Siesta Seen

County staff providing red tide updates; alligator in Little Sarasota Bay has residents on alert; South Bridge Apartments sold; Ripfire Pizza nearing an opening date; Sarasota Bay Estuary Program marks transition of Siesta Key Wastewater Treatment Plant; The Hub encouraging customers to skip use of straws; SKA members get update on 12th Circuit Court case; and Siesta’s snowy plovers stymied again in nesting

A front-end loader works on Siesta Beach on Aug. 3. Photo courtesy Sarasota County via Twitter

Red tide not only has been the scourge of visitors and residents over the past week, but it also has prompted plenty of calls to the Sarasota County Contact Center, The Sarasota News Leader learned.

Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester told the News Leader in an Aug. 6 email that he did not have exact numbers, but last week the Call Center was averaging about 50 to 60 calls a day “related to Red Tide/fish kill. They saw that number drop after the Thursday [Aug. 2] cleanup efforts took place,” he added. On Aug. 3, only about 24 calls on the topic came into the Contact Center, Winchester noted. “They are seeing sporadic calls today on it,” he added.

A purple banner at the top of the county’s website for the past several days has alerted the public to the following: “Sarasota County is actively monitoring the beaches and cleaning in accordance with beach policy. To report a fish kill, call 800-636-0511. Find current beach conditions at Mote Marine Daily Beach Conditions. Find updates on the county’s beach cleaning efforts at Red Tide Status.”

The Red Tide Status webpage has a wealth of statistics, the News Leader found when it visited the page.

For example, the Aug. 3 update noted that 9 tons of fish were removed from Siesta Key beaches, including Turtle Beach. However, it added that on Turtle Beach alone, 1,120 pounds of fish were removed.

On Lido Beach, 7 tons were hauled out that day.

A front-end loader dumps debris into a truck on Siesta Beach on Aug. 3. Photo courtesy Sarasota County via Twitter

The weekend update for Aug. 4-5 noted that 2.13 tons of fish were removed from Siesta Public Beach, and 1.27 tons were taken off Turtle Beach. Another 9.06 tons were removed from Lido Beach.

As of Aug. 6, the update pointed out, “Due to improving conditions and no fish kill/aerosols reported, fish removal did not occur on Siesta Beach, Turtle Beach and South County beaches.”

That webpage also directs visitors to read the county beach-cleaning policy. Among the primary points of that policy are that beach cleaning generally is limited to the following: areas owned by the county and open to the general public; areas below the approximate Mean High Water Line “and in close proximity to a County-owned public beach or beach access”; and areas that are part of a federal or state beach renourishment project and seaward of the Erosion Control Line.

Other significant defining factors, the policy notes, are that two tidal cycles have not removed the debris and dead fish naturally, and the accumulation has reached the level — on a continuous 2-mile stretch of the beach — at which it would be sufficient to fill one truck capable of holding 5 cubic yards. Additionally, that swath of beach must be “accessible to motorized equipment or vehicles …”

This is the county’s beach-cleaning policy. Image courtesy Sarasota County

You saw what in the bay?!

This is the alligator in Little Sarasota Bay. Photo contributed by Rick Wulterkens

On July 27, a south Siesta resident sparked a lot of attention after he began distributing a photo he took in Little Sarasota Bay.

A resident of the Island Reef condominium complex on South Midnight Pass Road, Rick Wulterkens said he was watching a group of manatees when he spotted an alligator heading toward land.

The mangroves visible in the photo are on the Island Reef property, a neighbor, Libby Sloan, told The Sarasota News Leader. “Apparently gators can tolerate brackish water but this is very unusual!” Sloan wrote. “He/She looks to be about 6 feet long.”

Sloan added, “We are warning those who get in the Bay to clean their boats!”

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), “Courtship [for alligators] begins in early April, and mating occurs in May or June.” FWC adds this caution: Females build a mound nest of soil, vegetation, or debris and deposit an average of 32 to 46 eggs in late June or early July. Incubation requires approximately 63-68 days, and hatching occurs from mid-August through early September.”

Of course, the News Leaderis not sure whether the gator in Little Sarasota Bay might still have been looking for love. Regardless, residents are keeping a keen watch when they are near the water, just in case the critter is lingering in the area.

South Bridge Apartments have new owner

The South Bridge Apartments are in the Pine Shores Estates neighborhood off Stickney Point Road. Photo from Google Maps

On July 18, a Fort Lauderdale-based limited liability company, MRI South Bridge, paid $1,475,000 for the South Bridge Apartments at 1648 Redwood St. in Sarasota, Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office records show.

