Siesta Seen

Siesta Beach earns No. 1 ranking from TripAdvisor; county’s Transportation Planning manager explains rules for pedestrians and bicyclists; Siesta substation leader answers questions about traffic problems; FDOT issues a stern stand on mini reefs; and Lt. Cernansky recognized for completing command officers training

Siesta Public Beach is a popular destination for many walkers, as well as sand worshippers. File photo

Once again, Siesta Beach has earned a No. 1 ranking — this time, from TripAdvisor.

“Pristine beach that never seems to end,” the online travel platform says of Siesta in the news release regarding its Top 25 Beaches list for the United States. “Photographer’s dream,” the note adds. “A place in the sun that warrants returning again and again.”

Out of 7,597 reviews on TripAdvisor, 81% rated Siesta Beach “Excellent,” with another 14% marking it “Very good,” The Sarasota News Leader found.

Only 1% gave the beach a “Terrible” rating.

Under the heading “Travelers talk about,” TripAdvisor noted 605 reviews mentioning the “white sand,” 919 reviews using the term “beautiful beach,” and 175 reviews mentioning “baby powder.”

On Feb. 24, a woman visitor who gave the beach 5 stars wrote, “This powder sugar sand beach is HUGE! FREE parking and admission ALWAYS! Clean but busy restrooms. Outdoor rinse showers. FABULOUS drum circle Sunday evenings for sunsets. A lot of walking though!”

The same day, a visitor from Franklin Wis., added another 5-star review: “The sign says beach is ranked #1 in U.S. I googled and found that yes it has been ranked #1 two times in the last 28 years. Hard to beat Hawaii. At the widest part, the distance from grass to water is probably over 4 football field lengths. Sand is the finest I have ever seen. Not many shells compared to other FL beaches. Good luck parking. Concessions have huge menu. Good restrooms. Very crowded, active beach but everyone is so spread out. This is a must see.” (By the way, Ka’anapali Beach in Lahaina, Hawaii — on Maui — was No. 3 on the TripAdvisor list.)

A third visitor — from Marion, Ill., who spent time on Siesta in January — posted a 4-star review on Feb. 23: “The sand is wonderfully soft, clean, and cool so you feel like you can walk for miles while watching the waves roll in. The public restrooms were clean and nice and not too far from the water so they are conveniently located between the parking lot(s) and the water. We arrived on the trolley so we didn’t have to deal with parking spots but it looked like it could get pretty crowded during the peak season.”

Stephen Leatherman — Dr. Beach — addresses members of the Siesta Key Association on Dec. 1, 2016. File photo

The News Leader did see one 2-star review posted in February, from a Washington State resident. The heading was “Too crowded.” The person noted, “Traffic was stop and go all the way down the key,” and then no parking spots were left at the beach.

Yet another 5-star review said, “This beach is gorgeous!! It feels like you’re walking on powder!! You will not want to leave the beach once you have experienced it!!”

Saint Pete Beach was in second place on the Top 25 list this year, with Pensacola Beach in fourth and Clearwater Beach in fifth.

“Dr. Beach” — Stephen Leatherman, a professor at Florida International University in Miami — ranked Siesta Beach No. 1 on his U.S. Top Ten Beaches lists in 2011 and again in 2017.

The rules for pedestrians and bicyclists

During the Feb. 18 Siesta Key Condominium Council meeting, in the context of a consultant’s discussion of transportation issues on the Key, a man in the audience professed astonishment at the number of people who do not look both ways before crossing the street.

That led to an opportunity for Sarasota County’s Transportation Planning Division manager, Paula Wiggins, to explain some of the rules applicable to pedestrians.

First, she said, no jaywalking laws exist in the Florida Statutes.

However, she continued, if a person decides to cross the street where no crosswalk exists, “It is the pedestrian’s responsibility” to look both ways for traffic. “Vehicles have the right of way.”

Wiggins added, though, that drivers of motor vehicles do have to yield to pedestrians in marked crosswalks.

The Midnight Pass Road crosswalks have lights that pedestrians may activate. File photo

Then she turned to rules for people on bicycles.

When she was growing up, Wiggins said, she was told to ride her bike facing traffic. That is illegal, she pointed out. “Ride with the flow of traffic. Bicyclists are considered vehicles when you are on the road. Adhere to all vehicle laws.” That means people on bicycles have to stop at traffic lights and stop signs, Wiggins added. “Unfortunately, I see many [who do not stop].”

Some cyclists do not like to remove their feet from the clips on their pedals, she explained. Yet, “They can end up seriously injured or even dead.”

Then Wiggins turned back to the issue of crosswalk use for pedestrians. Referring to 2012 crash data, she said the No. 1 reason for vehicle collisions with people at unmarked midblock crosswalks was the people’s failure to yield to motorists.

One audience member, Gene Kusekoski, asked Wiggins to explain what she meant by an unmarked midblock crosswalk.

Wiggins then pulled out what she called her “nice, nifty guide” for pedestrians and bicyclists.

This is the booklet Transportation Planning Manager Paula Wiggins referenced to Condo Council members on Feb. 18. Image courtesy of Paula Wiggins

Dating to 2012, it is the latest version available, she added. It provides citations to the state laws.

According to Chapter 316 of the Florida Statutes, she read, a crosswalk is “(a) That part of a roadway at an intersection included within the connections of the lateral lines of the sidewalks on opposite sides of the highway, measured from the curbs or, in the absence of curbs, from the edges of the traversable roadway” or “(b) Any portion of a roadway at an intersection or elsewhere distinctly indicated for pedestrian crossing by lines or other markings on the surface.”

