Siesta Seen

SKA hoping to pursue mini reef pilot project; Gulf & Bay Club erects signage to reserve its private beach area for members; Sheriff’s Office substation leader reports on October crime stats; Condo Council members united in opposition to proposed 170-room hotel project; Holiday Lighting Contest to go on this year for condo complexes; Rockbridge dredge in ‘safe harbor’ during Eta’s approach to the coast; burned-out lights shining again in Village and at Access 5; and Siesta Chapel welcomes new senior pastor

Phil Chiocchio makes a point during the SKA meeting on Oct. 3, 2019. File photo

An advocate for the installation of devices called mini reefs, which have been shown to improve water quality, has won support of the Board of Directors of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) for a pilot project on the Key.

During the nonprofit’s regular meeting on Nov. 5, at St. Boniface Episcopal Church, Phil Chiocchio of Sarasota and SKA Director Margaret Jean Cannon talked of their hopes to get at least 10 homeowners signed up for the initiative. If they are successful, Cannon said, then the project would begin in January in an area of the island that includes Mangrove Point Road and Siesta Key Circle, just west of the Intracoastal Waterway. Cannon added that she believes about 84 people own homes in that part of the island.

And if enough people can be recruited, Cannon continued, then the potential exists that she and Chiocchio could convince one or more of the foundations in the community to help defray the expenses of the effort.

In October 2019, Chiocchio first explained the function of mini reefs to SKA members. A member of the Sarasota Bay Fisheries Forum, he has been focused on improving the quality of the water in the Grand Canal on Siesta Key, he pointed out. The canal, which is about 9 miles long, he noted again during the Nov. 5 SKA meeting, has low dissolved oxygen levels and very little flow.

He is hoping the SKA initiative will lead to a grand celebration for the Grand Canal’s 100th birthday in 2025, he indicated.

The goal of the pilot program, Cannon pointed out, is to demonstrate the effectiveness of using multiple mini reefs, which are attached under docks. The devices are produced by a company called Ocean Habitats, which has a mailing address in Alachua County.

Each box costs $300, Cannon pointed out; installation is included in the price. Mini reefs can last several hundred years, she added — probably far beyond the life of any of the docks to which they are attached, she said.

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

Chiocchio called the mini reefs “nature’s kidneys.” Crustaceans attach to them, as shown in a video presented to the SKA members, and then fish are drawn to them. The water quality generally improves outward of each mini reef in an area ranging from 5 to 7 feet, he added.

In January, the City of Sarasota installed mini reefs under its docks at Ken Thompson Park on City Island. “You can go put your face under the dock and see for yourself [how they work],” Chiocchio said.

If she and Chiocchio can spark the interest of enough of the homeowners in the designated project area, Cannon continued, then they would set up a webpage where they would post regular updates about the initiative. Chiocchio added that they also would create a YouTube channel, so people could watch the sea life in the mini reefs.

This is the area of Siesta Key where SKA leaders hope a pilot mini reef program can begin. Image from Google Maps

Chiocchio also noted that he had discussed the pilot program plans with Mote Marine Laboratory scientists who are part of the Sarasota Bay Fisheries Forum. “They said this would be an excellent way to see the effects [of the devices].”

One set of Siesta homeowners who installed a mini reef about 18 months ago, he added, have “been thrilled. … Now the oysters are starting to line up on the shelf [of the device].” The woman recently “saw a baby manatee come up and hang around it,” he noted. “Baby shrimp are now moving around there, [too].”

However, he emphasized, “You have to have enough of [the mini reefs in the water] in the long run to really make a difference.”

A still from a video presented to SKA members on Nov. 5 shows crustaceans attached to a mini reef. Image courtesy Phil Chiocchio

During the discussion, an SKA member who lives on Avenida del Norte told Cannon and Chiocchio that he had installed a mini reef under a dock on his property, and he plans to put in a second one. He noted that another five or six homeowners on the street also have installed mini reefs.

In response to a question, Chiocchio explained that each mini reef has to be at least 24 inches deep under a dock. According to county and state environmental regulations, he added, the device cannot touch the bottom. He called that “an antiquated rule” and expressed his disfavor of it.

Still, he said, no permits are required to install mini reefs.

Cannon promised an update on the pilot project when the SKA conducts its December meeting.

Gulf & Bay takes steps to ensure owner access to beach

New signs that the management of the Gulf & Bay Club erected on Siesta Beach close to three weeks ago have sparked a bit of discussion among visitors to the island’s shore.

They were also the topic of comments during the Nov. 5 meeting of the Siesta Key Association (SKA).

This is one of the signs the Gulf & Bay Club management has placed on its part of Siesta Beach. Contributed photo

The signs note Florida Statute 177.28(1), which makes a distinction between “private” beach and “public” beach. Section 177.28(1) says, “Mean high-water line along the shores of land immediately bordering on navigable waters is recognized and declared to be the boundary between the foreshore owned by the state in its sovereign capacity and upland subject to private ownership. However, no provision of this part shall be deemed to constitute a waiver of state ownership of sovereignty submerged lands, nor shall any provision of this part be deemed to impair the title to privately owned submerged lands validly alienated by the State of Florida or its legal predecessors.”