The 32,260-square-foot parcel has six buildings with a total of 13 dwelling units on it. The site is located in Pine Shores Estates between Beechwood and Elmwood avenues; it is just north of Stickney Point Road’s intersection with Avenue D.

The seller was Omega Investment Properties, which paid $1,450,000 for the property in early January 2005, the Property Appraiser’s Office records show.

The total taxable value of the property this year is $1,122,000, the records say.

The oldest two structures on the land — which are one story each — date to 1950. Three others, which are two stories each, were built in 1952. The last building was constructed in 1973, the Property Appraiser’s Office records note, and it has two stories, as well.

The registered agent for MR South Bridge LLC is Kevin M. Coffey of Fort Lauderdale, according to the Florida Division of Corporations. The manager of the company is William D. Evans Jr. of Littleton. Colo., the records noted. MRI South Bridge LLC was registered with the state on June 14.

In conjunction with the purchase, MRI South Bridge borrowed money from Guaranty Bank and Trust Co. in Denver, according to a mortgage filed with the Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller.

The registered agent for Omega Investment Properties is Susan L. Saltalamacchia, who has a Flamingo Avenue address on Siesta.

Ripfire Pizza has begun hiring employees

This is the Ripfire restaurant logo. Image from the restaurant’s Facebook page

The new pizza restaurant that will open in the former Jo-To location at 5218 Ocean Blvd. cleared a big hurdle in mid-May when it received its Sarasota County alcoholic beverage permit — at a cost of $215. However, it has been delayed in its opening.

The wait finally is nearing an end, business owner Gus Escalera told the News Leader in an Aug. 8 telephone interview.

About noon on Aug. 2, the new restaurant’s Facebook page posted the following: “Ripfire is hiring! Email for more information!”

“Everything’s coming together,” Escalera said this week, although he did not want to offer a definitive date for when the restaurant will open its doors. “We’re hoping for August,” he added with a laugh.

Siesta business partners Jim Syprett and Jay Lancer purchased the Jo-To parcel on May 1, 2017 for $1,350,000 and then took a few months to decide on their new tenant. In the meantime, they began remodeling the building.

On Aug. 29, 2017, county staff received a permit application for the reconstruction; the permit was issued on Oct. 4, 2017 for the creation of a new front façade, new plumbing and electrical systems and a new air conditioning system. The permit was modified in February of this year to include interior renovations specifically for Ripfire, county records show.

“Rough” inspections of the new commercial electrical, gas and mechanical systems have been approved, the permitting records said this week. Final inspections of those systems — and the plumbing — still must be completed the records noted, along with the final fire inspection.

Asked if any issues in particular had contributed to the long timeline for the work, Escalera told the News Leader, “Anybody who knows construction can tell you,” things usually do not happen as fast as an owner would like.

For one thing, Escalera continued, the original building was old. (Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office records note it dates to 1974.) During construction, Escalera said, workers had to contend with some unexpected situations. “The building was completely, 100% renovated,” he pointed out.

Nonetheless, Escalera added, “It’s going to be probably the prettiest restaurant on the Key” when it does get those doors open later this month.

Sarasota Bay Estuary Program gives county kudos

A county graphic shows the segments of the project designed to lead to the decommissioning of the Siesta Wastewater Treatment Plant. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Under the heading, “Last large, full-time wastewater discharge to Sarasota Bay removed,” the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program (SBEP) recognized in its summer newsletter that the conversion of the Siesta Key Wastewater Treatment Plant into a master pump station had been completed.

Released on July 31, the nonprofit’s newsletter says, “One of the original goals in SBEP’s first Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan was the removal of surface wastewater discharges to Sarasota Bay. Wastewater discharges contribute excess nitrogen to estuaries, which can cause algal blooms that reduce the amount of light that seagrasses need to grow while also depleting available oxygen for resident fish populations, the major cause of periodic fish kills.”

The article continues, “In 1990, wastewater contributed about 50 percent of the total nitrogen to Sarasota Bay. When the Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan was adopted in 1995, the community had already made many improvements to wastewater treatment within the watershed. Nitrogen loads had decreased by 25 percent as a result of enacting the Grizzle-Figg Act of 1990, which required all regional wastewater treatment plants with direct surface water discharge to meet Advanced Wastewater Treatment (AWT) standards. However, several major discharges to Sarasota Bay remained, each contributing excess nitrogen and fresh water to the Bay.”

