Mixed reactions meet announcement of cancellation of July Fourth fireworks; Circuit Court hearing set on legal fees motion in North Beach Road case; Cosentino hires another new attorney for appeal; oral arguments in Siesta Promenade case to be handled via video conference; fences come down between Beach Accesses 2 and 3; Calle Menorca property approved for transient housing; and snowy plovers plagued by dogs
A mix of public reactions met the news that both the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce and Suncoast Charities for Children would be cancelling their traditional fireworks shows on July Fourth.
Arriving at the decision was a very difficult one for the leaders of the Siesta Chamber, Ann Frescura, executive director of the Chamber, told The Sarasota News Leader in an email. “No one wanted to cancel the fireworks,” she wrote on May 29, in response to News Leader questions, “but priority had to be given to public safety, social distancing, and crowd management.”
She was referencing the COVID-19 pandemic and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for preventing spread of the virus.
The official announcement came on May 21 from the Chamber and Suncoast Charities. The latter has sponsored the fireworks show in downtown Sarasota for the past 12 years, in a partnership with Marina Jack.
“The Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce has organized the Siesta Key Community Fireworks for nearly 30 years,” the joint statement pointed out.
Organizers for both the Siesta and downtown Sarasota displays look forward to bringing the events back next year, the statement added.
In her responses to the News Leader, Frescura noted that the expense of the Siesta show is about $45,000, which Chamber staff members and leaders work hard to collect each year from an array of contributors. “Due to the struggling economy,” she added, “we had not actively done any fundraising.”
The contract deadline for the 2020 event was mid-May, Frescura added.
Before that deadline, on May 5, County Commissioner Christian Ziegler brought up concerns about the Siesta fireworks show as he made his report during the regular commission meeting that day. Ziegler noted that Chamber leaders “have to sign a contract. That’s coming up.”
Chamber representatives had asked him, he said, to inquire about whether the county would be willing to allow the organization to put on the display at a later time if the Chamber did sign the contract with the vendor and had to end up cancelling the July Fourth show. “I personally would be totally fine with that,” he added of allowing for a delayed event. “Who doesn’t love fireworks?”
“I personally don’t want to see the Fourth of July shut down,” Ziegler continued. “I know there are some other areas that disagree with me.”
However, he said, he believes the holiday fireworks shows are important “just for the morale of people. Shutting down the Fourth of July is a tough task to do.”
At that point, Ziegler noted, the holiday was about two months away, so he hoped the novel coronavirus pandemic would not interfere with the traditional celebrations. “Who knows where we’re going to be in July [in terms of the numbers of positive COVID-19 cases].”
Then Ziegler said he believed the City of Venice had cancelled its traditional fireworks display.
“They did,” responded Commissioner Nancy Detert, who lives in Venice.
“I know from past experience, this is not a money-maker,” Commissioner Alan Maio said of the Siesta fireworks show. “The groups out there [on the Key have] to really scratch and fight to raise [the money to pay for the pyrotechnics].”
Maio added, “Personally, my one thought, one vote, we don’t need to be cancelling things that are 60 days away, yet.”
He agreed that the Siesta Chamber should be given the latitude to delay the show, if it went ahead and signed the contract with the vendor. Perhaps a Labor Day event would be possible, Maio pointed out.
“We have not cancelled events out that far,” County Administrator Jonathan Lewis told the board members. Staff has an administrative process, he said, through which the Chamber representatives could work on a delayed show. “It won’t be an issue.”
Both Maio and Ziegler represent Siesta on the commission, since new district lines were drawn in 2019. The island is split between Maio’s District 4 and Ziegler’s District 2.
A new hearing in the Reopen Beach Road case
The 12th Judicial Circuit Court judge who presided over the North Beach Road litigation has set a June 15 hearing to consider a motion filed by intervenors in the case, who are seeking to recover court costs.
As the News Leader reported in early May, attorney M. Lewis Hall III of the Williams Parker law firm in Sarasota provided the court a detailed accounting of expenses for his clients, Dennis and Wendy Madden. Dating from August. 2016, those expenses add up to $8,072.85.
The Maddens were among the three sets of owners of property along North Beach Road who, in May 2016, successfully petitioned for Sarasota County’s vacation of a 373-foot-long segment of that road.
The original judge who presided over the Circuit Court case allowed them to intervene in the litigation after Siesta resident Mike Cosentino filed suit against the county in June 2016.
