Siesta Seen

FDOT proceeding with planning for drainage improvements on Higel; Siesta transit projects on county’s latest list for state and federal consideration; ‘bed tax’ revenue drops for Siesta accommodations in October; Cosentino group prevented from ‘hijacking’ Open to Public session during Dec. 12 commission meeting; Cosentino wins agreement of Second District Court of Appeal for delay in filing brief; and Sarasota city engineer wins kudos for working to obtain federal funding for Lido Renourishment Project

An aerial map shows Little Pond Lane intersecting with Higel Avenue. Image from Google Maps

Drivers on Higel Avenue recently wondered what was going on as they waited on workers to give them the go-ahead to proceed in single-lane traffic. We have an answer.

Spencer Anderson, Public Works Department director for Sarasota County, told The Sarasota News Leader that the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has been “performing subsurface utility exploration (SUE)” to support the design of a drainage project.

In the summer of 2017, FDOT reported that it was working on a project to alleviate drainage problems in the basin along part of Higel Avenue. “The property at 4013 Higel Ave. is the low point of the local basin,” an FDOT study said. “Flooding occurs along the SR [State Road] 758 corridor and eventually enters a 15-inch cross drain under SR 758 and outfalls to the existing outfall ditch,” the study pointed out.

That ditch is located north and northeast of 4013 Higel Ave.; it is within the private property of 3975 Shell Road, the study added. The outfall is to Coconut Bayou. However, the study noted, “The outfall ditch is overgrown with sediment and vegetation from Higel Avenue to Coconut Bayou.”

The study was prepared by Sergio Figueroa, an engineer for FDOT’s District One, which includes Sarasota County.

FDOT “will construct a closed storm sewer system along the west side of SR 758 from Little Pond Lane to Somerset Drive and continue the storm sewer system east directly to the existing outfall, Coconut Bayou,” Zachary Burch, government affairs &communications manager for FDOT, told the News Leader in mid-August 2017. “The proposed improvements will alleviate flooding issues along SR 758 and adjacent properties,” he added.

The work was funded for the 2018/19 fiscal year, Burch noted. FDOT’s fiscal year begins July 1; the county’s starts on Oct. 1.

The funding for design and right of way acquisition is listed at $785,066 in FDOT’s Tentative Five Year Work Program for 2019 to 2023, the News Leaderlearned. The construction, at a total of $1,323,720, is listed for the 2020-2021 fiscal year.

Of the latter amount, $1,291,290 will be from revenue dedicated to District One projects, according to FDOT. The rest will come from funding set aside for “State In-House Project Support” (DIH).

The project length — 0.11 miles — is the distance from Little Pond Lane to Somerset Drive, the listing noted.

Speaking of FDOT …

This is the 2019 MPO priority list the County Commission approved on Dec. 11. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Dec. 11, when the Sarasota County commissioners updated their transportation priorities for state and federal consideration in 2019, Siesta transit improvements were listed at No. 15 on a list of 22 projects. The board approved the recommendations to the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), which will review them before finalizing a list for FDOT and the federal government.

On the 2018 list, the multimodal improvements on Beach Road from Avenida del Mare to the Midnight Pass Road intersection were ranked 38 among the MPO’s priorities. That was noted on a chart county Transportation Planning Manager Paula Wiggins provided the commissioners in advance of the Dec. 11 meeting — as a reminder of action they took earlier this year. (The MPO has changed its timing for local governments to set new priorities, she told the board.)

A Dec. 11 memo from Wiggins to the board says the goal of the Siesta project is to construct bus stop shelters and crosswalks, along with other improvements to assist handicapped people under the guidelines of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Yet another project on the list that would involve Siesta is a Sarasota County Barrier Island Study, which the commissioners ranked No. 9 for 2019. In her memo, Wiggins explained that that study would take a comprehensive look at the islands from south of Lido Key to Manasota Key, “to determine and resolve circulation/traffic operations and to evaluate island-to-mainland connections to the east.”

FDOT is working to complete a Barrier Islands Study covering the area from Manatee County south through Lido. The County Commission has been supportive of that project, for which Manatee County leaders and the Longboat Key Town Commission advocated. A final report on that study is expected in the spring of 2019, Longboat Town Manager Tom Harmer said this fall.

