Opponents of North Beach Road vacation say County Commission did not have all the information it needed about the road’s history before its vote last year

Owner of property on the vacated road segment says state would not allow the improvements for which Reopen Beach Road advocates

A rope-and-bollard system was designed to keep motor vehicles off the vacated segment of North Beach Road. Rachel Hackney photo

The Sarasota County commissioners did not have information about previous discussions of staff and their predecessors regarding potential repairs to North Beach Road when they voted 4-1 last year to vacate a 357-foot segment of it, a supporter of Reopen Beach Road told about 65 people attending the Aug. 3 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting.

“The commissioners make decisions based upon the information that’s given to them by their staff,” Brian Lichterman of Vision Planning & Design said. He was one of three speakers during a presentation about Reopen Beach Road’s efforts to reverse the May 11, 2016 road segment vacation. “Sometimes that information is good and sometimes that information could be better.”

Lichterman spent 22 years as a senior planner for the county before he started his own firm, he has explained in public meetings.

Nonetheless, one of the petitioners for the road vacation cast doubt during the SKA meeting on whether any effort to protect the road segment — including construction of a seawall, as touted by Reopen Beach Road — would win the necessary state permit for construction. Dennis Madden pointed out that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) limits hardening of shorelines.

Lichterman told the approximately 65 audience members that the road vacation was necessary to create a unified lot — encompassing the land along the road — to meet the county’s zoning regulations for new development planned by the Maddens. A proffer from all three sets of the property owners/petitioners said that in exchange for the board’s approval of their request, the lots they own seaward of the road “will never be developed,” Lichterman added.

However, “a lot of information that was not included [in the agenda packet for May 11, 2016] could have helped the commissioners make a better decision,” Lichterman said.

When the county closed North Beach Road to vehicular traffic in 1993 because of repeated storm damage, Lichterman continued, “[that] created an almost immediate parking problem in the neighborhood.” People who had grown accustomed to driving the road to watch the sun set “were cut off,” so they began parking in the immediate vicinity. That ultimately led to the county’s creating a permit parking program for the neighborhood, he pointed out.

Brian Lichterman (left) talks with Siesta Key Association member David Patton after the Aug. 3 program. Rachel Hackney photo

“The county continued to maintain Beach Road,” he said, “but it failed to take adequate measures to protect it from storm-related damage.”

In the summer of 2009, Lichterman told the audience, a memo to the board from James K. Harriott Jr. — who later was appointed the county’s chief engineer —recommended the county reconstruct the road. Staff acknowledged the county’s obligation to keep the road open as a thoroughfare and to eliminate wasting taxpayer money for “the enormous cost of repair,” he added and then discussed the memo’s contents.

In an Aug. 21, 2009 memo, Harriott wrote, “Staff recommends that in order to regain the intended use of the road and protect it against future storm events, 825 [feet] of Beach Road from Columbus Boulevard to Avenida Messina should be reconstructed with a Soil Cement Revetment System.” Harriott noted, “Staff will return with a discussion on funding for this project …”

Harriott indicated that staff was responding to a June 9, 2009 County Commission request that staff “provide a report regarding the condition and cost to repair the road …”

The executive summary of the 2013 Taylor Engineering report for Sarasota County contains this beginning. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As for the history of the road segment: Harriott wrote that over the previous 20 years, the road had been “severely battered by hurricanes and tropical storms, leaving [it] eroded. … What was once a two-lane roadway from Columbus Boulevard to Avenida Messina has been reduced to a one-lane road and at one point is closed to thru-traffic. County crews have attempted to fix potholes, remove crumbling asphalt and sand accumulation after the storms.” Nonetheless, he continued, the roadbed “has been compromised from multiple storm events and the protection of the underground infrastructure for both water and sewer is a concern.”

Harriott also pointed out that a Soil Cement Step Revetment System was constructed on Casey Key in an area of repeated storm damage — similar to the North Beach Road situation — and it “has proven successful in preventing erosion, loss of beachfront land, and stabilizing the roadway.”

The estimated cost to reconstruct the 825 feet of North Beach Road was “approximately $526,268.75,” Harriott wrote. The county had $129,217.05 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that it could redirect to that effort, Harriott noted.

Debating the road’s future

Fast-forward to Dec. 10 2012, Lichterman told the audience: Another memo from Harriott responded to a Dec. 4, 2012 County Commission discussion, which had included direction to staff “to acquire a legal and independent engineering analysis report, determine what obligations the County has as far as access, and what the County can expect from FEMA regarding repairs to North Beach Road.”

Graphics in the Taylor Engineering report show the area of the team’s study. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Lichterman said that memo showed staff had been “tasked with … figuring out how to fix the road.”
That document also noted erosion along the road resulting from “severe tropical storms (Isaac, [Debby], and Sandy) and inclement weather in recent years.”

