Siesta Seen

State legislative bill filed to prohibit smoking on public beaches; County Commission to conduct Feb. 27 workshop on paid parking options for Siesta Beach; Condo Council meeting set for Jan. 15; and Tampa Spiritual Ensemble performance planned at Siesta Key Chapel

State Sen. Joe Gruters. Photo from the Florida Senate website

Newly elected state Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota is hoping to accomplish something that has eluded county commissioners for years: ending smoking on the public beaches.

On Jan. 2, Gruters filed Senate Bill 218. Formally, it says, “Prohibiting the smoking of tobacco on public beaches; providing civil penalties; authorizing a law enforcement officer to issue a citation as prescribed by a county or municipality to any person who smokes tobacco on a public beach; specifying that a person who fails to comply with the directions on the citation waives the right to contest the citation and authorizing the court to issue an order to show cause …”

The civil penalty would be $25 or 10 hours of community service, the bill says.

The bill would take effect on July 1, if it passes the Florida Legislature. This year, the legislative session will begin on March 1 and end on May 3.

A little more than six years ago, then-Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta talked of his desire to see smoking banned around county libraries. As it turned out, not only had the state Legislature made that impossible, but county staff ultimately had to remove the “No Smoking” signs at the public beaches.

In a December 2012 court ruling involving the City of Sarasota, a 12th Judicial Circuit Court judge pointed to a state law that prevents local governments from imposing smoking bans on public property.

“This is really disturbing to me. I can’t believe this is happening,” Barbetta said during the Jan. 8, 2013 County Commission meeting.

Then-Commissioner Nora Patterson, a long-time Siesta Key resident, made a motion to seek a change in Florida law to allow local governments to regulate smoking on public lands. Although her motion passed unanimously, the board was unable to achieve any degree of success at the state level.

On Aug. 28, 2018, when the County Commission approved its priorities for the 2019 legislative session, it included the following among them: “Support legislation to allow local governments to regulate outdoor smoking on public property under their jurisdiction.”

After the December 2012 court ruling, the Sheriff’s Office ceased enforcing the county ban on smoking on the beach. Sgt. Scott Osborne, then the leader of the Siesta substation, told The Sarasota News Leader that the fine for a citation had been $100.

‘Smoke-Free Zone’ signs used to be posted at county beaches. File photo

In her Dec. 10, 2012 ruling, Circuit Judge Maryann Boehm pointed to the City of Sarasota’s claim that “it is unclear whether the Legislature intended to preempt to the State the regulation of allsmoking [indoors and outdoors] …”

She added, “There is no case law directly on point that construes the preemption provision at issue in this case. The Defendant cites several favorable legal opinions rendered by the Florida Attorney General on the subject. Although such opinions have no binding precedential value, the Court finds their reasoning to be sound and is persuaded that [the statute] constitutes an express and unambiguous statement of the Legislature’s intent to preempt the regulation of allsmoking, wherever located, to the State.”

A July 21, 2011 opinion issued by the Florida Attorney General’s Office in a case involving the St. Johns River Water Management District — provided to the News Leaderby the Office of the County Attorney — is one example of the opinions Boehm referenced. It says, “In sum: The Regulation of smoking is preempted to the state pursuant to [the Clean Indoor Air Act], and the … District may not adopt a policy prohibiting smoking or tobacco use that is broader than the terms of [that statute].”

When Stephen Leatherman of Florida International University in Miami — known as Dr. Beach — first named Siesta Public Beach No. 1 in the United States in 2011, one of the factors he cited was the policy against smoking. In remarks several years later to a Siesta Key Association audience, Leatherman talked about how much he loathes sitting down on a beach and putting his hands in the sand only to find lots of butts.

In fact, when Leatherman started his Top 10 Beaches list all over again in 2016 — enabling past winners to take top honors again after having previously been removed from the competition — he pointed out that he would be giving extra credit to those that banned smoking. He told the Associated Press in 2016, “The No. 1 form of litter on beaches is cigarette butts, and it is disgusting.”

Gruters’ bill has received quite a bit of attention around the state. The big question, of course, is whether he can get it passed.

