Beach parking lots to reopen on May 4, and lounging once again to be allowed; county staff says no permits needed to install mini reefs; north Siesta Village welcome sign relocated; Code Enforcement penalties on hold regarding chain link fencing on private beach parcels; silt fencing erected near Beach Access 2 to protect nesting sea turtles and hatchlings; first nest of season found on Siesta; Ocean Boulevard radar speed sign needs parts; Siesta Chamber working to boost members’ morale; and nesting snowy plovers still encountering difficulties
With no problems having been encountered at county-operated beaches after restrictions eased this week, Sarasota County staff announced on the afternoon of April 30 that the parking lots for the beaches would reopen on May 4, and, once again, chairs, coolers and canopies would be allowed. However, Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant added in a media alert, “[W]e are asking all beachgoers to maintain social distancing and keep groups to 10 or less.” (See the related free article in this issue.)
She also noted, “Concessions, playgrounds, amenities and picnic shelters will remain closed and are planned for opening as part of Phase 3 of beach reopening. With other coastal communities reopening their beaches, there’s less of a concern of an influx of out-of-county beachgoers. Our continued focus is on the safety of our employees and citizens.”
Earlier in the week, Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office personnel probably could have used the phrase “So far, so good” to describe the public’s reactions to the easing of restrictions as of April 27.
About 1 p.m. on Monday, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester interviewed Cindy K. Turner, manager of the county’s Beaches and Water Access Division, on the Siesta Key shoreline. Asked about staff’s observations as of that time, Turner told Winchester, “It’s kind of slow and steady. People are adhering to social distancing.”
As for the continued closure of the parking lots as of that time, Turner said, “We wanted to ease into this.” County staff had concerns about people coming to Sarasota County’s shoreline from other areas of the state where beaches remain off limits, she pointed out.
In an email he sent to the commissioners just before 4 p.m. on April 27, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis wrote, “Our lifeguards, beach attendants and the Sheriff’s Office have been doing outstanding work. Our Communications team did a great job getting the message out over the weekend.
“So far it shows that once again our residents will do the right thing,” Lewis added.
When The Sarasota News Leader checked in mid-week with Kaitlyn R. Perez, community affairs director for the Sheriff’s Office, she provided the following information:
“On Monday, we did issue a few parking citations, but were lucky enough to contact most drivers who were parked illegally and have them move their vehicle without issuing a citation. We had no major issues on any beach north to south. Most everyone we came into contact with was following the rules for social distancing. By all accounts, Sarasota County residents did very well with the modified opening.”
Turner pointed out in the interview with Winchester that the county has 35 miles of shoreline.
Perez did note that she saw one incorrect tweet from a local TV station whose helicopter had flown over Siesta Public Beach. That station reported that Sheriff’s Office personnel were “kicking people off the beach” who were set up with chairs and coolers, Perez wrote in her April 29 email. She added that she corrected that report “very quickly.”
“Our guys and gals out on Siesta and all public beaches are informing folks that they must be participating in an ‘essential activity,’” Perez continued. “Not once have we told anyone to ‘leave’ the beach and I don’t believe we will anytime soon.”
The News Leader also checked in with Perez last week, after County Administrator Lewis announced the plans to allow essential activities once again on county-operated beaches. She made it clear that the Sheriff’s Office’s top priority would be education.
The essential activities county staff is allowing on the beaches are walking, running, biking, swimming, surfing and fishing, as allowed for in the Executive Order Gov. Ron DeSantis issued on April 1. No congregating, sunbathing or lounging on the shoreline is allowed.
And while county commissioners last week did voice concerns about keeping the beach parking areas closed, they agreed to revisit that topic during their May 5 regular meeting in Sarasota.
In an April 29 email to the commissioners, County Administrator Lewis wrote, “Our activation of the open space with restrictions at the beaches has gone well. While some are frustrated by the parking, it has provided the right, safe, and measured platform to reactive the space in phases. There are pockets where our lifeguards have had a hard time getting people to follow the restrictions, but overall the anecdotal response has been good. Also the Sheriffs office has been a great partner,” he continued, noting, “they have had some pockets of parking enforcement challenges but they have dealt with them.”
