Sheriff’s Office’s current staffing compared to 2006 numbers; ‘smash-and-grab’ incidents reported at Beach Access 8; the SKA celebrates its 70th birthday with a brief look back in time; short-term rental issues remain in spotlight; barge off Turtle Beach sparks curiosity; SKA seeking more help with legal expenses; and county staff offers correction of misstatement about prior use of Sperling Park as renourishment project staging area
How does the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office’s staffing on Siesta Key compare to what it was more than a decade ago?
During the Nov. 7 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting, island business and property owner Michael Holderness raised that issue after Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation, completed an update to members about crime on the island in October.
“I think you guys do an awesome job,” Holderness began. Then he asked Smith, “Do you think you’re short-staffed?”
It seemed to him, Holderness continued, that twice as many deputies were assigned to the Key in 2006, compared to the current staffing level. Yet, “We have twice as many people [on the island],” Holderness added.
Smith pointed out that he joined the Sheriff’s Office in 2006, so he was not certain how many deputies were on the Key on a routine basis that year.
“You need a job?” Smith asked Holderness with a big smile, prompting laughter among the approximately 40 audience members.
The Sarasota News Leader posed Holderness’ question to the Sheriff’s Office. In response, Major Paul Richard, commander of the Law Enforcement Division, offered plenty of details during a Nov. 14 telephone interview.
The short answer, Richard said, is that in 2006, the Sheriff’s Office had a sergeant and five deputies assigned to the Key.
Today, he continued, Sgt. Smith is joined by four full-time deputies plus two full-time Mounted Patrol officers. That has been the approximate staffing level for well over a decade, Richard noted.
Additionally, Richard said, another deputy is assigned to the island for every shift, including weekends and holidays. That person does not report to Smith, Richard noted. Instead, that deputy serves in a general capacity on the island, Richard added.
Of course, he continued, during the prime spring break months of March and April — and on July Fourth — the Sheriff’s Office will have 10 to 20 deputies on the Key from 8 a.m. until shortly after midnight each day.
“We never want to under-police,” he explained. At the same time, Richard pointed out, “We don’t want to over-police. That can be just as bad in today’s world.”
Richard stressed, “It’s a delicate balance.”
“There’s no community that gets more attention [in the county] than Siesta Key,” whether on the beach or in Siesta Village, he continued. “We move folks to where the people are.”
Then Richard provided a bit of a history lesson about Sheriff’s Office staffing of the Law Enforcement Division.
“Some time ago,” he said, “in the mid-‘90s, we had community policing storefronts,” including one located in Siesta Center on Ocean Boulevard. As many as eight deputies were assigned to each storefront, he noted.
On Siesta, Richard said, residents and visitors not only saw deputies driving all terrain vehicles (ATVs) — as deputies still do today — but Sheriff’s Office personnel also used bicycles in patrolling.
Beginning with the Great Recession, he continued, “We’ve had to be much smarter” about staffing. He added that he believed the office had yet to get back to the total number of positions it had decades ago. The force reduction began before Sheriff William Balkwill retired and Sheriff Tom Knight took over after the 2008 election, Richard pointed out.
A slide the Sheriff’s Office staff prepared for the County Commission during the June budget workshops showed that the number of authorized positions in the 2006-07 fiscal year was 1,050; of those, 424 were sworn law enforcement officers. This year, Knight’s budget called for a total of 994 employees, with 436 sworn law enforcement officers.
Ultimately, all the storefront community policing centers were closed, Richard noted. The Sheriff’s Office staff on Siesta relocated to a substation within the Public Safety Building at the beach, Richard pointed out.
That new office space was part of the county’s $21.5-million renovations of Siesta Public Beach, which were completed in early 2016.
One other point worth noting, he continued, is that only in recent years has the Mounted Patrol Division gained full-time deputies. In fact, Richard said, Sgt. Smith on Siesta supervises that division, as the horses often are used on the Key, especially during periods when the crowds are at their largest levels. Spring break is one of those times, he noted.