“That’s not confusing,” Kusekoski responded dryly.

“Exactly!” she replied.

Sgt. Smith fields traffic questions

Along with Paula Wiggins of the Sarasota County staff, Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation on the Key, fielded a number of questions during the Feb. 18 Condo Council meeting at Siesta Chapel.

One man complained about people who jaywalk on Midnight Pass Road, even though the stretch between Beach Road and Stickney Point Road has multiple crosswalks.

“Travel at a pace at which you can safely stop and avoid anything running out in front of you,” Smith advised the man. All drivers and bicyclists should be aware of the possibility of people suddenly crossing the street, Smith indicated.

Then another person asked whether it is legal for contractors to park in bike lanes, especially on the south end of the island. “It’s pretty dangerous to go around them,” the man said.

Sgt. Arik Smith. File photo

“You’re not supposed to block the bike lane,” Smith replied. “If we get a complaint, we’ll usually try to find the owner of the vehicle and tell them they are parked illegally … We’ll give them an opportunity to rectify the situation. If they don’t, then, yeah, we’ll write them a ticket.”

A woman complained about lawn and landscaping service vehicles that she sees parked partly on sidewalks and partly in bicycle lanes. Others, she said, are left in a travel lane.

“You’re not allowed to block the sidewalk” or bicycle lane or travel lane, Smith told her.

Nonetheless, he continued, if no signage is present to prohibit parking in a particular area, a person can pull a vehicle over as close to the sidewalk as possible.

“We try to use our discretion as much as we possibly can,” Smith added. “We understand that this is a very tight community, physically.” However, he pointed out, the Sheriff’s Office will respond to complaints.

“We also can talk to the homeowner,” Smith said, and ask if the lawn service workers can pull into the driveway of the residence where they are working. Another option is for a homeowner to allow workers to mow a section of grass and then park the vehicle there, Smith noted. “We can try to come up with solutions.”

FDEP taking firm stand on mini reefs

Siesta Key Association (SKA) members have heard a lot of information in recent months about “mini reefs,” which are devices available through a nonprofit organization called Ocean Habitats that have been shown to improve water quality.

In response to comments made during the Feb. 5 SKA meeting, the News Leader asked the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) for a formal statement about whether use of the devices is legal, under state law.

On Feb. 20, Alexandra Kuchta of FDEP provided a response via email.

“Protecting Florida’s environment and the health and safety of our residents and visitors is the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) top priority,” Kuchta wrote. “Mini-reefs are an emerging technology and under existing state rules, are subject to DEP authorization prior to being deployed in a waterway [Chapter 62-330 of the Florida Administrative Code].”

Mini reefs have been installed under the docks at Ken Thompson Park on City Island in Sarasota. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

She continued, “While DEP has authorized the use of some of these structures on a limited basis, we have also required dock owners [to] remove others for non-compliance with state rules due to concerns of [effects] to water quality, navigation and resource protection. Because these reefs can be a source of marine debris, DEP is developing a statewide approach to authorize these types of projects. Until this is complete, citizens striving to do their part to protect Florida’s environment are reminded to use DEP’s permitting process to ensure any of the mini-reefs one may wish to install are environmentally sound.”

One advocate for the mini reefs, Phil Chiocchio of the Sarasota Bay Fisheries Forum, has proposed use of mini reefs under docks in the Grand Canal on Siesta. In his initial presentation to SKA members in October 2019, he discussed the continuing degradation of the water quality in the canal.

However, Howard Berna, manager of Sarasota County’s Environmental Permitting Division, has told the News Leader twice in recent months that he has been awaiting guidance from FDEP before giving the go-ahead to anyone to install mini reefs.

The City of Sarasota has begun a pilot project with the devices at the Ken Thompson Park boat ramp on City Island.

Ocean Habitats says on its website that the mini reefs, which are 24 inches wide by 36 inches long by 24 inches deep, can filter more than 30,000 gallons of water each day.

“Fish and Crabs will begin living in and around the Mini Reefs as soon as they are placed in the water,” Ocean Habitats notes on its website. “Each Mini Reef can support hundreds of fish each year and these small fish will attach larger fish looking for a meal,” Ocean Habitats adds.

Lt. Cernansky completes Command Officers Course

(From left) Capt. Ryan Brown; Lts. Jeff Lane, Scott Mruczek and Paul Cernansky; Capt. Bryan Ivings; and Major Paul Richard gather for the recognition. Photo courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

Regular readers will remember Lt. Paul Cernansky, who headed up the Sheriff’s Office substation on the Key for several months from late 2018 through most of April 2019, when he was promoted from sergeant to lieutenant. On Feb. 14, Sheriff Tom Knight announced that Cernansky was one of three lieutenants who graduated that day from the 85th Command Officers Development Course sponsored by the Southern Police Institute, a division of the Department of Justice Administration at the University of Louisville.

Along with Cernansky, the other lieutenants were Jeff Lane and Scott Mruczek, a news release said.

The men attended the 400-hour training program in Clermont in five, two-week segments over a five-month period, the release added. During that training, the release explained, “Students learn to develop solutions to specific problems; plan, implement and evaluate management strategies; and [learn about] federal requirements for personnel issues.”

“It’s crucial for our supervisors to understand and initiate agency best practices as they progress in leadership roles,” said Knight in the release. “Continuing education programs and career development courses such as this are a vital part of our succession planning.”