The result, Lichterman continued, was the hiring of Taylor Engineering of Jacksonville to assess the situation on the road and offer options. One of latter — a concrete seawall — was estimated at $1,838,500. A cross-section of the road in the Taylor Engineering report that depicts that option is the source of the rendering Reopen Beach Road uses on its website to show how the thoroughfare could look, Lichterman pointed out.

A new permanent structure such as a seawall could not be built without state authorization, Lichterman added. However, he noted that the Taylor Engineering report said, “Given the purpose of the project and public benefits (i.e. road protection), we believe the state would authorize the project under a consent of use.”

Taylor Engineering’s estimate of the cost of the county to maintain the road if the county did nothing to stabilize it was $5,835,525 over 50 years, Lichterman said. “We as taxpayers are still on the hook for the estimated $6 million in ongoing repairs.”

Yet, Madden disputed part of Lichterman’s assertions. The FDEP will not allow the county to make any improvements to the road, Madden said.

Taylor Engineering provided these options for the County Commission in October 2013. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“I haven’t heard that discussion before,” SKA Director Joe Volpe responded. (Volpe was one of only three members of the nonprofit’s board present for the meeting; the others were new directors Marilyn Romanus and Robert Spicer.)

During a search of state law, The Sarasota News Leader found that Chapter 403.813(o) of the Florida Statutes allows for seawalls under the following circumstances: “The construction of private seawalls in wetlands or other surface waters where such construction is between and adjoins at both ends existing seawalls; follows a continuous and uniform seawall construction line with the existing seawalls; is no more than 150 feet in length; and does not violate existing water quality standards, impede navigation, or affect flood control.”

Moreover, Environmental Policy 4.1.2 in the county’s own Comprehensive Plan says, “Hardening of Gulf beaches or passes shall be prohibited unless such hardening has been found to be in the public interest. A hardening project that is determined to be in the public interest shall not impact lateral public pedestrian access, and shall minimize adverse impacts to coastal processes and resources, neighboring properties, and the values and functions of beaches and dune systems, and provide mitigation where determined by the Board of County Commissioners to be appropriate. Permanent disruptions to natural coastal processes and long-term erosion impacts shall be considered in deliberations.”

Bolstering the argument

Dennis Madden makes his points during the Aug. 3 SKA meeting. Rachel Hackney photo

Dennis Madden and his wife, Wendy, plan to tear down 12 old dwelling units and replace them with seven that conform to all the current building regulations. One of the existing structures dates to 1935; the rest, to the 1940s.

The Maddens also received a Coastal Setback Variance from the County Commission on May 11, 2016, to allow the new construction to proceed. Dennis Madden told the News Leader before the Aug. 3 SKA meeting that the replacement buildings will be set back further from the Gulf of Mexico.

“Beach Road [property] up and down the Key is owned privately on both sides,” Madden pointed out during the SKA audience.

“I’m not going to sit up here and listen to the man lie,” Mike Cosentino, president and treasurer of Reopen Beach Road, responded.

If the vacated segment of North Beach Road were reopened so the entire 825 feet of thoroughfare between Columbus Boulevard and Avenida Messina were available to motor vehicles, Madden continued, that would lead to more traffic congestion on the island. As it is, Madden said, “we can’t even get out of that neighborhood [because traffic in the vicinity] is so bad.”

Moreover, Madden noted, in the 24 years since the road has been closed to traffic, the natural environment has been able to flourish. People can walk down the vacated road segment and enjoy the beach —including the sunsets — without having to worry about vehicles. “You want to come in and destroy that!”

Madden told Lichterman and Mary Anne Bowie, the recently hired executive director of Reopen Beach Road.

“It’s a very good point,” Volpe responded.

The agreement between the petitioners and the county calls for the public to have continued access to the vacated road segment at all times. Only motor vehicles are prohibited, as specified in the resolution the board approved last year. The Maddens have paid to construct a bollard-and-rope system at either end of the vacated section to prevent motorists from entering it.

A graphic in the Taylor Engineering report shows shoreline changes over several decades. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“Society is moving away from cars,” Madden continued. Leadership on most barrier islands is trying to prevent more traffic, he added, instead of encouraging it.

Michael Holderness, who last year bought property that belonged to one set of the road vacation petitioners, also pointed out that sea turtle nests are adjacent to the vacated section of the road.

“This is progress for the environment,” Madden said.

“I think that both sides have their points,” Volpe told the audience.

Erin Kreis, a new SKA member who is one of the managers of the Siesta Royale apartments, asked whether the petitioners had ever been allowed to explain their side of the May 11, 2016 County Commission decision.

When Madden responded that the SKA had not given them that opportunity, Volpe told him they never had asked for one.

Then Volpe explained that it had taken more than a year for Cosentino and his group to make their presentation. Last year, Volpe added, Cosentino tried to address SKA members during a regular meeting, but two audience members interrupted him and he was not allowed to finish.

“Will you let the other side make a presentation?” Kreis asked.

“Absolutely,” Volpe replied.