“There’s a perception that it’s a safe place,” Richard explained of the public’s general view of an area with officers on horseback.
Even so, he pointed out, “We don’t make a lot of arrests [on the island]. … I think we’re doing a pretty good job.”
And countywide, he added, “We’re pretty comfortable with our level of service …”
October crime reports dominated by Access 8 incidents
Sgt. Arik Smith’s report usually is first on the Siesta Key Association monthly agenda after adoption of the minutes of the previous month’s meeting. However, on Nov. 7, he apologized for arriving late, well after the session was underway, indicating that he had been juggling a variety of issues that day.
As for crime in October, he said, only about 4% of the incidents on the Key that month were of the most serious nature, which the FBI classifies as Part 1 crimes.
“We did have a rash of vehicle burglaries at Access 8,” he pointed out. Officers believe that a team out of the Tampa area was involved in what the Sheriff’s Office calls “smash and grabs,” Smith continued.
“It happens from time to time,” he explained. “We’re a little more susceptible to it sometimes” because of the ease with which people can drive into Sarasota County off Interstate 75.
Smash-and-grab cases, he continued, are “a trend around the nation.”
A team of perpetrators will find a public parking lot and begin looking into car windows to see if they can spy items of value. If they see something, Smith added, then they will smash the window and take what they saw. “They’re back on the interstate and gone before you know what happened.”
SKA Director Eddie Ward indicated that he was familiar with such incidents, pointing to his having been told that the perpetrators will “all laugh really loud together … so you don’t hear glass shattering.”
Last year, Smith noted, a set of smash-and-grab burglaries was reported at the county’s Twin Lakes Park during a Little League game.
Smith urged the audience members not to leave valuables in sight in their vehicles.
Six of the eight vehicle burglaries on the Key in October were part of the smash-and-grab case, he added. The other two involved vehicles that had been left unlocked, he pointed out. “So I’m going to keep preaching: Lock your doors.”
Other than those incidents, Smith said, “For the most part, we’ve had sporadic thefts.” A kayak and an untended purse at the beach were two examples.
However, he continued, a couple of residential burglaries had been reported. In one situation, Smith noted, a person had been living in a house that belongs to seasonal residents. In another case, the homeowners found signs of forced entry, “but nothing was stolen.”
It is not uncommon, he indicated, for the Sheriff’s Office to get reports of thefts from homes after snowbirds begin returning to the Key for the winter season.
Happy 70th birthday to the SKA
On Nov. 12, the Siesta Key Association (SKA) marked its 70th birthday. In light of that milestone, President Catherine Luckner reported to members attending the Nov. 7 meeting that the focus for the SKA’s annual meeting in March will be the nonprofit’s history.
Still, she shared some tidbits from those early days with the approximately 40 people who were present on Nov. 7.
For example: “Do you know when the bridges were built [to the Key]?” she teased.
Looking into “historic notes of people from long before my time,” she said, she had learned that the primary reason for the incorporation of the SKA was to create zoning protection for property owners on the island. “We’re known for that.”
In 1950, Luckner continued, the SKA leaders took the initiative of going to the Florida Legislature to seek approval of zoning regulations for Siesta Key. Sarasota County Government then followed that lead, working on a zoning code for the rest of the unincorporated areas of the county, Luckner added.
“Our partnership with the county has also been close,” she said.
Turning to the topic of bridges, Luckner continued, “The first president we had was so mad” because he could not seem to get anywhere in his call for a new Stickney Point Road Bridge.
He finally quit his position with the SKA, Luckner noted. Then, about six years later, the new, wider bridge was constructed.
“We have a long history of working with the state on things like this.”
Another big issue for the SKA decades ago was fire and rescue service on the island, Luckner pointed out. “We actually funded one of the first fire/rescue trucks here,” raising $48,000 for “a complete modern ambulance” for the fire station. That was in May 1975, she added. “Doesn’t seem that long ago, does it?”
