Siesta Seen

Save Our Seabirds staff hoping tests will answer riddle of laughing gull illness; two new crosswalks planned after road swap concluded; Siesta Key Breeze’s extended morning hours continued; serious crime remains at low level in September; SKA gets Clerk of Court bill for records fees in appeal and awaits judge’s decision on attorneys’ fees and costs for defendants

This is a still from a video on the Save Our Seabirds website. Image from the website

The staff of Save Our Seabirds is hoping that necropsies on two laughing gulls that have died of a mysterious illness will offer guidance on medication and treatment to save future victims, Dana Leworthy, avian hospital administrator at the City Island nonprofit, told The Sarasota News Leader.

In an Oct. 17 telephone interview, Leworthy said Save Our Seabirds staff sent a couple of deceased laughing gulls earlier in the week to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) for testing.

Asked how long she expected to wait on the results, Leworthy replied, “I don’t know.” She added that she hoped it would not take more than a couple of weeks.

Until those results come in, she continued, “It’s only speculation at this point” that botulism may be the source of the poisoning that has killed about 50 of the gulls altogether on Siesta and Lido keys, as well as in an area near Anna Maria Island.

In an Oct. 9 telephone interview with the News Leader, Jonathan Hande, senior hospital technician at Save Our Seabirds, explained that botulism was his theory because that can be found in the soil, and laughing gulls are notorious scavengers.

“It couldn’t be red tide,” Leworthy emphasized of the cause of the illness, because “it’s only affecting one species. It’s pretty weird.”

Dana Leworthy. Image from the Save Our Seabirds website

Leworthy estimated that another four or five ill birds had been brought to Save Our Seabirds between Oct. 9 and Oct. 17. At least, she noted, the number had been decreasing.

As the News Leader reported on Oct. 11, suddenly people began alerting Save Our Seabirds to laughing gulls — especially on Siesta Key — that appeared to be lethargic. Most of the birds died in spite of the staff’s efforts to give them fluids and electrolytes, Hande told the News Leader.

“They seem alert enough” when they arrive at the nonprofit’s facilities, Leworthy said on Oct. 17. Yet, “They seem to go downhill so fast.”

When the staff began treating birds sickened last year by the red tide bloom, she noted, those birds readily showed improvement. The same supportive care provided to the laughing gulls, she added, “doesn’t seem to be helping.”

New crosswalks planned after road swap completed

Over the past months, as Sarasota County Engineer Spencer Anderson has talked about the upcoming swap of Siesta roads to the county in exchange for the state’s assuming control of River Road, he has discussed improvements planned for the almost 90-degree curve at the intersection of Higel Avenue and Siesta Drive.

However, it was not until county staff published the packet of agenda material for the Oct. 8 County Commission meeting that the News Leader learned of proposals for two new crosswalks — one on Siesta Drive and one on Higel Avenue.

This diagram shows the crosswalk planned on Higel Avenue between Roberts Point Road and North Shell Road. Image courtesy Sarasota County

One would be placed on Higel Avenue at the intersection of North Shell Road, which is across from the Roberts Point Road intersection, as well.

The second diagram involves a crosswalk on Siesta Drive at the intersection of Old Oak Drive.

Old Oak Drive is just east of the entrance to the San Remo neighborhood.

An aerial map shows the location of Old Oak Drive. Image from Google Maps

Both crosswalks would have what the Federal Highway Administration calls a Rectangular Rapid Flash Beacon (RRFB). In other words, a pedestrian would push a button so lights would begin flashing to alert a driver to the fact that the pedestrian was preparing to cross the road. Other RRFB crosswalks have been installed on the Key; among them is the one at the intersection of Beach Way Drive and Beach Road, near Siesta Public Beach.

A chart county staff included with the graphics estimated the expense of each crosswalk with RRFB at $36,960, for a total of $73,920.

The crosswalks are listed on that chart along with the facets of the work at the Higel/Siesta Drive intersection. Anderson has told the commissioners several times that the Florida Department of Transportation has agreed to give the county $359,137.80 for that project. It appears that the state will be picking up the expense of the crosswalk work, as well.

