Sergeant says officers will not cite Mike Cosentino for parking a vehicle on the property, but county permitting staff has ordered the removal of a portable toilet and sign
Editor’s note: This article was updated on Jan. 19 to correct the name of an audience member at the Siesta Key Association meeting.
During the Jan. 4 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting, Sgt. Jason Mruczek, who heads the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office substation on Siesta Key, appeared to think he was going to have a brief time at the podium, as his monthly report was not a long one. (No problems at the Seafood and Music Festival on the beach in early December; far fewer people than usual for the traditional pub crawl in Siesta Village the day after Christmas; Sheriff’s Office planning already underway for the expected swarm of spring break visitors.)
Then one member of the audience, Bill McLeod, an Avenida Messina resident, began asking questions about incidents at 10 Beach Road that have sparked controversy in recent weeks and prompted complaints to Sarasota County staff and the Sheriff’s Office.
Siesta resident Mike Cosentino purchased the parcel at 10 Beach Road in 2016, just a few months after he filed a lawsuit against the county. Cosentino has fought the County Commission’s 4-1 decision in May 2016 to vacate a 357-foot-long segment of North Beach Road, just north of the Columbus Boulevard intersection, that had been closed to traffic since 1993 because of repeated storm damage. Two hearings have been held on the case in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in Sarasota, and parts of the complaint have been dismissed by Judge Frederick P. Mercurio.
“He’s parking on the beach,” McLeod told Mruczek at the SKA meeting, referring to Cosentino. McLeod added, “There seems to be some trepidation about enforcing what has always been enforced there.”
Mruczek responded that Cosentino can park on his property “for now.” However, Mruczek continued, no guests may park on the county right of way, and no one can park on the road in that area, which is just west of Siesta Village, unless the person has a Mira Mar district permit issued by the county.
The parking situation
In September 2016, Cosentino was cited for having a motor vehicle on the beach in the vicinity of Beach Access 2, which is at the intersection of Avenida Messina and Beach Road. On Jan. 6, 2017, a written response from Cosentino was filed with the 12th Judicial Circuit Court, explaining that he bought the 10 Beach Road property earlier in the year. “My vehicle was parked on that property,” he added, noting that he had shown the officer a copy of the deed.
“My attorney explained to the State Attorney that it was my property and did not meet the County Ordinance definition of a beach, that state law allows ingress and egress to private property, that the officer did not define exactly where my vehicle was parked, etc., etc.”
The infraction ended up resulting in a parking ticket, Cosentino continued, but “the state rule prohibiting tickets on private property applies. Therefore, I hereby contest the ticket on the above-stated grounds and request a hearing in order to present evidence to prove the aforementioned claims.”
The case ultimately was closed, court records indicate.
On Dec. 7, 2017, The Sarasota News Leader learned, Col. Kurt A. Hoffman, chief deputy and general counsel for the Sheriff’s Office, issued a memo to Lt. Don Kennard, who supervises Siesta Key operations, saying that, based on Hoffman’s reading of Sarasota County Ordinance 130-37 and Florida State Statute 161.201, “Mr. Cosentino has property rights in the [10 Beach Road] parcel such that he should be allowed to park on his own property. The definition of beaches under 130-37 should not be so narrowly construed as to eviscerate private property rights,” Hoffman added.
Referring to the case resulting from the September 2016 citation, Hoffman noted that Cosentino’s motion to dismiss “was never actually ruled upon,” but the two “salient points” that should be considered from the State Attorney’s Office decision to reduce the case from a criminal ordinance violation to a parking citation were the following:
- “The Florida Beach and Shore Preservation Act expressly states that a property owner adjacent to coastal waters does not lose his right to ingress and egress. Mr. Cosentino ingresses and egresses through the right of way that shares a common boundary to his property.”
- The primary purpose of the county ordinance is “to provide a suitable area for sunbathing and other recreational purposes. Since sunbathing and other recreational activities cannot take place on Mr. Cosentino’s property without committing trespassing, it does not seem reasonable that the ordinance’s objectives would be met by taking some type of law enforcement action against him.”
“So he’s parking on the beach,” McLeod responded after Mruczek offered his explanation at the SKA meeting about the lack of enforcement.
Cosentino also has been letting teenagers sleep on the beach, McLeod pointed out. “It’s really been almost bedlam down there.”