The SKA also worked to establish what became the Siesta Key Utility Authority (SKUA), which provided water and sewer service for island residents.
People who lived on the Key when the SKUA was in existence “swear it was the best water anyone ever had,” Luckner noted. She had heard that from acquaintances who handled water sampling around the state, she added.
Long-time Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce leader Mark Smith — who also served many years ago on the SKA board — concurred with Luckner about the quality of the SKUA drinking water.
As the water kept winning numerous awards for its taste, Luckner said with a laugh, she began to wonder, “Whatisin that water? … Those were the good ol’ days.”
The short-term rental saga continues
Having become a seasonal resident himself, SKA Director Joe Volpe stood before members at the Nov. 7 meeting for the first time in months. “I’m back,” he said, mimicking Jack Nicholson’s oft-repeated line from The Shining.
Volpe then reported on what he believed would be a big factor in reducing the short-term rental problems that have agitated many homeowners on the Key over the past few years.
It had become his understanding, Volpe said, that if a house was built after 2003 in a Residential Multi-Family (RMF) zoning district, then that house could not be rented more than once every 30 days.
The 30-day standard applies in all Single-Family Residential (RSF) zoning districts, county staff has pointed out on many occasions.
When the News Leader checked with county staff last week to verify that Volpe’s information was correct, Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant contacted the county Planning and Development Services Department, which oversees the Code Enforcement Division.
Referring to Volpe’s belief about the rule for homes built in RMF districts after 2003, Grant wrote, “In short that is inaccurate.” She added that Planning and Development Services “confirmed there is not a ‘rule’ regarding RMF to that nature.”
She also attached a fact sheet that outlines the rental process. It appeared to the News Leader that the fact sheet was similar to one Matt Osterhoudt, director of Planning and Development Services, handed out to SKA members during a meeting in January, when the focus was on potential measures to deal with complaints about short-term rentals.
Below is the section of county regulations regarding such rentals in the RMF district on the barrier islands:
“Short-term rentals for periods of less than 30 days are permitted on the barrier islands as follows: (5.3.2.g.)”
“In the RMF Districts, short-term rental of single-family, two-family, townhouse or multifamily dwellings is permitted only on the Barrier Islands in accordance with the … following standards:
“1. Such dwelling units may be rented for periods of less than 30 days.
“2. The owner or managing agent of real property that is offered for rent or lease shall maintain records, including the names and addresses of the lessees, that are adequate to establish the period for which a unit is rented and the number of family members or unrelated individuals occupying the premises during each rental period.
“3. All of the additional requirements of the Siesta Key Overlay District (SKOD), Section 4.10.4, shall apply.”
Questions about the barge off Turtle Beach
The News Leader learned last week that a barge was anchored off Turtle Beach for several days. Readers, of course, were curious about why it was there, so the News Leader contacted Sarasota County staff and public information officers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
On Nov. 15, county Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant wrote in an email that she had checked with Siesta and Waterway Access staff, but no one was sure about the status of the vessel. However, she continued, staff who had gone out with a Sea Tow employee heard from that person that the barge and an accompanying tug were seeking safe harbor because of the rougher seas produced by the elements of the cold front that had reached Florida.
The News Leader did not hear anything further from the FWC public information officers.
SKA continues to seek donations for legal expenses
During the Nov. 7 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting, Director Robert Luckner reminded regular attendees — and updated snowbirds back for season — that, in mid-December, the nonprofit will file its appeal of the Circuit Court decision in the Big Pass case.
On Sept. 19, Circuit Judge Andrea McHugh ruled that she had found that the City of Sarasota “did not have an indispensable legal duty” to issue a determination that the plans for the Lido Key Renourishment Project are consistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan.”
The city and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) have planned to remove up to 1.3 million cubic yards of sand from Big Pass and its ebb shoal for the Lido initiative.