In the Gulf & Bay Club’s case, its signs note that the condominium complex’s private property extends 94 feet to the Mean High Water Line.

This week, when The Sarasota News Leader contacted the Gulf & Bay Club for comments, the News Leader was directed to Darrel Peters, a member of the complex’s board of directors.

What prompted the initiative, he explained, “was the growing number of people from the public beach” who have been making their way over to Gulf & Bay’s property “and setting up their gear for the day.”

The problem began after county staff completed the improvements at Siesta Public Beach Park in early 2016, he noted. With more parking spaces on the southern side of the park site, Peters said, more people headed toward that area of the beach, closer to where the Gulf & Bay Club stands.

The condominium complex has 392 units, he pointed out. “Folks like to get down and use the beach and be close to the shore,” Peters added.

The Gulf & Bay Club is one of the largest condominium complexes on Siesta.

Asked if management has received complaints since the signs went up, Peters replied, “I would say, ‘No,’ nothing that I would consider unusual.” He added that he believes people generally do understand the reasoning behind the action.

Moreover, Peters noted, “We haven’t forced people to walk in the water” to go past the complex’s part of the beach. Everyone is welcome to cross the property, he added; they just cannot set up “tents and awnings and all their beach paraphernalia …”

He also pointed out, “We’re all fortunate because the beach has accreted. It’s grown deeper over the years.”

This is a 1974 aerial of property surrounding the parcel at 680 Beach Road, which staff showed the County Commission during a public hearing in November 2019. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Anyone who has looked at photos taken of the shoreline in the 1970s can see how much more beach exists these days, Peters said. Nonetheless, he noted, the walk to the water is longer, which is another reason more people had begun setting up camp on the Gulf & Bay part of the beach.

This is a 2019 aerial of the same portion of Siesta Beach, including the parcel located at 680 Beach Road. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During the SKA’s meeting on Nov. 5, President Catherine Luckner pointed out that managers of condominium complexes south of Stickney Point Road long have put up signage — and even ropes, on occasion — to prevent members of the public from accessing the private areas on that portion of the beach.

When Siesta resident Nora Patterson still was serving on the County Commission, the News Leader saw her take questions on the issue from time to time. Patterson patiently would explain that Mean High Water Line was the figurative line of demarcation between private and public beach property.

October crime statistics reported

During the Nov. 5 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting, Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation on the island, provided an overview of crime statistics for October.

Altogether, he said, officers handled 362 calls for service. And while the number of more serious crimes — those classified by the FBI as Part I incidents — generally make up only about 4% of the total, he continued, the October figure was 6%.

Among the incidents, Smith said, were an auto theft, a residential burglary, a couple of bicycle thefts and a vehicle burglary.

The auto theft, Smith pointed out, involved a golf cart.

This graphic shows the locations of the Part 1 crimes on Siesta in October. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

In the case of the residential burglary, he noted, a house was being remodeled and the doors had been left unlocked. (The official report says fixtures and a television were reported stolen.)

The October overview the Sheriff’s Office provided to the News Leader also noted that, among the other Part I cases, three political signs were stolen, beer was taken from an outdoor bar area on two occasions (with an arrest made), a boat was burglarized at a marina, a backpack was stolen from the beach, a phone was stolen after it fell off the roof of a car, and a vendor reported that camping equipment was stolen while an event was underway.

Smith also took the opportunity of his appearance at the SKA meeting to emphasize, “We are 100% not allowing dogs on the beach,” unless the dog is a service animal. The Sheriff’s Office does not consider emotional support dogs to be service animals, he stressed.

“If you guys see dogs at the beach,” Smith told the SKA members, they should call the Sheriff’s Office. “We’ll educate [the owners] on what the rules are.”

Sgt. Arik Smith addresses SKA members in early February. Rachel Hackney photo

County residents do try to sneak dogs onto the beach, Smith noted, even though “they know the rules.”

The county has banned dogs from the public beach for many years, as the animals can disturb beach-nesting birds, which then will abandon nests, even with eggs close to hatching.

Smith also has pointed out to the News Leader that dogs can bite, and some people simply are fearful of the animals.

“We do our best,” he said during the SKA meeting, to ensure dogs are not on the beach. “We try to stay very vigilant.”

Condo Council members strongly opposed to hotel plans

On Aug. 27, the Siesta Key Condominium Council sent a survey to its members, asking their views about a proposed 170-room hotel — with a restaurant, bar and shops — that has been proposed on four parcels between Beach Road and Calle Miramar, just a short walk from Ocean Boulevard, near Beach Access 5.

The height of the building would be 80 feet above base flood elevation, which has been in the 18- to 19-foot range on the Key in the past several years. Thus, the hotel likely would be taller than 90 feet.