Additionally, McLeod noted that Cosentino daily has been taking his Reopen Beach Road sign out to the end of the groin that juts into the Gulf of Mexico from the 10 Beach Road parcel. Cosentino also owns the underwater parcel seaward of the 10 Beach Road property, county records show.
A number of people own submerged lots in that area, McLeod added. To allow Cosentino to continue some of the activities he has been pursuing will set a bad precedent, McLeod said. “It could really get out of hand in a hurry.”
Along with the sign, Cosentino has installed a flagpole on the groin, and he has a portable toilet on the beach.
The sign and the toilet are being addressed by county Code Enforcement staff, Mruczek responded.
Last week, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester told the News Leader that county staff had given Cosentino until Jan. 5 to remove the portable toilet. In response to a follow-up News Leader question on Jan. 8, Winchester reported that staff would be proceeding to issue a Notice of Violation to Cosentino. That is the next step in a Code Enforcement process that can result in fines, county staff has explained in the past.
When the News Leader reached Cosentino by phone on Jan. 9, Cosentino said he received a letter from Howard Berna, the county’s environmental permitting manager, saying the toilet had to be removed by Jan. 5, but he did not get the letter until Jan. 5. “This is funny, if it doesn’t make you throw up,” Cosentino added.
Asked for a response to the Notice of Violation, Cosentino issued a statement to the News Leader on Jan. 10.
“I figure I’ve kept about 300 gallons of human waste out of the adjacent neighbors’ bushes in the short time the potty has been there,” he began. “I think the county, not me, should be responsible for keeping such facilities at ALL public beach accesses,” he continued. “It doesn’t seem fair to me that the county, by its inaction, forces the public to use the private property adjacent to public beach accesses as bathrooms.”
Nonetheless, he wrote, “I apologize for the unsightly potty; in my fight against the corruption and stupidity of our elected officials (except [Commissioner] Nancy [Detert]) I sometimes have to do things that I don’t agree with in order to bring light to the problems I’m trying to solve.”
(Detert was elected in November 2016. Neither she nor Commissioner Michael Moran — who also was elected in November 2016 — was on the County Commission when the May 2016 public hearing was held on the petition to vacate the segment of North Beach Road.)
Cosentino noted in his statement that he has pointed out before that “the closing of [Beach Road] to thru traffic CREATED the problems at [Beach Access] 2. Once the road is fixed and reopened the problems will self correct.”
Additionally, Cosentino wrote, “The sign [on the groin] will remain in place until Beach Road is once again in public control.” He added, “I will continue fighting to protect the public’s rights, our property values, local business revenue, and tourist tax revenue that is directly proportional to our ability to access and use our beaches.”
He concluded the statement by writing that he once again is “inviting anyone who disagrees with [him] to have an open, public debate on these issues.”
The camping question
As for McLeod’s reference during the SKA meeting about “teenagers sleeping on the beach, “Cosentino explained to the News Leader on Jan. 10 that one night when he had hired a band to play on the old groin, he saw a couple of young people in the crowd, listening to the music, who had suitcases with them. He walked over to ask them why they had luggage. They told him, he continued, that they had hitchhiked from Iowa and were on their way to Big Pine Key to work as volunteers in the Hurricane Irma recovery effort. They had spent the last of their money on bus tickets to take them from Sarasota to Big Pine Key, Cosentino added.
When they asked where they could camp overnight, he said, he told them that the only campground he knew of was the Turtle Beach Campground, but they would have to pay to stay there.
As a result of that conversation, Cosentino pointed out, he told them, “‘Pitch your tent right here’” on the 10 Beach Road parcel.
“I’ve never before run into someone on the beach with a suitcase,” he added. “It seemed to me to be a very extenuating circumstance.”
He also told the News Leader that he has friends with children from elementary age to college age. If any of those young people wanted to camp on the beach, he said, he would be happy to let them do so on his property. “Is it going to be a regular thing? No.”
During the SKA meeting, McLeod pointed out that camping on the beach is illegal under the Sarasota County Code of Ordinances.
Sgt. Mruczek replied, “I don’t see how that can really be enforced if [the camping is] on [Cosentino’s] lot.” Mruczek added that he had spent time that day researching the County Code and had been unable to find any section that specifically addressed sleeping in a tent on a person’s property on the beach.
Furthermore, Mruczek, continued, Cosentino had not called the Sheriff’s Office to complain about people camping on his 10 Beach Road property. Still, Mruczek told McLeod, “I understand your concern about it.”
“It seems to be a nasty, nasty precedent,” McLeod replied.