With the primary county bus service to Siesta — Route 11 — having been halted on April 11, the News Leader asked Media Relations Officer Winchester last week whether that would be resumed, with the beach restrictions eased. He replied in an email, “As of now, the route will not be restored.”
On April 28, county Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant affirmed in an email to the news media that, on May 5, the commissioners would “continue conversations related to other county amenities and re-entry plans.”
Beaches Manager Turner did point out in the Facebook Live interview with Winchester that Lido Beach, which is in the city of Sarasota, remains closed; that was a decision of city leaders. However, Turner noted, the county’s Ted Sperling Park on South Lido is open.
An update on installation of mini reefs in the county
In light of a recent email blast the Siesta Key Association (SKA) sent its members, the News Leader asked Howard Berna, manager of the county’s Environmental Permitting Division, for an update about the county’s position on the installation of “mini reefs” under docks.
“This response is specific to the lightweight rope-suspended, floating ‘mini reef’ habitats (in the style of those being marketed by Ocean Habitats),” Berna wrote in an April 28 email. “At this time, and based on consultation with administration, the county is not requiring permits to suspend these under an existing dock. They may not be suitable for all locations (e.g., high currents, shallow water depths, etc.). If they become an issue, we will revisit the topic.”
Berna added, “Other types of ‘reef’ habitats, such as reef balls, would still require permitting. It is recommended that property owners contact Environmental Permitting should they have questions about their specific site location or circumstances related to this issue.”
The SKA has advocated for installation of mini reefs as a means of improving water quality in the Grand Canal on the Key. The April 9 SKA email blast noted, “Mini reefs can be purchased through START at a discount from standard retail price.” START is the nonprofit Solutions To Avoid Red Tide. Sandy Gilbert, chair and CEO of the organization, addressed SKA members in December 2019.
The total retail cost for one of the 24-inch by 36-inch by 24-inch mini reefs is $443, a START flyer says. That includes the $125 installation fee, the flyer notes. However, a person may purchase a device form START for $297, with free installation. Fifty percent of that total expense — $148.50 — is considered a donation to the nonprofit manufacturer, Ocean Habitats, the flyer adds.
Mini reefs, the flyer points out, have been shown to clean more than 30,000 gallons of sea water per day and improve water clarity within 12 to 15 feet from a dock. The devices also have been demonstrated to attract a wide variety of fish, the flyer says.
A sign on the move, so to speak
Over the weekend, a reader told the News Leader that it appeared that the Siesta Village welcome sign at the north entrance to the Village had been moved further from the entrance to the Whispering Sands condominium complex.
When the News Leader inquired about that this week, Lisa Cece, special district coordinator for the county who serves as the liaison to the Siesta Key Village Maintenance Corp. (SKVMC), had an explanation.
“The Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce manages and maintains the north and south Siesta Key Village signs,” Cece wrote in an April 28 email. Gabe Hartman, a member of the Chamber board of directors who also serves as manager for the Maintenance Corp., recently suggested that the north Village sign be moved to a more visible location, Cece continued.
The area where the sign originally was placed has mature landscaping, she noted, which obscured the sign. Therefore, Hartman proposed the relocation to Mark Smith, the SKVMC president. Both the SKVMC and Chamber agreed to that, Cece added.
On April 22, the sign was relocated to the landscape bed just south of Whispering Sands Drive, she noted. Landscaping will be added, she continued, “and lighting will be extended to this location to feature the sign at night as visitors and residents enter the Village.”
Cece also pointed out that a project is in progress in the Siesta Village Public Improvement District to replace many landscaping areas in the mid-section with new plantings, after the beds have been leveled and irrigation has been updated. “The District has also recently completed pressure washing of the walkway areas as requested by the SKVMC,” she noted.
