County Environmental Protection staff had warned that barricade next to Beach Access 1 was illegal
The owners of the property located at 3935 N. Shell Road — next to Beach Access 1 on Siesta Key — have removed a rope-and-post barrier that Sarasota County staff officially advised them was a violation of county regulations.
That was the news on Jan. 27 from county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester.
In an email, Winchester wrote that staff was informed that the barricade was taken down on Saturday, Jan. 25. “[S]taff verified the removal at approximately 8:30 a.m. Monday, Jan. 27,” he added in the email.
A Jan. 9 letter from county Environmental Protection Division staff had informed the property owners — Greg and Michelle Olson — that Jan. 24 would be the deadline for the structure to come down.
The letter explained that, on Dec. 23, 2019, Environmental Protection Division staff “received a public complaint with photographs showing the recent installation of a post and rope fence extending along the northern property boundary and located on the open beach” seaward of the county’s Barrier Island Pass Twenty-Year Hazard Line (PHL).
That line and a second one — the Gulf Beach Setback Line (GBSL) — were established “to protect the coastal regions of Sarasota County from activities that jeopardize their integrity and accelerate coastal erosion,” the letter pointed out.
The Jan. 9 staff letter also noted the following: “During our review of records, it was evident from historic aerial images (e.g., 2012 and 2013) that the shore-parallel rock was installed by a previous owner several years ago prior to your ownership of the property in 2017. During the review of historic aerial images,” the letter continued, “it also became clear that shore-perpendicular rock/concrete has been present at this location since at least 1974 in the vicinity of both your northern and southern property boundaries.”
A copy of the letter also was provided to the Icard Merrill law firm in Sarasota. That firm routinely has represented property owners in issues related to county coastal regulations.
If they had not taken down the rope-and-post barricade, the Olsons could have been subject to county Code Enforcement action. Typically, after county staff informs a person of a violation such as the one staff had documented at North Shell Road, and the property owner refuses to take the action directed by staff, a Notice of Violation will be issued. Then, after staff gives the property owner time to correct the situation, and nothing is done, an Affidavit of Violation will be issued. That can lead to fines from $25 to $250 a day until the situation has been corrected. A Special Magistrate makes the final decision on fines.
Additionally, Winchester noted on Jan. 27 that the Olsons had applied for a Water and Navigation Control Authority (WNCA) permit to reposition rocks that are parallel to the shoreline next to their home.
Staff was reviewing the application, Winchester added; regulations allow up to 35 days for a decision.
Dated Jan. 23, the permit application says, “The rocks seaward of the Pass-Hazard Line [as noted in an accompanying exhibit] will be removed and relocated landward of the [Pass Hazard Line] … Light excavation may be required to remove certain rocks.”
The estimated cost of the initiative is $2,500 to $5,000, the document says.
The name of the contractor listed on the application is Improved Landscaping Inc. of Bradenton, though a note on the form says that company was “not yet under contract to perform the work.”
The application also lists Bill Merrill and Bradley Ellis, attorneys with Icard Merrill, as the primary contacts.
Michelle Olson signed the form on Jan. 23, the document shows.
After a WNCA permit has been issued, the application says, construction must begin within 180 days “and shall be completed within one year from the date of issuance.”
In the meantime, Winchester emphasized in his Jan. 27 email, Beach Access 1 — at the western end of North Shell Road — “remains open and available for park visitors to enjoy. Please continue to be respectful and considerate of neighboring private property.”
On Jan. 7 — two days before the Environmental Protection staff sent its letter to the Olsons — the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office warned the couple about compliance with the section of the Florida Constitution regarding public access to the beach.
In response to a public records request, the Sheriff’s Office provided The Sarasota News Leader a copy of that email, which Michelle Cellini, special projects administrator for Sheriff Tom Knight, had sent to the Olsons.
“As I’m sure you recall when the Sheriff and I visited your property last summer,” Cellini wrote, “we discussed various issues you were having. When discussing the beach specifically, we recommended you work with the local government to determine your private property areas. We did not recommend that you place a barrier yourself, as it could possibly cause additional problems. I will reiterate that the proper process is working with the local government to resolve your issues.”
A history of problems
Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office records show that the Olsons bought the North Shell Road property in late April 2017. In early 2018, during meetings of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) — a nonprofit which represents residents on Siesta Key — a couple in the audience began asking questions of the leader of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office substation on Siesta. The couple talked about a number of disruptions near their home.
Then-substation leader Sgt. Jason Mruczek indicated during those SKA meetings that he was aware of multiple complaints the couple had made to the Sheriff’s Office.
The couple declined to identify themselves to the News Leader, saying they did not want to draw more attention to themselves because of the issues they already were facing around their home.
On Jan. 7, Kaitlyn R. Perez, the community affairs director for the Sheriff’s Office, told the News Leader that from July 1, 2019 to that day, the office had logged “a total of 92 calls for service on North Shell Road.” Since May 2017, she added, the total was 120.
“I do not have that broken down by year,” she explained in her Jan. 7 email, “but can obviously tell you … the majority of calls have been since July 2019.”
In January 2019, the Olsons filed a petition with the county’s Traffic Advisory Council (TAC), seeking elimination of the public parking spaces for Beach Access 1 between their home and the western terminus of North Shell Road. They provided details about a variety of alleged illegal activities — including use of drugs and alcohol, as well as public urination and defecation — to explain their request for the TAC’s assistance.
In September 2019, Melissa Waden, the county liaison to the TAC, told the News Leader that the petition proved to be invalid because the Olsons had not obtained the necessary number of signatures of other affected property owners on the road.
In the meantime, publicity about the petition had garnered public protests. The North Shell Road access is the last remnant of far more expansive public access to the beach that existed decades ago on the northern part of Siesta Key. A dispute between homeowners and the County Commission in the late 1970s led to the closing of the rest of Shell Road to the public.
During the Jan. 9 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting, President Catherine Luckner defended the Olsons’ efforts to protect themselves from a wide variety of disruptive activities at Beach Access 1. Noting that the couple are members of the nonprofit, Luckner stressed that every property owner wants to feel safe and secure in his or her home.
She also emphasized that public access to the shoreline at the western end of North Shell Road had not been compromised and would not be affected by the couple’s actions.
Luckner earlier had told the News Leader that she had seen videos from surveillance cameras the Olsons had installed on their property. “It’s horrible,” she said of the evidence of disturbances around their home.