Mike Cosentino argues that the board violated the county’s Comprehensive Plan when it took the 4-1 vote on May 11
On the afternoon of May 24, Siesta Key resident and business owner Mike Cosentino walked to the podium in the Sarasota County Commission Chambers in Sarasota during the Open to the Public period at the end of the board’s regular meeting.
Cosentino talked of how he grew up on the mainland but has lived on Siesta for about 27 years. Then he mentioned how much he used to enjoy driving the length of North Beach Road. “Every day, when I’d get home from work, I would take that little slow roll down that beach … and just feel my heart rate come down and my blood pressure go down. It was an amazing thing.”
After repeated storm damage to a 360-foot segment of the road, county leaders closed it to vehicle traffic in 1993. Then, in a 4-1 vote on May 11 — with Commissioner Christine Robinson in the minority — the board agreed to abandon the section altogether, turning it over to three couples who own adjacent property.
Since then, Cosentino said on May 24, “I’ve been very upset.”
He understood that an easement approved during the public hearing has been designed to ensure public access to the road will continue, Cosentino told the board. But “‘in perpetuity’ is something that is certainly questionable.” He has heard that “rolling easements” will become more common in the future, he added, which increases his concern that the North Beach Road easement might not be maintained.
“I want to see you guys reconsider,” he said of the vote. “It’s very hard for me to understand how the board cannot only take that away [from the current members of the public], but you’re robbing future generations … I think it’s a terrible mistake.”
On June 10, the last day the law allowed for such action, Cosentino filed a complaint against Sarasota County, alleging that the commission violated the Comprehensive Plan when it approved the abandonment of the segment of North Beach Road. The same section Robinson cited prior to her May 11 “No” vote is referenced in the complaint: Policy 1.1.13 says, “The County shall not vacate road segments on waterfronts along any creek, river, lake, bay or Gulf access point and shall encourage right-of-way use of these areas for coastal beach and bay access.”
“It doesn’t give us an out,” Robinson told her colleagues on May 11.
However, Charles Bailey III, an attorney with Parker Williams in Sarasota who represented the three couples petitioning for the abandonment, explained on May 11 that parcels they own seaward of the affected section of North Beach Road are on the Gulf of Mexico. Therefore, Bailey argued, the segment of road at the heart of the petition technically is not on the waterfront.
Commissioner Charles Hines said he was willing to go along with that concept.
The road abandonment approval was necessary for plans of one couple among the petitioners — Dennis and Wendy Madden — to construct a new three-story structure with six dwelling units in place of five non-conforming buildings with 12 units that they have been renting out on the island. Without the extra property encompassed by the road section, they would have lacked sufficient square footage under the county’s Zoning Code to build six new units.
During a telephone interview with The Sarasota News Leader on June 15, Ralf Brookes of Cape Coral, Consentino’s attorney, said of the commissioners, “They shouldn’t be giving away public access for the private sector.”
He lived on Siesta Key himself in the early 1990s, Brookes noted, and he, like Cosentino, drove North Beach Road “all the time.” Brookes told the News Leader, “This has been an important beachfront road for generations of Siesta Key residents.”
Bailey repeatedly pointed out to the commissioners on May 11 that the three couples petitioning for the road abandonment — J. Edward Ramsey and Christy S. Ramsey of Bristol, IN; the Maddens of Ada, MI; and William Caflisch and Sheila S. Caflisch of Sarasota — had no intention of keeping members of the public off the road, as long as they were not in vehicles, in compliance with the current county restriction. At Hines’ request prior to the vote, Bailey also won agreement from the couples for an additional “5-foot pedestrian or bicycle access out to the sandy beach that doesn’t exist today,” as Bailey put it, with a legal description that would be recorded in public documents.
During the interview with the News Leader, Brookes stressed that barrier islands change over time, as evidenced by historical aerial photographs. Siesta Key is no different from any other of the others, he pointed out. “You can see the island moving in and out and morphing and changing shape.” That is all the more reason, he said, the county should not abandon the road section. “To try to maintain the public right to use it … I think is very important.”
Asked about a response from the county regarding the lawsuit, spokesman Jason Bartolone the News Leader on June 15 that the Office of the County Attorney typically does not issue any comment on pending litigation.
The case has been assigned to Judge Rochelle Curley in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court.
The county had not been served with the complaint as of June 15, spokesman Jason Bartolone told the News Leader, but Brookes explained during the telephone interview that he had cleared up a couple of technical issues noted by the Sarasota County Clerk of Court’s Office that had prevented the service.
As of the morning of June 16, the county formally was listed in court records as the defendant.
In the meantime, Mike Cosentino has set up a website to seek support for his initiative to keep all of North Beach Road public property.
Reopen Beach Road features an aerial view of the segment the County Commission voted to abandon; it is seen next to the shoreline on the Gulf of Mexico. The homepage includes a note from Cosentino, describing his reason for filing the lawsuit. It says his long-term goal “is to compel the county to attain the permanent fix to this section of Beach Road that we all (walkers, bikers, handicapped and drivers) deserve to appreciate and enjoy.”
It adds, “I understand that our commissioners have an enormous responsibility and that, for the most part, they do a good job for us. But, except for Christine Robinson, they dropped the ball on this one. Let’s get together and help them pick it up.”
The website also seeks donations “to help pay for our legal fees.” Clicking on the button provided takes one to a GoFundMe page. At midday on June 16, it showed $125 having been raised by three people in 21 days, with a $10,000 goal indicated.
The matter of the resolution
Although the County Commission vote on the matter took place more than 30 days ago, the resolution setting forth that action in formal legal terms had not been finalized by June 15, the News Leader learned.
County Real Estate Division staff sent a draft to Bailey on May 13 with minor suggested changes, but he had not revised it and returned it with a signature as of midweek this week, Bartolone said.
Asked whether that would enable the Office of the County Attorney to seek dismissal of Consentino’s complaint, Brookes explained that his understanding of the law is that the date of the County Commission vote was the start of the 30-day period for Cosentino to file a complaint. The fact that the resolution has not been finalized should not matter, he continued. However, if he had not filed the complaint within that 30-day timeframe, he added, the Office of the County Attorney would have had no problem getting a judge to dismiss the lawsuit.
His decision, Brookes said, was to “err on the side of caution” with the June 10 filing.
Sarasota attorney Morgan Bentley of the Bentley & Bruning firm — who has prevailed in past litigation against the county — confirmed Brookes’ position. In a June 15 telephone interview, he told the News Leader, “Ralf is right.” Bentley explained that, as a public body, the commission “can’t do anything after the public hearing,” so that May 11 action was final. “When they vote, that’s it.”
Bentley added that he has read considerable case law supporting Brookes’ decision to file the complaint within the 30-day period.
On June 15, one couple among the petitioners for the road abandonment — William and Sheila Caflisch — filed a motion seeking to intervene in Cosentino’s lawsuit, 12th Judicial Circuit Court records show. It explains their participation in the May 11 petition and references legal precedent that allows their action.
Citing a 1992 Florida Supreme Court ruling, they say their interests are “‘of such a direct and immediate character that [they] will either gain or lose by the direct legal operation and effect of the judgment.’”