The June 15 hearing is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, “no person will be permitted inside the courtroom for a circuit-civil hearing, including the court reporter,” the hearing notice says.
Instead, the proceeding will be conducted through use of the Zoom platform, the notice points out.
And if someone prefers an alternative means of participating, or has no camera to use with a computer, “The Zoom platform allows individuals to appear via telephone,” the notice adds.
Circuit Judge Andrea McHugh has set aside 30 minutes for the hearing, the notice says.
As for the Cosentino appeal …
Mike Cosentino has hired yet another law firm — this one to represent him in his appeal of Circuit Judge Andrea McHugh’s final order in the North Beach Road and Sarasota County Charter amendments lawsuits, which McHugh issued this spring. McHugh ruled for Sarasota County and the intervenors in a Feb. 18 order dealing with the final portion of the North Beach Road lawsuit.
Last year, Cosentino employed a couple of different attorneys in an appeal over an earlier ruling in the North Beach Road case. Joseph H. Lee of the Lee Law Firm in Tampa handled the litigation initially on Cosentino’s behalf.
Later, Tracy S. Carlin, an attorney with a different Tampa firm — Brannock Humphries & Berman — took over representation of Cosentino.
Ultimately, however, Cosentino asked the Appeal Court to dismiss the case. He told the News Leader he would prefer pursuing an appeal after all the litigation had been completed at the Circuit Court level, so he would have a full record for the Appeal Court.
He has contended that the Office of the County Attorney colluded with at least part of the property owners on North Beach Road who sought the road vacation. As a result of what he alleges were fraudulent actions, county staff did not pursue the repair and stabilization of the road after it suffered major storm damage in 2012. Staff had hired a Jacksonville firm, Taylor Engineering, to study the road situation and recommend solutions. The company provided options in a 2013 report, which Cosentino has referenced numerous times since he filed suit against the county in June 2016.
On May 29, attorney Janelle A. Weber of Manta Law in Tampa filed a Stipulation for Substitution of Counsel with the Appeal Court, seeking to replace Ceci Culpepper Berman of Brannock Humphries & Berman. Berman had filed her notice of appearance on behalf of Cosentino on May 14.
A May 29 note in the case docket makes it clear that the court has agreed to the substitution of counsel.
The Manta Law website says Weber is the founder of the firm. She earned a Bachelor of Science at Georgetown University, a Master of Science in Journalism from Columbia University and a law degree from the Levin College of Law at the University of Florida, the website notes.
During his time in Circuit Court, Cosentino employed three attorneys. The first left for personal reasons, Cosentino told the News Leader; Cosentino dismissed the second one, after alleging that that attorney was showing early signs of dementia; and Cosentino allowed the third one to withdraw after McHugh last year consolidated the North Beach Road and Sarasota County Charter amendments cases. Cosentino told McHugh that he would prefer to represent himself at that point, because it would take too long to bring the latest lawyer up to speed on all the issues.
And speaking of court cases …
Again, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Second District Court of Appeal has issued an order saying that, if it does hold oral arguments in the Siesta Promenade case, it will do so by video conference.
The date for those arguments remains June 23, as the court announced in early April.
However, the latest update on the case docket does state that the assigned judges could decide “that the Court will not benefit from oral argument,” which would leave them to making their ruling on the basis of the record and briefs filed by the attorneys.
Last year, Pine Shores Estates resident Sura Kochman filed notice of an appeal of the 12th Judicial Circuit Court decision in her complaint against Sarasota County over approval of the mixed-use project next to her neighborhood. Circuit Judge Andrea McHugh ruled in favor of Sarasota County and Benderson Development, which is the developer of Siesta Promenade.
The proposed 414 condominiums/apartments, a 130-room hotel, 1330,000 square feet of retail space and 7,000 square feet of office space are planned in the northwest quadrant of the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road.
The fences come down
Regular readers 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 from the county’s Planning and Development Services Department: “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.” Fines would not be imposed, Grant added, “until we have been through that hearing. Fines can be upwards of $250 per day.”
As it turned out, that schedule no longer is of concern.
On May 18, Grant reported in an email, “Planning and Development staff learned the fences were removed on [May 15] by the company that installed them.”
“We will need to file a Certificate of Compliance with [Sarasota County] Board Records,” she continued, since staff had filed the Affidavits of Violations.
Board Records is a division of the Office of the Sarasota County Clerk of Circuit Court and County Comptroller.