The county commissioners previously have talked about their desire for a southern Barrier Islands Study, partly to help them focus on improvements they can make to help alleviate traffic congestion for Siesta residents and beachgoers during tourist season. (See the related story in this issue.)

Tourist Development Tax revenue down for October

This is the chart showing Tourist Development Tax collections by location for the 2018 fiscal year. Image courtesy Sarasota County Tax Collector’s Office

The effects of red tide are obvious in the first Tourist Development Tax (TDT) figures for the 2019 fiscal year.

Siesta property owners and businesses that collect the 5% tax on accommodations rented for six or fewer months reported taking in $233,703.36 in October, according to data from the Sarasota County Tax Collector’s Office.

In comparison, in October 2017, the Siesta total was $294,786.15, based on data through the end of the 2018 fiscal year.

Over the past several years, Siesta has reported the highest figure for collections by the end of the fiscal year. Typically, though, it begins each new fiscal year lagging the city of Sarasota. That is the case in the most recent report from the Tax Collector’s Office. Entities in the city turned in 39.45% of the total amount for October of this year, compared to 23.15% for those on Siesta.

Limited time to protest

Commissioners Charles Hines and Nancy Detert prepare for the start of the Dec. 12 meeting. Rachel Hackney photo

As the county commissioners on Dec. 12 opened their regular meeting, they already were facing a long day, as the public hearing on Siesta Promenade was the lone business item on the agenda.

Underscoring that expectation, Chair Nancy Detert laughed at the end of the hearing, which the News Leadermarked as 6:25 p.m. She had won a bet, she said, because the hearing was over by 6:30 p.m.

That morning, after the Pledge of Allegiance, Detert announced that she had a number of cards for the Open to the Public session, during which people typically address the board on topics not on the agenda or on discussion items, which do not afford an opportunity for public comments.

On Nov. 27, commissioners engaged in a discussion about the need to limit the time they allow for Open to the Public, especially when people sitting in the audience have paid attorneys and engineers, for example, to appear for items those people were told to expect around a certain time in the morning or afternoon.

The board has been providing an Open to the Public period at the start of each morning and afternoon session and at the end of each meeting.

Mike Cosentino has displayed a variety of Reopen Beach Road signs since the late spring of 2016. File photo

On the morning of Nov. 27, Siesta resident Mike Cosentino and 14 of his supporters showed up for Open to the Public to criticize the board for not immediately having implemented two County Charter amendments Cosentino wrote, which won voter approval on Nov. 6. One amendment calls for the reacquisition of a 373-foot-long segment of North Beach Road that the commission vacated in May 2016, at the request of three sets of North Beach Road property owners. The second amendment forbids the board to vacate any road segment that is on a body of water or even has a “waterfront vista.” The county has filed motions in two related cases in the 12thJudicial Circuit Court, saying the amendments contravene state law and are unenforceable. As of Dec. 19, the presiding judge had not set a hearing on either case since the election.

Commissioners later characterized the action as “hijacking” the meeting.

As it turns out, Cosentino and a group of supporters also had signed up for Open to the Public on Dec. 12, with the Commission Chambers in downtown Sarasota full of residents waiting to speak on the Siesta Promenade proposal.

Before the meeting began, Cosentino came into that room with Reopen Beach Road signs under one arm.

Detert announced that the board would allow only 15 minutes for public comments that morning. Anyone who had signed up for Open to the Public who was not able to make remarks before that time was up would have to wait until the conclusion of the Siesta Promenade hearing, she added.

Only two of the supporters of the Cosentino Charter amendments were able to address the board that morning.

At the end of the Siesta Promenade hearing, Detert did ask whether anyone remained in the audience who did not get to speak during Open to the Public that morning. No one responded.

Speaking of Cosentino …

This is the appeal cost sheet for Mike Cosentino’s part of the record in his case against Sarasota County. Image courtesy Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller

After 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Frederick P. Mercurio dismissed the last part of Mike Cosentino’s complaint against Sarasota County over the North Beach Road vacation, on Sept. 11, Cosentino appealed.