On Oct. 8, the County Commission unanimously approved the road swap with the state.

In response to a question about when the crosswalk construction might begin, Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant wrote the News Leader in an Oct. 16 email: “Doesn’t seem the timeline is set yet. The county will not have jurisdictional responsibility over the road segment until September 2020, with maintenance responsibilities anticipated to begin Summer of 2021.”

Siesta Key Breeze continuing extended morning hours

Image courtesy Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce

Recently, the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce alerted its members to the fact that the Siesta Key Breeze has maintained an earlier morning start.

In mid-August, Lisa Potts, the communications specialist for Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT), told theNews Leaderthat the decision was made for the trolley to start its route at 8 a.m. after SCAT received “a favorable show of interest for the extended service.” However, the initial plan called for the longer morning runs to end following the Labor Day holiday.

After seeing the Chamber notice, the News Leader checked in again with Potts. In an Oct. 16 email, she wrote, “We have decided to continue the extended trolley service to provide an easier way to travel Siesta Key in the morning.” She added that the SCAT staff would continue to re-evaluate the hours “in order to provide the best possible service for residents and visitors of Siesta Key.”

As for ridership: Potts reported that in August, the total number of Breeze passengers was 15,286. For September, the figure was 10,420.

In comparison, in the Breeze’s first year of operation, it had 14,040 passengers in August 2017 and 5,165 in September of that year.

Monthly crime stats and suspects

During his appearance before Siesta Key Association (SKA) members on Oct. 3, Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sheriff’s Office’s Siesta Key substation, reported that the department received slightly more than 270 calls for service during September.

Only 12 of the crimes reported, he said, were in the Part 1 category, meaning they were the most serious types of offenses.

Sgt. Arik Smith. File photo

For example, he added, two burglaries and one theft occurred, but suspects already had been identified in those cases. In fact, Smith pointed out, one person was suspected in two of the Part 1 crimes.

Thanks to the “nice, tightknit community out here,” he continued, the Sheriff’s Office does not have to deal with much crime on Siesta.

Again, Smith did emphasize to the SKA members to keep their vehicle doors locked. One incident deputies investigated in September involved a theft from an unlocked car.

“Get the word out,” he implored the audience. Locking vehicle doors, he pointed out, “prevents 99.9% of the burglaries [from vehicles].”

In response to a question from SKA Director Erin Kreis, Smith explained that a burglary is an incident in which someone enters a person’s residence or vehicle without permission. Homes and cars are places where a person has the expectation of privacy, he added.

Larceny, he continued, essentially is a theft. For example, he said, “If I were to take a bicycle from the lot at Siesta Beach,” that would be a larceny.

In response to a question from Director Eddie Ward, Smith said he believed that only one bicycle was stolen in September, “which is great.”

SeeClickFix nets another fan

Occasionally, during meetings of organizations on Siesta Key, someone will bring up the county app SeeClickFix. The latest quarterly meeting for members of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce was one of those occasions.

Joye Argo of Digital Marketing LLC, a Siesta Chamber director, talked about how impressed she was with the quick county staff response after she used the app to submit a report.

Image courtesy Sarasota County

Lisa Cece, special district coordinator for the county, explained that SeeClickFix is “an immediate pipeline” to county staff, as the messages are funneled directly to the appropriate departments.

For example, Cece said, a person who sees a pothole can take a photo of it and use SeeClickFix to send the details about the location — along with the photo — to county Public Works Department staff.

Argo indicated that she especially was impressed with the fact that she received a notification after the issue she had raised had been resolved.

“If you set up an account … it will keep you posted with information as [the repair] gets done,” said Michael Shay, who still was the Siesta Village maintenance manager at the time of that Aug. 21 meeting.

And even though a person may have an account with SeeClickFix, Shay added, the person still can send information anonymously.

County staff launched SeeClickFix in 2016.