Planning and Development staff also pointed out, Grant noted, “that the county regularly achieves compliance with property owners through voluntary means before needing to take a case to a Special Magistrate.”
The two limited liability companies responsible for the chain link fences were Siesta Beach Lots LLC, whose principal is Michael Holderness; and Siesta Gulf View LLC, whose manager is Andrew Cooper.
The fencing was 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 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, which was on private property, was erected while the county-operated beaches remained closed.
The beaches reopened on May 4 for all activities, including sunbathing.
Calle Menorca transient housing plan wins approval
On May 6, the County Commission voted unanimously to grant a Special Exception so the property at 5228 Calle Menorca could be classified as transient accommodations.
The applicant sought the change so he can rent out the property for periods of less than 30 days.
On Feb. 20, the county Planning Commission also voted unanimously — 9-0 — to recommend that the County Commission approve the request.
The owners of the property are Max Nuebler Jr. and Paula J. Nuebler, who bought it in August 1985, county Property Appraiser Office records show.
The market value of the parcel in 2019 was $575,839, the records note.
A Nov. 26, 2019 letter sent to county Planning and Development Services Department staff from attorney G. Matthew Brockway, with the Icard Merrill firm in Sarasota, identified the applicant for the Special Exception as Chad Waites. A copy of a document accompanying the letter — a Michael Saunders & Co. contract for sale and purchase — said Waites planned to buy the property, contingent upon county approval of the Special Exception. Waites signed the form on Feb. 19, 2019.
Brockway noted in his letter that the parcel comprises only about 0.10 acres. Located on the west side of Calle Menorca, it is surrounded by commercial properties, he added.
The structure contains two dwelling units, which are rented for periods of 30 days or longer, Brockway pointed out.
“While cosmetic and interior improvements to the existing building are contemplated in connection with the proposed Special Exception,” he continued, “no material changes or improvements will be made to the Property.”
Waites “contemplates removing the kitchens of the existing dwelling units, including 220[-volt] electrical service to the kitchens, prior to commencement of rentals for periods of less than [30 days,” Brockway added. “No site improvements or alterations are required or contemplated …”
The County Commission’s public hearing was designated a “presentation upon request.” No board member asked for staff remarks on the issues, and no member of the public had signed up to address the petition.
When Chair Michael Moran called for a motion, Commissioner Christian Ziegler made it, calling for approval of the Special Exception, and Commissioner Nancy Detert seconded it. The 5-0 vote followed immediately, without comments from any of the commissioners.
As of June 1, the Property Appraiser’s Office record for 5228 Calle Menorca showed the Nueblers remained the owners.
Snowy plover plight continues, especially in regard to dogs
As of May 31, only one snowy plover pair was still attempting to nest on Siesta, Kylie Wilson, coordinator of the Sarasota County Bird Monitoring & Stewardship Program for Audubon Florida, reported.
“This week,” Wilson wrote in her May 31 update, “I found the pair working on a well-developed scrape … The area has been roped off and we are monitoring it closely. The female hasn’t laid eggs yet but she appears gravid so it should be any day now!”
However, Wilson continued, the spot where the new nest is located “has unfortunately been a regular area of disturbance throughout the season. When I located the scrape this past week there were tons of fresh dog prints around the area and even in the enclosure. Please, be a voice for the birds and remind residents and visitors that dogs are a huge threat to the nesting Snowy Plovers and they should not be allowed off leash or near nesting enclosures,” she added.
A county ordinance forbids dogs on the beach — partly because of the nesting birds. Yet, for the past several years, a number of dog owners on the Key have continued to disregard the prohibition.
The appearance of a dog in the vicinity of a nest will result in the plovers abandoning the nest altogether, no matter how close eggs may be to hatching, Wilson has stressed.
And no matter how many times she has made that clear to the public and pleaded for cooperation, she has failed to achieve success.
In a recent news release, Shea Armstrong, Florida Shorebird Alliance coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), wrote, “Startling birds might not seem like a big deal, but disturbing shorebirds and seabirds can actually be deadly.” She pointed out, “If a mother bird is forced to leave her nest, her eggs or chicks are left behind where they can be eaten by predators, exposed to the hot sun, or trampled by unsuspecting beachgoers.”
The snowy plovers are a threatened species, which is all the more reason Wilson and FWC personnel have worked so hard to educate people about how critical it is to keep pets out of nesting areas.