Public comments sought on paid beach parking

People gather at Siesta Public Beach for sunset on Feb. 21, 2018. Since the beach first was named No. 1 on the 2011 list of ‘Dr. Beach,’ Siesta Key has seen almost constant growth in tourism. File photo

The last time the county commissioners discussed the option of paid parking on Siesta Public Beach, they decided to hold a workshop on the issue, instead of trying to hammer out ideas during a regular meeting.

As a result of that July 2018 decision, county staff has scheduled a workshop that will begin at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 27, at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota (1660 Ringling Blvd.).

Nicole Rissler, director of the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, said in a video news release that the workshop “will be a community forum for people to come out and share their thoughts and concerns about Siesta Key traffic and parking.”

If interested persons are unable to attend the workshop, she said, they will have opportunities to express their comments to county staff through online platforms. More information will be provided about those options prior to late February, she added.

Both the Siesta Key Association (SKA) and the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce have undertaken surveys showing that the majority of their members support payments for parking at the beach park. However, the consensus has been that the county should funnel the proceeds — or at least most of the proceeds — into island-related programs.

Mark Smith. File photo

For example, Mark Smith of Smith Architects, a long-time leader of the Siesta Chamber, has called for the county to extend the route of the Siesta Key Breeze open-air trolley, so it can cover the north end of the island, as well as the south end. The Breeze circulates between Turtle Beach and Morton’s Siesta Market in the Village. Smith has pointed out that a wider circuit would lead to even fewer visitors using vehicles to traverse the Key.

Commissioner Alan Maio has joined Smith in estimating that for every two people who ride the trolley, one vehicle has been eliminated from island traffic.

County commissioners also have talked of the potential of renting spaces at off-site parking areas — such as Sarasota Pavilion, which is near the U.S. 41/Stickney Point Road intersection — so people can leave vehicles at those locations and then take a trolley to the beach.

Additionally, the future of the property at 6647 S. Midnight Pass Road will be part of the Feb. 27 discussion, the commissioners decided last July. Staff won the go-ahead in 2018 to raze a former Sheriff’s Office training facility on that property, after Sheriff Tom Knight said the structure no longer was needed. However, a county Public Utilities building remains on the site, staff has pointed out, and numerous underground pipes exist as part of the Siesta Key Utility Authority infrastructure that the county took over years ago.

Although Commissioner Maio initially talked of having staff create a shell lot where people could park for free, Commissioner Nancy Detert has asked for details about the potential of constructing a parking garage on the parcel.

In response to a request for an update this week on the status of that property, Spencer Anderson, director of the Public Works Department, reported to the News Leader in a Jan. 8 email, “The [Sheriff’s Office] structure has been demolished and we are still working on actions to make [the site] available for parking. It is currently closed for public parking.”

A July 2018 graphic provided the County Commission an update on the status of the property at 6647 S. Midnight Pass Road. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Condo Council meeting set for Jan. 15

At 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 15, the Siesta Key Condominium Council will host Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck for an annual update on Florida legislation regarding condominium associations.

Among Lobeck’s topics, a Condo Council news release says, will be terms and term limits for directors; recalls of directors; enforcement fines; association records; electric vehicle charging stations; and mandatory websites.

A question-and-answer session will follow the presentation.

The meeting also will feature a report from the Sheriff’s Office on Siesta incidents, an update on Save Our Siesta Sand 2’s plans to file a federal lawsuit to try to stop the dredging of Big Sarasota Pass, discussion of the Siesta Promenade public hearing the County Commission held on Dec. 12, and recognition of the Holiday Lighting Contest winners.

The meeting will be held at Siesta Key Chapel, which is located at 4615 Gleason Ave., on the north end of the Key.

Tampa Spiritual Ensemble to perform on Jan. 20

The Tampa Spiritual Ensemble. Contributed photo

On Sunday, Jan. 20, at 4 p.m., the Siesta Key Chapel Arts series will feature a performance by The Tampa Spiritual Ensemble in honor of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The ensemble comprises professionals and classically trained singers from the Tampa Bay area who have diverse backgrounds, a news release says. “This concert’s overarching theme is freedom, peace, love, and brotherhood,” the release adds.

A $10 donation per person is requested at the door before the concert.

Siesta Chapel is located 4615 Gleason Ave. on the north end of Siesta Key.