Settlement of Holderness lawsuit against county could result in commercial parking lot near Beach Road/Columbus Boulevard intersection on Siesta Key

County Commission authorizes county attorney to proceed with proposed settlement terms in case dating to March 2020

 This week, the Sarasota County commissioners unanimously agreed to a proposed settlement with Siesta Key businessman Michael Holderness in litigation involving the county’s installation of bollards in front of Beach Accesses 2 and 3, as well as at the intersection of Beach Road and Columbus Boulevard.

The settlement could result in a commercial parking lot near that intersection, as explained in a May 1 memorandum that County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht sent the commissioners.

On a motion by Commissioner Michael Moran, seconded by Commissioner Joe Neunder, the board members authorized Elbrecht to proceed with the settlement terms. No commissioner offered a comment before the vote.

Elbrecht had provided highlights of the proposed agreement as part of his report to the commission during its regular meeting on May 9.

The May 1 memo pointed out that the draft settlement agreement was a “result of court ordered mediation.”

Elbrecht pointed out to the commissioners that the terms do not involve any payment of money to Siesta Beach Lots; each party would cover its own legal expenses.

On Feb. 15, Holderness’ firm — Siesta Beach Lots LLC — and the county had stipulated to a non-jury trial in the case; that trial had been scheduled to start on May 8, 12th Judicial Circuit Court records show. Then, on April 24, Morgan Bentley of the Sarasota firm Bentley Goodrich Kison, who was representing Holderness, filed a formal notice with the court, saying that a settlement had been reached.

Siesta Beach Lots initially brought suit against the county in March 2020 over a dispute about Holderness’ storage of catamarans on one of his private parcels near Beach Access 3. The complaint pointed out that Holderness owns Lots 14, 15, 16 and 17 in Block 7 of the Mira Mar Beach Subdivision. The complaint focused on access to those parcels, which are seaward of North Beach Road.

Then Siesta Beach Lots filed an amended complaint in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in July 2020, alleging that the “heavy ropes and bollards [have had] the effect of preventing vehicular traffic and ingress and egress” to the west of each of the two beach accesses. Likewise, the complaint contended, the heavy ropes and bollards at the intersection of Beach Road and Columbus Boulevard have prevented “ingress and egress across both the northern and southern ends of the vacated portion of Beach Road …”

In May 2016, the County Commission approved the vacation of a 363-foot-long segment of North Beach Road, starting at the Columbus Boulevard intersection. The action came at the request of three sets of owners of property along the affected road segment.

County staff installed the ropes and bollards months later, in an effort to prevent people from continuing to drive on the vacated road section. Signage made clear that members of the public were welcome to walk or use non-motorized vehicles on the stretch of road.

However, Elbrecht’s memo acknowledged, Siesta Beach Lots “has access to its property through the vacated portion of Beach Road, which is consistent with the right it already held under a Public Access Agreement with the County.”

Further, the memo explained, the agreement says that “Siesta Beach Lots may apply for a right-of-way use permit for access through Beach Access #3,” and the company may apply, as well, “for all necessary permits to construct a proposed commercial parking lot on Lot 14.”

Lot 14 is adjacent to Beach Access 3, which is seaward of the intersection of North Beach Road and Columbus Boulevard.

Within 30 days of the date of the signing of the settlement, Elbrecht noted, Siesta Beach Lots “shall submit its proposal for the … parking lot on Lot 14 … to the County for review consistent with the requirements of the County Code.”

Nonetheless, his memo pointed out, “The County has not committed to approval of such a proposal but instead would apply its normal processes for such a proposal, which would include a coastal setback variance and a special exception for the use.”

The agreement also noted that county staff would “use its best efforts to expedite the permitting process.”

Further, the proposal specifies that any revenue generated by the parking lot would be retained by Siesta Beach Lots.

“Finally,” the memo said, “the County agrees to continue to work cooperatively with the Sheriff regarding trespass issues associated with private property along the beach landward of the mean high water line.”

During Siesta Key Association meetings over the past couple of years, Holderness has contended that county leaders essentially invite members of the public onto private parcels — including his — that are situated on the Gulf of Mexico. People who use Accesses 2 and 3 often do not realize that those are just county-owned pathways to the public part of the shoreline.

Sarasota County Sheriff’s deputies have acknowledged on numerous occasions that they work to educate people about the fact that only the area of a Florida beach that is seaward of the Mean High Water Line is considered public property.

Sarasota attorney Robert P. Watrous initially represented Holderness in the litigation. On Oct. 31, 2022, attorney Bentley sent correspondence to the presiding Circuit Court judge, Hunter Carroll, saying that he was taking over the case from Watrous.

Assistant County Attorney David Pearce represented the county.

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