The county’s 2016 Annual Report noted that “the mobile app … allows the public to report quality-of-life issues and request county services. Citizens can now provide county staff with pictures, videos, specific descriptions and real-time locations of their reports or requests. They can report non-emergency issues, such as potholes or inoperable traffic signals; and they can view and comment on issues submitted by their neighbors. They can even create their own ‘watch areas’ to receive notifications about all the issues reported in their community, not just the ones they report.”

Appeals fees and attorneys’ fees

Unlike some plaintiffs who appeal decisions of the 12th Judicial Circuit Court, the Siesta Key Association (SKA) has been notified of a bill of several hundred dollars, instead of several thousand dollars, the News Leader learned by checking the docket in the nonprofit’s lawsuit against the City of Sarasota involving the proposed Lido Key Beach Renourishment Project.

This is part of the website banner from the Office of the Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller. Image from the website

On Oct. 18, Deputy Clerk Barbara Torres of the Sarasota County Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court & County Comptroller, notified the SKA that the total amount due for staff’s preparation of the record for the nonprofit’s appeal to the Second District Court of Appeal would be $362.50.

The notice also said the Clerk’s Office staff planned to complete its preparation of those records on Nov. 25. Thus, the full payment needed to be made by that date, Torres indicated.

The SKA announced on Oct. 4 that it would appeal the Sept. 19 ruling by 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Andrea McHugh in the case the SKA filed in March 2017 to try to prevent the dredging of Big Sarasota Pass to renourish about 1.56 miles of South Lido Key Beach.

In the meantime, as of Oct. 24, McHugh had not acted on motions filed by the City of Sarasota and the Lido Key Residents Association (LKRA) to recover attorneys’ fees and costs related to the Circuit Court case.

Both the city and the LKRA cited provisions of the Florida Environmental Protection Act, which is Florida Statute 403.412, as the basis for their motions. Section (f) of that law says, “In any action instituted pursuant to this section, other than an action involving a state [National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System] NPDESD permit authorized under [a separate section of Florida Statue 403], the prevailing party or parties shall be entitled to costs and attorney’s fees.”

On June 1, 2017, McHugh issued an order granting the LKRA the right to intervene in the case.

She pointed out that, even though the SKA objected to the LKRA’s motion to participate in the case, the SKA and its co-plaintiff — Siesta resident David Patton — “have essentially the same interest in the action as LKRA: just as LKRA argues that any delay or prevention of the [Lido Key Renourishment] Project will impact their beaches on Lido Key, [the SKA] and Patton argue that the implementation of the Project will impact their beaches on Siesta Key.” Thus, McHugh added, the interests of the SKA and Patton in the case “are the equivalent of LKRA, just on the other side of the coin.”

This week, the News Leader did learn that McHugh has scheduled an hour-long hearing starting at 8:30 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 2, to hear arguments about the LKRA’s motion for attorneys’ fees and costs.

Morgan Bentley. Contributed photo

As it has in the past when it needs insights on legal issues, the News Leader contacted Morgan Bentley of the Bentley & Bruning law firm in Sarasota to ask about the likelihood of the LKRA’s winning a ruling from McHugh for the SKA to pay the LKRA’s legal fees and costs.

Bentley responded in an email: “You actually ask a pretty complicated question. First question is how the Court granted intervention status. For instance did [McHugh] identify them as a plaintiff or defendant.”

(In this case, the Lido Key Residents Association was identified as “Intervenor-Defendant” in records in the case.)

“Second,” Bentley wrote, “is whether there is an underlying basis for fees at all. If not, a prevailing party can ask for costs but not fees.

“Third,” he continued, is did they win in a count that had fees. You can win a lawsuit but still not get fees.”

The News Leaderhad not sent Bentley the applicable section of the Florida Statutes, but — as noted above — the statute says the “prevailing parties shall be entitled to costs and attorney’s fees.”

“And lastly,’ Bentley wrote, “is whether they were in fact the ‘prevailing party.’ That is sometimes not as easy to determine as it appears at first blush.”

He concluded the email with the following: “But, none of this matters if you don’t ask for fees. So for now, even if they think they only have a small chance of winning them, they have to ask for them.”