Siesta Seen

County pursuing Code Enforcement action over fencing erected seaward of Beach Road; Sheriff’s Office continuing efforts to monitor social distancing at Access 2; Siesta Key Breeze’s ridership for first two-thirds of March remained strong; snowy plovers nesting early on the beach; and Siesta Chamber chair offers support to members

This is a view of one of the fences erected on private property seaward of Beach Road. This parcel is owned by a limited liability company in care of Andy Cooper of Siesta Key. Contributed photo

Siesta Key property owners Michael Holderness and Andy Cooper have refused to abide by Sarasota County directives to take down fencing they erected on private beach property seaward of North Beach Road. Therefore, county staff this week was preparing to take the next formal step in a process to force them to act, The Sarasota News Leader learned.

Notices of Violation mailed to them on March 26 gave Holderness and Cooper until March 27 to take down the fences, county Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant told the News Leader in an April 6 email. However, Grant confirmed for the News Leader on April 6 that the fencing remained in place as of that morning.

The next step, Grant reported this week, would be the issuance of Affidavits of Violation. Those were being drafted on April 6, she added. Nonetheless, Grant continued in her email to the News Leader, staff as of that date had no idea when a hearing would be scheduled before a Code Enforcement Special Magistrate to consider the violations. The Special Magistrate is the person who conducts hearings on County Code violations and has the ability to impose fines.

As a result of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive orders, the Sarasota County Office of the Clerk of Circuit Court and County Comptroller has put in place a number of provisions to protect the public and its employees from the potential spread of COVID-19. Although the Special Magistrate hearings are not conducted in court, the Clerk’s Office provides staffing for those proceedings, which generally are held in the County Commission Chambers at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota and at the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice.

On March 25, a county Building Official staff member had posted Stop Work orders on the fences, responding to public complaints. Those orders pointed out that the fencing violates Chapter 54, Article XXII, of the County Code, which is the Coastal Setback Code.

These are the findings of fact in Section 54, Article XXII, of the Sarasota County Code. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The News Leader this week continued to read social media posts protesting the fencing. Several writers have noted that before the County Commission agreed in May 2016 to vacate a 373-foot-long segment of North Beach Road, all three sets of property owners who petitioned for that vacation agreed to an easement allowing the public to continue to use the vacated right of way to access the public beach. Officially, that easement granted the county “a perpetual, nonexclusive access easement over and across the Vacated ROW [right of way] for the benefit of the public.” The document also prohibited “any form of motorized vehicles” on the vacated right of way.

Holderness did not own the property at 99 Beach Road — and land seaward of it — at the time of the County Commission’s 2016 action. In August 2016, he bought those parcels from Christy S. Ramsey, Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office records say.

However, on Sept. 26, 2016, Holderness did sign the easement, as evidenced by county records.

Siesta Gulf View LLC formally is the owner of the other parcel where the fencing was erected in late March. The Florida Division of Corporations lists Andy Cooper as manager of that limited liability company and shows his address on Commonwealth Drive on Siesta Key as Siesta Gulf View’s principal address.

This aerial image shows the property, outlined in red, where Mike Holderness had one of the fences constructed. It is west of another parcel he owns, through Siesta Beach Lots LLC, seaward of North Beach Road. Holderness’ parcel at 99 Beach Road, at the Columbus Boulevard intersection, also is visible in the image. Photo courtesy Sarasota County Property Appraiser Bill Furst

Holderness has told the News Leader in several emails that his goal in putting up the fencing was to control public access to the private beach parcels in an effort to enforce Gov. DeSantis’ directive for social distancing in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Holderness has berated the county commissioners and county staff for not taking firmer action to limit gatherings of people on private beach property.

On March 28 — exactly a week after Sarasota County staff closed all the public beaches and public beach accesses in response to concerns about the spread of COVID-19 — Holderness copied the News Leader on an email to the commissioners and County Administrator Jonathan Lewis. He wrote, “Why are you forcing me (with demand letters and citations) to keep my private beach open to the public? … I asked for a private/public agreement so [the] Sheriff could have [that] mechanism [for enforcement, but] you refused putting my safety, my staff, [sheriff’s deputies], kids … Our entire community safety at risk!”

Holderness added that the county leaders had refused to help private beach property owners who had to contend “with every local high school [being] out at the exact same time [for spring break].”

Further, Holderness alleged that private beaches on Siesta “were MOBBED … for 10 days straight. Groups of 500 to 1,000. These children live at home; not on their own. They returned home night after night to kiss mommy and daddy goodnight …”

“Starting to feel my concern?” Holderness asked the commissioners and county staff in that email.

Sheriff’s Office enforcement efforts ongoing at Access 2

In regard to county law enforcement efforts to ensure that people practice social distancing, the News Leader saw one recent update from the Sheriff’s Office substation leader on the Key. It was in a chain of emails with allegations about problems at Beach Access 2.