The Public Improvement District is the area where the Village Beautification Project was undertaken by Sarasota County more than a decade ago. The owners of property within that district are assessed for the annual upkeep, which is overseen by the SKVMC, working on behalf of the owners, and Cece, working on behalf of the county.
Update on the Holderness fencing situation
Regular readers no doubt will recall that, on April 7, Sarasota County staff issued Affidavits of Violation to two limited liability companies on Siesta Key in response to the erection of illegal fencing near Beach Access 2 and Beach Access 3, both of which are located off North Beach Road.
At the time, county Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant told the News Leader that staff was uncertain when a Code Enforcement Special Magistrate hearing could be conducted; such a hearing would be the forum when staff would provide testimony about the violations, with the Special Magistrate then issuing an order in an effort to achieve compliance.
On April 28, Grant provided an update, as the News Leader also had reported in its April 17 issue on fines for Code Enforcement violations.
“The timing of reaching a resolution of the fence violations is being affected by the Special Magistrate’s interrupted schedule due to the COVID-19 situation,” Grant wrote, conveying information from the county’s Planning and Development Services Department. Fines would not be imposed, Grant added, “until we have been through that hearing. Fines can be upwards of $250 per day.”
The two limited liability companies responsible for the chain link fences are Siesta Beach Lots LLC, whose principal is Michael Holderness; and Siesta Gulf View LLC, whose manager is Andrew Cooper.
The fencing is a violation of the county’s Coastal Setback Code, which is designed to protect dunes and native beach vegetation, which, in turn, protect inland structures from storm surge and other flooding events. No construction is allowed seaward of the county’s Gulf Beach Setback Line unless a person has received a variance approved by the County Commission.
Holderness told the News Leader last month that he erected the fencing as a means of preventing gatherings of people who were not complying with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) social distancing guidelines designed to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus. The fencing is on private property. However, members of the public often are confused, the News Leader has found, about which is the public beach area near Beach Access 2 and which sections of the shoreline are privately owned. Many of those private parcels were underwater, or partly covered by the Gulf of Mexico, decades ago.
And speaking of fencing near Access 2 …
This week, new questions arose about another development near Beach Access 2.
In response to News Leader questions, county Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant wrote in an April 29 email that, on April 23, county staff put up fencing in the vicinity of Beach Access 2 that stands about a foot high and looks similar to a black tarp. The goal, she said, is to shield nesting female sea turtles and their hatchlings from light. “Hatchlings are especially vulnerable since the extra time spent crawling in the wrong direction depletes their small store of energy,” she wrote.
The material actually is silt fencing, she noted, which is designed to keep sediment at construction sites from ending up in waterways.
“Beach Access 2 is a unique situation where the road is directly adjacent to the beach and at the same low elevation,” Grant explained. No other such fencing is planned on the county shoreline, she added.
“Sarasota County protects threatened and endangered sea turtles through the implementation of the county’s Marine Turtle Protection Ordinance,” she continued. “Staff conducts seasonal inspections during nesting season (May 1 – Oct. 31) working with coastal property owners and managers on lighting, recreational item storage, and coastal construction planning to reduce impacts to nesting females and hatchlings. These impacts may include disorientation due to artificial light sources or entanglement in various items on the beach, such as chairs.”
Grant also noted, “Last year, the County installed a similar ground-level barrier” around the time sea turtle nests were expected to hatch. Staff erected the barriers earlier in the season this year, she explained, “to address issues during both the nesting and hatching windows. County staff will continue to work with Marine Turtle Permit Holders and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for current nesting information and appropriate protection measures. We thank the coastal residents and visitors as they ‘Keep Light Out of Sight’ each year for turtles.”
And speaking of turtle nesting …
Last week, Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium announced that nesting sea turtles had arrived early on the county shoreline.
“Mote’s Sea Turtle Conservation & Research Program (STCRP) began monitoring Sarasota area beaches on April 15, finding the first nest early Monday morning on Siesta Key,” a news release said. “Other signs of sea turtles included a false crawl (sea turtle comes on the beach but returns to the ocean without creating a nest) on Longboat Key, also documented on Monday.”