The article notes, “Over time, those discharges have been removed as local governments and state agencies invested millions of dollars in modernizing our region’s wastewater treatment systems.”

On April 10, the Siesta plant marked its first day as a master pump station, Robert Luckner, a member of the Siesta Key Association’s Environmental Committee, reported to members at their May meeting.

Wastewater from Siesta Key is being pumped “to Sarasota County’s large treatment facility on Bee Ridge Road,” the SBEP added.

Speaking of the environment …

Image courtesy Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce

The August newsletter of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce congratulates The Hub Baja Grill “for becoming an official straw-by-request restaurant.” The newsletter adds, “Thanks for helping keep our oceans clean” and includes the hash tag #srqskipsthestraw.

An accompanying poster points out that the International Coastal Cleanup collects 400,000 plastic straws a year, “because plastic straws are on the Top 10 lists of plastic trash found in our oceans, causing harm to our marine life!”

The poster lets Hub customers know that if they need straws, they may request them from a restaurant employee.

Waiting mode in Big Pass case

Because the Siesta Key Association (SKA) had no meeting in July, the Aug. 2 session gave Vice President Catherine Luckner the opportunity to bring members up-to-date on the status of the nonprofit’s latest legal challenge to try to prevent the dredging of Big Sarasota Pass.

As the News Leader reported on Aug. 3, the SKA is awaiting the filing of supplementary material by its own attorney and then responses from the City of Sarasota and the Lido Key Residents Association (LKRA) in a 12th Judicial Circuit Court case, following a July 23 public hearing.

The SKA filed a verified complaint in March 2017, arguing that the City of Sarasota violated Sarasota County’s Comprehensive Plan by not seeking county approval of the proposed sand removal from Big Pass to renourish about 1.6 miles of South Lido Key Beach.

The Thursday night before the July 23 hearing, Luckner said, the city’s outside counsel — John R. Herin of GrayRobinson in Fort Lauderdale — filed an amended Motion to Dismiss the SKA complaint. It added up to 301 pages, including exhibits and a copy of the city’s original, April 2017 Motion to Dismiss in the case, based on the records kept by the Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller.

Kent Safriet of the Tallahassee law firm Hopping Green & Sams, was out of the office that week, Luckner continued. “He actually came and stayed here that weekend” before the July 23 hearing, she continued, so he could work on his response to the city’s action.

What is unusual about the city’s amended motion, Luckner told the approximately 20 people at the SKA meeting, is “It appears that the city is attempting to require that the county enter into this conversation.”

The SKA’s complaint is termed “verified,” she explained, because it deals only with facets of the applicable law. Therefore, any response has to stay “within the four corners” of what has been filed, she added, referring to other legal terminology.

A woman walks along the sandbar in Big Pass, just north of Siesta Key, in July 2017. File photo

Yet, the city is arguing — as of July 19, she noted — that the county “is an indispensable party” to the case. Last year, she pointed out, the city did not want the county involved.

Circuit Court Judge Andrea McHugh laughed at one point during the July 23 hearing, Luckner added, when Safriet told her, “‘This is kind of a political hot potato.’ … He told the truth on that one, and I think she agreed.”

“We’re not asking for the county to be interviewed [or] deposed,” she continued. “We are very certain that we have the basis and the foundation to be heard.”

When Alexandra Coe of Sarasota, a candidate for the District 2 County Commission seat and a guest at the SKA meeting, asked what the SKA would like for the county to do, Luckner replied, “Uphold their own Comprehensive Plan. … There’s two areas that we’d like to see removed [from the borrow area list for sand],” Luckner added. “They’re not necessary; we know that from an engineering standpoint, and, also, the Comprehensive Plan indicates that the city does not have the right to dredge without agreement from [and] quasi-judicial oversight of the county.”

Luckner was referring to Borrow Area B, which is close to the northern part of Siesta Key, and the easternmost 1,200 feet of Borrow Area C. In issuing the city and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers a permit for the dredging of Big Pass for the Lido project, Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) Secretary Noah Valenstein ruled on June 18 that those areas could not be touched from April to September. On that point, he upheld the recommendation of Administrative Law Judge Bram D.E. Canter, filed on May 8 after Canter weighed expert testimony and evidence in a Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) proceeding held in Sarasota in December 2017. One of the expert witnesses for the SKA and Save Our Siesta Sand 2 testified during the DOAH proceeding that spotted sea trout spawn in those two areas of the pass between April and September each year.