That notice formally was filed on Oct. 10 with the Second District Court of Appeal in Lakeland.

Originally, all the materials for that appeal were due to be processed and forwarded by Nov. 29 to the Second District Court. However, a Nov. 30 notification in the Cosentino docket in the Sarasota County Clerk of Court’s records said, “To date, the Lower Tribunal Clerk has not received complete payment for this appeal record or an Order designating insolvency.” The notification added, “Please advise on how to proceed.” It was signed by Deputy Clerk Barbara Torres, a member of the staff of Sarasota County Clerk of Court and County Comptroller Karen Rushing.

Another document in the court docket showed that Cosentino needed to pay $5,614 to Rushing’s office for the materials prepared for the appeal record. That cost sheet was filed on Nov. 8.

A related document in the case file showed that Sarasota County paid $3,562.50 for its materials for the appeal record.

Elizabeth Gomez-Mayo addresses the County Commission on Aug. 29. File photo

Subsequently, on Dec. 5, Cosentino’s attorney, Lee R. Rohe of Big Pine Key, asked for an extension for the filing of his brief in the appeal. On Dec. 7, the Second District Court granted that request, allowing for the initial brief to be submitted by Jan. 21, 2019. The order indicates all the appeal materials must be submitted by Jan. 29, 2019.

And in one other matter related to Cosentino’s legal issues: The other attorney who has worked on his case, Elizabeth Gomez-Mayo, filed a motion on Nov. 14, pointing out that she no longer would be representing Cosentino in Reopen Beach Road case.

On Nov. 12, Cosentino filed a Verified Client Stipulation To Withdrawal of Counsel form, which says he did “hereby agree, stipulate, and consent” to Gomez-Mayo’s withdrawal from the case. The form makes it clear that Rohe will continue to represent Cosentino.

City email focuses on federal funding for Lido project

Scanning recently through the City of Sarasota email folder, the News Leaderfound a message to City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw from Michael D. Willis, president of the Color Nine Group in Silver Spring, Md., which — its mission statement says — “exists to help individuals, organizations, and governments achieve their full potential by providing developmental guidance and funding solutions with passion and expertise.”

With the subject line “RE: Army Corps Work Plan FY19,” Willis’ Dec. 7 email said, “I just wanted to tell you again great work on the Lido [Key Beach renourishment] project. “The [U.S.] Army Corps [of Engineers (USACE)] released its annual Work Plan recently and it included only two shoreline projects and neither of them were ‘New Starts.’ That means Lido is the only ‘New Start’ shoreline project to be funded through the Army Corps Work Plan since at least 2014. Considering the delays and lawsuits the project faced, it is an impressive feat to have kept this project on Corps HQ’s radar. Your timely meetings with Corps HQ, the Congressional Delegation, and constant contact with the [USACE’s] Jacksonville District were instrumental in securing the funding. Great work!”

On June 11, the USACE announced that it had included $13,462,000 in its Fiscal Year 2018 Work Plan for the first segment of a 50-year initiative to renourish a critically eroded, 1.6-mile stretch of South Lido Key Beach.

City Engineer Alex DavisShaw addresses the city commissioners on Aug. 20. File photo

Although an emergency renourishment project is underway on Lido, two Siesta Key-based nonprofit have continued to take legal action to try to prevent the USACE from dredging about 1.3 million cubic yards of sand from Big Sarasota Pass during the first step of the long-term project. Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2) is preparing to file a complaint in U.S. District Court, and the Siesta Key Association (SKA) has a case underway in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in Sarasota. Both organizations argue that the USACE did not undertake sufficiently in-depth analyses of its project plans to ensure Siesta Key would suffer no harm from the dredging of the pass and the ebb shoal in the pass.

The SKA was due back in court on Dec. 20 to present arguments on its latest motions in its case.

On Dec. 7, City Engineer DavisShaw forwarded Willis’ email to City Manager Tom Barwin and copied the city commissioners.

“Just to let you know, per [Willis], all those trips up really did pay off,” she wrote.

“Great, great, great job!” Barwin responded.

“Wonderful! Thanks all who made this happen,” Mayor Liz Alpert replied.