County Commission approves variance for the project after listening to complaints from neighboring residents about noise and traffic issues
The issue before the Sarasota County commissioners on Nov. 10 was whether to approve a coastal setback variance for the installation of a new 639-square-foot sidewalk and replacement of eight existing wooden two-pole shelters with prefabricated concrete structures at Siesta Key Public Beach.
Because about $400,000 is expected to be left in the $21.5 million budget for the park improvements, county staff appeared before the board to seek approval for these additional features on the western end of the complex. (See the related story in this issue.)
However, before they ultimately voted 4-0 in favor of the variance, the commissioners heard from seven speakers whose comments primarily focused on noise emanating late at night from users of the current shelters; public defecation and urination at the condominium complex across the street from the shelter site; and their concerns that the park improvements will lead to even more visitors and greater disruption to all the residents who live in the immediate area.
Commissioners pointed out that the variance was the matter before them during the public hearing. Nonetheless, after the board members discussed some of the complaints with Lt. Debra Kaspar of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office’s Patrol Bureau, Kaspar assured the board she would work with the speakers on matters the Sheriff’s Office could handle. Additionally, Commissioner Paul Caragiulo indicated he would like for the board to have a future discussion with staff about the operating hours of the beach park itself.
Finally, commissioners suggested that the speakers who voiced anger over the lack of parking restrictions for Beach Road spaces parallel to the park property address that issue with the residential and business organizations on the island and perhaps bring proposed changes to the county’s Traffic Advisory Council for review.
The coastal setback variance petition
Howard Berna, manager of environmental permitting for the county, explained at the outset of the public hearing that the variance called for the replacement of the eight existing wooden shelters with concrete structures in the same general footprint. The maximum any shelter would stand seaward of the county’s Gulf Beach Setback Line (GBSL), he said, would be 156.5 feet.
The sidewalk, which would comply with Americans with Disabilities Act standards, would extend from the beach park’s new promenade to just the first two shelters, he noted, and it would be a maximum of 138 feet seaward of the GBSL.
Three of the wooden shelters would be replaced by two of the concrete modular units standing side-by-side, Berna added. Each shelter would be 10 feet by 14 feet, he said. Their height at the tallest point would be 9.5 feet.
The proposed construction would be more than 621 feet from the Mean High Water Line in the Gulf of Mexico, he pointed out.
First at the podium during the comments portion of the public hearing, Diane Hessler said she lives in the Crescent Royale Condominiums across from Siesta Public Beach. She told the board that, according to her math, the new shelters would increase the seating capacity at least 40 percent. Further, she said, the new western pavilion — formerly referred to in county plans as a wedding pavilion — adds even more seating capacity on that end of the park. Restrooms are not convenient to those picnic structures, she pointed out.
Moreover, Hessler said that approving the variance would mean more intensive use in a natural area the county has sought to protect through the establishment of the GBSL.
Nancy G. Townshend, who said her father-in-law was the first chair of the County Commission after Sarasota County “seceded from Manatee County,” pointed out that Siesta Public Beach was named No. 1 in the United States by Dr. Stephen Leatherman — Dr. Beach — of Florida International University before the county began the improvements.
“Why build additional things?” she asked. Noting prior county staff comments that construction oversight had led to the $400,000 in savings on the project, Townshend told the board, “It’s good to have money left over!”
Bob D’Orsi, president of the Sunset Royal Condominium Association, talked of people changing clothes — as well as babies’ diapers — in cars parked on Beach Road adjacent to the beach park, because no restrooms are among the amenities on that end of the complex. He also decried noise “that goes on at all hours of the night” at the beach and said the new concrete shelters would impede the view of the Gulf that Crescent Royale homeowners enjoy.
Paul Parr told the board he lived at 711 Beach Road until two years ago, “watching Siesta Key Beach becoming the boardwalk of New Jersey, with umbrella after umbrella.” From the balcony of his penthouse condominium, he said, he observed the types of activities in vehicles on Beach Road that D’Orsi had described. Parr added that he also witnessed public defecation and urination on the condominium complex’s property, because the restrooms were not close to that end of the complex.
Further, he said, “we’re talking about changing the shelters that are in wonderful shape.” Because of their design, he continued, each of the new ones will create a blind spot for users, making it possible for picnickers to become victims of crime.
Replying to a question from Commissioner Christine Robinson, Rob LaDue, planning and capital program manager in the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, said the lifespan of the pressure-treated wood in the existing shelters is about 10 to 15 years, and he has noted the metal connectors are “degraded pretty badly.” The roofs are leaking, too, he said.
“We would need to replace the wooden shelters in two to three years, tops,” he added.
In response to commissioners’ questions, Carolyn Brown, director of the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, explained that the Siesta Beach park — including the playground area — is open 24 hours a day, though the restrooms are closed. Parking in any of the county lots is forbidden between midnight and 6 a.m.
“I don’t think a whole lot of good stuff happens after midnight anyway, for the most part,” Commissioner Caragiulo pointed out, adding that he “certainly would be willing” to discuss changing the hours the park is open.
Replying to further board questions, Kaspar of the Sheriff’s Office pointed out that no restrictions exist on the Beach Road parking spaces speakers referenced, except that drivers must keep their vehicles within the lines. It also is legal, she noted, for a person to leave a car or truck in a space for several days without moving the vehicle.
“This issue probably should be debated and then brought to our Traffic Advisory Council,” Commissioner Charles Hines told the audience members.
Regarding a lack of restrooms on the western end of the park, Brad Gaubatz, project manager for the beach park improvements, explained that any new facility would have to be elevated 15 feet above the current grade, and the structure would be about 35 feet tall, creating “a significant visual barrier to those residents across the street.” The new facilities include more toilets for men and, especially, for women, he told the board.
At the conclusion of the discussion, Robinson made the motion to approve the variance. Caragiulo seconded it.
Robinson pointed out that the addition of the sidewalk would improve disabled people’s access to the picnic shelters, a fact she called “especially important.”
The motion to approve the variance then passed 4-0. Chair Carolyn Mason did not attend the meeting.