A loggerhead sea turtle created the Siesta nest, the Mote news release continued, adding that the loggerhead species is “Sarasota’s most abundant nester.” Moreover, the release said that on the west coast of Florida, Sarasota County is the densest area of loggerhead nesting.
In its first formal count for the 2020 nesting season, dated April 25, no other nests had been discovered on Siesta. However, two had been found on Casey Key and one on Longboat Key. For the first week of the 2019 season, the Mote chart says, Casey Key had three nests, Siesta had one, and Longboat had one.
“In 2019, Mote documented 5,112 nests, [a] record-breaking year,” the release pointed out.
“The top-three years for number of sea turtle nests in the Sarasota region have occurred in the last five years,” the release said.
Mote’s sea turtle activities are conducted under Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Marine Turtle Permits 027, 054, 070, 048, and 028, the release noted.
Approximately 300 volunteers assist Mote’s team of biologists and interns with daily monitoring of beaches, the release said, adding that this year marks the 39th year of monitoring by Mote.
Radar speed sign awaiting repairs
Drivers who routinely pass the radar speed sign on Ocean Boulevard near Sea Village probably have wondered why it has not worked for a while.
When the News Leader posed that question to county staff this week, Gary W. Spraggins, manager of traffic operations and the Buchan Airport as a Public Works Department employee, explained that parts are needed to repair the sign. Those are on order, he added. As soon as they come in, staff will have the sign back in operation.
Siesta Chamber leaders encouraging positive outlook
Given the dire effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on businesses, the leaders and staff of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce have been keeping a positive outlook and are trying to boost the morale of members.
Routinely, the Chamber has been sending out upbeat email blasts, reporting on promotions. “During these trying times,” one email says, “the Siesta Key Chamber would like to help in any way that we can.”
One email noted, “The Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce believes it is important to look ahead and focus on positive initiatives and future events that greatly benefit our community. The 11th Annual Siesta Key Crystal Classic is scheduled for November 13-16, 2020 on Siesta Beach. The committee is already working hard behind the scenes addressing the many components and details of this highly significant event.”
That email blast announced that Andy Daily, a local artist, businessman, and master sand sculptor, “will take the lead as Sand Management Team Coordinator.”
The email blast concluded, “Thank you for your past and present support of this great event and our community! Stay Strong Siesta Key!”
More ups and downs for the snowy plovers
Soon after Sarasota County leaders closed the county-operated beaches in the latter part of March, Kylie Wilson, the coordinator of the Bird Monitoring & Stewardship Program for Audubon Florida, wrote in an update about her excitement in seeing snowy plovers begin to nest early on Siesta. She reasoned that that was a factor of privacy from the public.
Sadly, the good early news did not last long.
In her April 12 update, Wilson wrote, “I will jump right into it. Sadly, Ms. Sanibel lost her nest this past week. I had a camera monitoring the nest so I know that a dog went into the buffer, which may have led to her abandoning the nest and opening it up for predation. There were also some ghost crab holes near the scrape. If her nesting record from last season was any indication, she will likely try again and soon!”
“Scrape” is the term used for plover nesting activity, as they nest right on the sand.
“Predation is unfortunately a regular and natural threat to the plovers,” Wilson continued. Human disturbance and off-leash dogs, on the other hand, are something we can work on! Please spread the message that it is breeding season and dogs are a huge disturbance to nesting birds and should not be on the beaches!”
Then, on April 26 — the day before beach restrictions eased — Wilson wrote, “There are still between 3-4 pairs of Snowy Plovers out on Siesta,” with more scraping near two of the beach accesses. “Just today I witnessed a pair scoping out some territory …”
Wilson has asked the news media not to identify locations of nests, as an extra precaution.
“After the incident of a dog entering one of the enclosures,” she continued, “I have been working with [the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission] and the county. I made some ‘No Dogs Allowed’ signs, which have been posted at the public accesses to hopefully alert beachgoers to the nesting birds.”