Following Canter’s release of his Recommended Order, the SKA filed Exceptions in the DOAH proceeding, asking that FDEP eliminate the two sand borrow areas altogether from the city/USACE list. That effort, as illustrated by Valenstein’s decision, was not successful.

SKA Vice President Catherine Luckner. File photo

“It was declined quite aggressively by the city,” Luckner said of the SKA’s request in the Exceptions. “I was surprised in a way, because I would have thought if they wanted to do some friendly dickering about the whole situation, that would have been an easy thing for them to do, easy because they don’t need the sand in one of those areas and easy because the 1,200 feet where we have the seagrass has very little sand it.”

“One of the things that tells me,” she continued, “is that it’s more than about the sand, because it would have been easy to give those [borrow areas up]. … That was our ‘tell.’”

In response to another question, Luckner said, “I would like to see [the county commissioners] implement their Comprehensive Plan. If they would veto [the dredging of Big Pass], that would be great. They’ve not been asked, and they probably don’t want to be asked at this point …” After all, she noted, the county commissioners represent city of Sarasota residents, as well. “It’s a very difficult situation.”

Then Luckner brought up a scenario related to County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh’s assertion on July 10 that the environmental policy in the county Comprehensive Plan which has been the foundation of the SKA’s verified complaint does not deal with public dredging initiatives.

Does that mean, Luckner asked, that if the City of Miami comes up with “a really great idea” and wants to haul sand away from a Sarasota County waterway for a public project, “we can’t say anything?”

Invitations declined

Vice President Catherine Luckner also noted during the Aug. 2 SKA meeting that she had emailed Commissioners Alan Maio and Charles Hines about the SKA’s July 23 hearing, asking that they consider attending it or — if neither was able to do so — that they send “designated County Staff.”

In that July 9 email, a copy of which county Communications staff provided the News Leader, Luckner wrote that the hearing was set from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. on July 23. “This doesn’t involve any testimony,” she pointed out.

The hearing was held in the Silvertooth Judicial Center, which is located on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota. File photo

She also had asked Maio and Hines if they could meet for about 45 minutes with her and her husband, Robert, a member of the SKA’s Environmental Committee before that hearing. (Robert Luckner has done a considerable amount of research to support the legal initiatives the SKA has undertaken to prevent the dredging of Big Pass, Catherine Luckner has explained to SKA members on numerous occasions.) She suggested she and her husband could talk with Maio and Hines separately on July 20, as required under the state’s Sunshine Law. “We are able to meet at any location best for you,” Catherine Luckner added.

Maio — who represents Siesta Key as part of his District 4 territory — replied, “Unfortunately, I’m out of town for a few days beginning the evening of 7/19.”

Hines wrote, “Thanks but no I will not be available then as I will be out of town. Also I will not be attending the hearing as the County is not in this case.”

Luckner did extend her appreciation on Aug. 2 to the many SKA members who attended the July 23 hearing. She noted that it was the largest turnout for any of the legal proceedings the nonprofit has pursued, including the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings proceeding held in Sarasota in December 2017.

Pauvre plovers

This snowy plover chick on Longboat Key is just a few days old but starting to get its markings. Photo by Kylie Wilson

We cannot say it was totally unexpected, but still, it was most unfortunate.

“I have sad news yet again,” Kylie Wilson, coordinator of Audubon Florida’s Shorebird Monitoring & Stewardship Program in Sarasota County, reported on July 26. “[B]oth our Snowy Plover nests are gone [on Siesta Key]. The one next to the public beach was likely buried by sand due to the strong winds we have had recently.” The one on property owned by the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, she added, “was most likely predated, I would guess by ghost crabs. These nests were the closest nests we had to hatching on Siesta all season. It is really discouraging but we have to keep our hopes up! I’m not sure if we will see any more nesting this season on Siesta but I will keep you all informed if any activity comes up.”

Then, in her Aug. 2 update, she conceded: “Siesta’s nesting season has likely come to an end. There are still some Snowy Plovers hanging around (we saw 10 … on the [Audubon-guided] beach walk last Saturday) but they are not paired up or displaying territorial behaviors so it is likely they are done nesting. Still the buffers will stay up for a little longer just in case!”

On the positive side, she pointed out, “Longboat has been an amazing haven for the birds. The Least Terns there have been very productive. I would guess there were at least 30 fledged chicks between the two nesting cycles. The snowy plover chicks are also still alive!”

The plover chicks, she wrote, were just over two weeks old, which meant they were halfway to fledging — having feathers and wing muscles sufficiently developed for flight. “Hopefully these little guys will be a success story for the plovers this season,” Wilson added.