Sgt. Arik Smith prepares to answer a question during a Siesta Key Association meeting. File photo

Writing Lisa Cece, special district coordinator for the county, Sgt. Arik Smith pointed out in his March 22 email, “We were at Access #2 several times throughout the day yesterday. Everyone was either in compliance or [was] happy to comply after being informed of the beach closure. Subjects on private property were in groups of less than 10 and maintained the recommended social distancing.

“As far as sunset,” he continued, “we had at least 3 Deputies in patrol cars at the access at starting at 6pm. I haven’t heard from them about the crowd from last night but they told me the crowd on 3/20 was minimal and [they] observed no issues. There are barricades and signs in place that indicate the beach access is closed. We will do our best to maintain a presence in that area while also maintaining a presence at the main beach, Turtle Beach, and all the other accesses.”

March ridership figure for the Breeze

Regular readers will recall that we reported a couple of weeks ago that the total number of riders on the Siesta Key Breeze for January and February of this year was 89,129. Then, in late March, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis halted the trolley’s operations as a means of reducing the potential for people to head to Siesta Key’s beaches after the latter were closed.

Late last week, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester told the News Leader that from March 1 through March 20, the number of passengers was 31,519.

Adding that figure to the January and February numbers means the Breeze has transported a total of 120,648 people so far this year.

The Breeze heads west toward Beach Road after making its pass through part of Siesta Village. File photo

Readers also may recall that the trolley had more than 350,320 riders in 2019.

More positive news for Siesta’s beach-nesting plovers

During her March 27 update about the endangered beach-nesting snowy plovers on Siesta Key, Kylie Wilson, coordinator of Florida Audubon’s Bird Monitoring & Stewardship Program in Sarasota County, had more good news.

“It has been an exciting week,” Wilson pointed out. “[W]e officially have our first nest of the season! Ms. Sanibel, the banded Snowy Plover who has nested on Siesta the past two seasons, has returned and is already on a nest with 3 eggs!”

Wilson noted the significance of that observation: “This is earlier nesting for Snowy Plovers on Siesta than we have observed in past seasons. Maybe due to less activity because of the beach closures? Normally Spring Break is happening this time of year and our plovers seem to wait it out, typically nesting in mid to late April.”

Ms. Sanibel has been nesting already this season on Siesta Beach. Photo courtesy of Kylie Wilson

Wilson added that in looking for the “silver lining” of the COVID-19 pandemic, she is speculating that with fewer people on the beach — thanks to the county’s March 21 closure of all its publicly owned and operated beach parks and accesses — “the birds are able to nest and rest with less disturbance!”

That seemed to be proving true on Lido Key, as well, she continued. There, she wrote, “The [black] Skimmers (my high count this week was nearly 300) are able to spread out along the shoreline and cool off in the water. Normally they are huddled mid-beach to avoid the people walking along the waterline.”

On April 5, Wilson provided more potentially good news for the Siesta plovers, after acknowledging again the vastly different circumstances under which she is working this season:

“This week has been a little crazy but the good news is that I am still able to survey the beaches. I will be cutting back my surveys to once a week for each site to minimize my time outside. It is a very difficult time we are in now but staying home is the number one thing we can do. Audubon is taking all necessary precautions,” she continued, for which, she noted, she is “very thankful.”

As a member of Audubon’s staff, Wilson added, “I am working closely with the county to keep the birds safe and being sure to follow the state guidelines to keep myself safe. I truly hope all of you are doing well during these hard times and just want to say that I miss all of you! Stay strong.”

Then turning to the latest situation on Siesta, she noted, “Our Snowy Plover momma, Ms. Sanibel, is still dutifully sitting on her nest. There is another pair that seems to be settling in [on another section of public beach]. That female is gravid, meaning she looks to be carrying eggs, so hopefully we will have our second nest soon!”

Siesta Chamber chair offers update, support to members

New Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce Chair Mason Tush, whose family owns CB’s Saltwater Outfitters, offered news and comfort to Chamber members in an email blast this week.

Mason Tush. Image courtesy Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce

“This letter is being written to you during difficult times in order to inform members that our Chamber Board and staff are still focused on Chamber business even as we are forced to slow down,” Mason wrote in that April 7 communication.

“It is important to the board that our members understand that even though our office doors are closed, our wonderful staff are still working from home focusing on important items and future events so that when it is safe to return to normal life, the Chamber will be positioned to welcome back the tourism industry,” he added.

“Staff and committees are still on schedule planning the following items,” he continued:

  • “Launching the new website.” (That project has been in the works for years, staff members have noted. However, over the past couple of years, a Chamber committee has been focused on concluding the initiative.)
  • “Signing the contract for this year’s 4th of July fireworks celebration.”
  • Rescheduling the date for the annual Siesta Fiesta to Oct. 24 and 25, instead of late April.
  • “Beginning committee work through phone and video conferencing for the Siesta key Crystal Classic,” which is set for Nov. 13-16.

“Chamber staff will still be available to our members through email and phone,” Tush added. “Please don’t hesitate to use your chamber as a resource during these tough times.

“We will get through this together,” he concluded the letter.