Property owners warned about violation of conservation easement on Siesta Key

This photo shows what the natural beach looked like a year ago, without any mechanical grooming. Contributed photo

A Sarasota County environmental supervisor has notified the attorney representing owners of two Beach Road lots on Siesta Key that they have violated the terms of a conservation easement the Sarasota County Commission approved for the property in April 2011.

A Siesta Key Association member discovered last month that the lots appeared to have been raked and groomed, which is not allowed by the easement. The SKA member, Allan Worms, was taking a morning survey of potential nesting areas for the endangered snowy plovers that migrate to Siesta Key each year, according to email sent to the commissioners and county staff on April 25.

Worms wrote that “a little more than two (2) acres … of the beach west of the condos at 600 to 616 on Beach Road” had been groomed, adding that continuation of that practice in the area “will exclude it as a feeding option [for the snowy plovers].”

SKA President Catherine Luckner and her husband, Bob, forwarded the information from Worms to Howard Berna, an environmental supervisor with Sarasota County Conservation and Natural Resources, and other staff members in the Natural Resources Department, reminding them about the easement.

Luckner had brought up the matter during the May 4 SKA meeting, noting that the area of affected beach is between Access 10 and the Tivoli by the Sea Resort. “[It’s] just about literally been flattened out there,” she said.

Referring to the vegetation, she added, “It takes a long time for this to renew. … We hope that we get some help to monitor that.”

A Sarasota County illustration shows the location of the area covered by the conservation easement.

On May 18, Berna addressed the beach grooming in a letter to William W. Merrill III, attorney for Siesta Key LLC, which owns the lots at 610 and 612 Beach Road. That letter says, “It has been brought to our attention that recent mechanical raking and grooming of the beach has occurred within the limits of the conservation easement recorded in the Official Records of Sarasota County … On May 1, 2012, staff confirmed the presence of tracks typical of mechanical grooming and raking (e.g., tractor tracks and rake marks within the conservation easement area.”

The letter points out that the conservation easement does provide for “several reserved rights, including ‘cleaning the beach of the conserved area, from the mean high water line to the then-existing vegetation line,” with such cleaning to consist of the clearing of seaweed, dead fish, debris and other trash from that beach area.

Berna added in the letter that the section of the beach in front of 610-612 Beach Road was a known nesting area for the snowy plovers, which are an endangered species.

The 2012 guide from the Florida Shorebird Alliance points out that mechanical beach raking “can pose serious threats to the survival of seabirds and shorebirds that are dependent upon sandy beaches.”

It adds that beach wrack — natural debris such as seaweed and shells — “provides important roosting, cover, and food for adults and chicks of beach-dependent birds,” which may be impacted adversely when wrack is removed by raking. It adds, “The invertebrates associated with wrack are often an important food source for beach-dependent birds (especially plover species ….”

Berna told The Sarasota News Leader the easement was filed with the Sarasota County Clerk of Court on Dec. 29, 2011. A resource management plan for the two lots, which was completed on Dec. 19, 2011, is referenced in the easement.

In an interview with the Sarasota News Leader May 21, Berna said, “I have a feeling … I will probably be hearing back from the property owners with a different opinion” about what the easement allows.

Still, he told the News Leader, the raking and grooming could have been done by someone who was unaware of the specifications of the conservation easement. “It may be something that benign,” he said.

Berna was hopeful, he added, that the letter would remedy the situation.

“If we confirm [the raking and grooming] continues,” he said, “it could result in the [involvement] of a code enforcement officer.

Additionally, if Merrill’s clients were to contest the language provided in the easement, Berna said he would have to consult the Sarasota County Attorney’s Office about what steps to take next.

Catherine Luckner told the News Leader May 21 that Berna had provided her a copy of the letter he had sent to Merrill.

On May 23, Berna told the News Leader he had had no response from Merrill.

Merrill did not return phone messages left by the News Leader.

A Sarasota County photo shows the two structures that previously stood at 610-612 Beach Road.

In the meantime, the two houses at 610 and 612 Beach Road have been demolished, the News Leader confirmed with a visual check May 22.

Referring to the owners of that property, Berna said, “It is my understanding they have all the permits aligned … to allow them to rebuild there.”


Site plans

During their April 27, 2011, regular meeting, the county commissioners held a continuation of a public hearing that began on March 30, 2011, regarding a request for a coastal setback variance for the lots at 610 and 612 Beach Road. That continuation was allowed, according to staff documentation, to give the owners time to modify their site plans. The owners were petitioning for the variance so they could construct a new pile-supported, three-story, multi-family residence with six units and a swimming pool immediately landward of the Tenacity Lane right of way, a staff memo says.

On April 13, 2011, according to a staff memo, the petitioners submitted a revised site plan with a building footprint that was 9.9% smaller — 5,736 square feet compared to 6,365 square feet. The memo also noted that staff was continuing to work with the property owners regarding the resolution of continuing concerns over language in the conservation easement.

Before the commissioners unanimously approved the variance and the easement on April 27, 2011, Commissioner Jon Thaxton expressed concerns about allowing any mechanical raking in the easement area from March to September, when snowy plovers are known to frequent the beach.

Although they are invisible without magnification, Thaxton pointed out, “there are thousands and thousands of organisms right below” any spot where someone spreads out a beach towel. Mechanical beach grooming, he continued, “is just not a healthy practice” for those creatures.

By allowing that practice in the area of the conservation easement, he added, “you just diminish the reason that you have [the easement].”

The commission then directed staff to include the language in the easement that would forbid mechanical grooming and raking during the nesting season for birds such as the snowy plovers.