“We paid our $15,000 bill to the lawyer who argued [the case] for us,” Robert Luckner noted on Nov. 7. “We’ve had our lawyer approach their lawyers,” he continued, referring to the city and the Lido Key Residents Association (LKRA), which intervened in the case. “You know, they do this little dance,” Luckner said. “We’ll see what comes of all that.”
Luckner then thanked members who had contributed about $6,000 to the SKA over the past couple of months to enable the nonprofit to continue its legal fight to prevent the removal of sand from Big Pass, which never has been dredged. “You notice that was a little smaller than what our debt was,” he added of the total donated.
A number of people had provided contributions of “$100, plus or minus,” he said. “I run to the bank, it seems, like once a day, put somebody’s check in.”
If anyone still feels generous, Luckner continued, “We’re still looking for money.”
Then Dave Patton, the co-plaintiff in the SKA’s Circuit Court case, shouted out from the audience a question about whether checks should be made out to the Siesta Key Environmental Defense Fund (SKEDF).
That is correct, Luckner replied. People can go online to donate to the fund or they can send checks, Luckner added. “You get a tax-deductible receipt back from us.”
Robert Luckner’s wife, Catherine — the SKA president — pointed out that when the SKA was established 70 years ago, its motto was “To exist to do good.”
The nonprofit has been involved in litigation only three times in all its decades of existence, she explained.
The first time was in 1993, when the City of Venice wanted to dredge Big Pass to renourish Venice Public Beach. That was when Save Our Sand (SOS) was organized, Catherine Luckner continued; SOS had a wide variety of members who were determined to prevent removal of sand from the pass for the Venice project.
“It was very successful,” she added of that litigation, as the state ended up rescinding the permit it had issued to Venice.
The second time the SKA engaged in litigation, she noted, was more than a decade ago, when it tried to stop Sarasota County from allowing construction of duplexes on Key parcels zoned for multi-family housing. The SKA leaders were concerned about increased residential density and intensity of uses on Siesta, Luckner explained. However, they lost that case.
Then, in 2017, the SKA filed its verified complaint against the City of Sarasota to try to prevent the latest proposal for the removal of sand from Big Pass.
Throughout her life, Catherine Luckner continued, she had been fortunate on a personal and professional basis to avoid lawsuits until the SKA began its initiative to preserve Big Pass as a natural waterway and prevent potential damage to the navigational channel and to the northern end of Siesta as a result of the design of the Lido Key Renourishment Project.
“I think I’ve maxed out my credits for at least the next four lifetimes,” she added, prompting laughter among the audience members.
“It’s very hard to be antagonistic to your neighbors,” she said of the situation with the City of Sarasota and Lido residents. Some onlookers — and some members of the news media — have characterized it as “Siesta versus Lido.”
The SKA’s goal never has been to prevent the renourishment of South Lido Beach, Luckner stressed. In fact, she said, she and her husband have spent quite a lot of time working to try to find better solutions for Lido residents than the project the city and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been pursuing.
“We’re not a litigious organization,” she reiterated her earlier point. “We took this very seriously.”
Moreover, she said, “It’s very hard to ask for money” to continue the legal challenge.
And on a related note …
One Lido Key resident who addressed the County Commission on a couple of recent occasions — urging the board to allow Lido Key Renourishment Project staging in Ted Sperling Park — pointed out that the county’s own contractor for the renourishment of Turtle Beach used the park for staging.
Therefore, Scott Ashby indicated, the County Commission should have no qualms about allowing a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) contractor to do the same thing Weeks Marine of Covington, La., did on the county’s behalf several years ago.
The News Leader last week asked county staff to verify that Ashby was correct in his assertion.
In a Nov. 12 email, Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant wrote, “When Sarasota County performed the second South Siesta Key Beach Nourishment in 2016, the staging area was at Turtle Beach (the shell parking lot next to Turtle Beach Campground). The city used the Lido Pool site for staging when Lido Key Beach/Tropical Storm Debby repairs were done in 2015.”
Thus, Ashby was misinformed when he made his remarks to the County Commission.