed.
When testimony and discussion concluded on both issues, Chair Maio sought motions, as usual. Moments passed with no comments. Finally, Hines made a motion to approve the request to abandon the 360-foot section of North Beach Road, with the extra proffer of the public walking easement. After Vice Chair Caragiulo seconded it, it passed 4-1.
A few minutes later, Commissioner Carolyn Mason made the motion to approve the Maddens’ petition for the Coastal Setback Variance. Hines seconded it, referencing the stipulation by the couple that no development ever would be allowed on the parcels they own seaward of the roadway. Approving the request, Hines pointed out, that, given “the fact that the beach comes and goes, [the Maddens] giving up the development rights on these [parcels] is significant. It will save future commissions major headaches.”
The motion passed 4-1.