Altogether, the Condo Council has reported, 239 surveys were completed, representing individuals and homeowner associations. “All voted against the proposal,” a news release said.

This is a site concept for the proposed hotel, included in a preliminary application submitted to county staff in May. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Many respondents, the release noted, expressed fears that, if constructed, the hotel would exacerbate the congestion with which homeowners already contend near the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road during tourist season.

“One person said, ‘Please do not sell out our beach again,’” the release added.

Another wrote, “As a Sarasota resident, I am against the proposed changes that would forever turn our small piece of paradise into a congested commercial traffic jam, and run off our long term guests accustomed to quiet, peaceful family comfort.”

The following are other samples of comments:

  • “During the high season when I occupy my condo, the traffic is already horrendous.”
  • “We have been longtime owners (and our parents before us) across from the beach on Siesta Key since the 1970’s. We cannot let this happen. Thanks for your efforts to prevent this.”
  • “We are the owners of a property on Stickney Point Road since 1986. This is used only by our family as a second residence. We are seasonal residents who fell in love with Sarasota and Siesta Key beaches. Over the past few years our enjoyment of the beaches and other attractions on Siesta Key have been diminished due to traffic congestion caused mainly by major changes to various building codes. Traffic congestion on Stickney Point Road during the ‘season’ greatly diminishes our access to and from our condo.”

During the Nov. 5 Siesta Key Association meeting, President Catherine Luckner talked of the ongoing efforts of the SK Coalition, which was organized during the summer to fight the hotel proposal. The intersection of Beach Road and Ocean Boulevard — close to the planned site of the 80-foot-plus-tall hotel — is “one of the worst [the developers] could possibly pick on Siesta Key,” Luckner pointed out.

Serious accidents are not uncommon in the vicinity of that intersection, she said.

This graphic shows the site of the proposed hotel, in yellow, and condominium association members in opposition to it as of mid-September, in blue. More associations have joined the Coalition since then. Image courtesy of Mark Spiegel

The Coalition members have stressed that they are not opposed to development on the barrier island; however, they believe any new projects should comply with the Siesta Key Overlay District zoning regulations that long have been in place. For example, those rules restrict the height of any new structure to 35 feet above base flood elevation. To go higher, the County Commission has to approve a Special Exception.

When the News Leader checked in with county staff in early November about the status of the hotel proposal, a representative of the Planning and Development Services Department reported that the formal application had not been submitted.

As of Nov. 4, staff added, the hotel project team also had not submitted a request for the required neighborhood workshop before the formal application can be turned in to Planning and Development.

The owner of the parcels that comprise the 0.96-acre site of the planned hotel is Louise Khaghan of New York City, the preliminary application said. The long-time lessee of the property is Robert T. Anderson Jr., a RE/MAX real estate agent whose company SKH 1 LLC, is listed on the application.

Several persons on the Key have told the News Leader that Anderson has been making presentations to groups about the proposal, working to gain support for it.

Condo Council to conduct Holiday Lighting Contest

Logo courtesy Siesta Key Condominium Council

Hilla Blatt, chair of the Siesta Key Condominium Council’s annual Holiday Lighting Contest, has announced that the deadline for registering to compete in the event is 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 1.

Judging will take place on the evening of Wednesday, Dec. 9, she wrote in an email blast to Condo Council members. The judges will depart the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce’s office in Davidson Plaza at 5:30 p.m., Blatt added.

The contest is open to all condominium associations in good standing — including being current on dues to the council, Blatt pointed out.

First-, second- and third-place winners will be named, as usual, in the following three categories:

  • Category I — 101 or more units.
  • Category II — 51-100 units.
  • Category III — 50 or fewer units.

The co-sponsors of the event are the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce and Siesta Trolley Inc.

Whither the Rockbridge during the Eta event?

With county and city emergency management staff members keeping an eye on where Eta would go this week, the News Leader thought about the crew on the Rockbridge dredge that has been removing sand from Big Pass to renourish Lido Key Beach.

As a result, the News Leader asked Sarasota City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw where the dredge and its crew members would ride out the storm.

Cottrell Contracting Corp.’s dredge, the Rockbridge, has been removing sand from Big Pass to renourish the Lido Key Beach. Photo courtesy of Michael Holderness

In a Nov. 9 email, she wrote, “They have moved into the place the Contactor has identified as the safe harbor spot. I would expect them to stay there for the next several days.”

The contractor is Cottrell Contracting Corp. of Chesapeake, Va.

Early on the afternoon of Nov. 9, Ed McCrane, emergency management chief for Sarasota County, offered comments on Eta’s winds and rain at that time. Areas of the county were seeing gusts of 10 mph to 20 mph, he said, with some sustained winds of 20 mph and 30 mph.

At that point, he noted, weather forecasters were expecting Eta to stall after “traversing to the west and south into the Gulf of Mexico.” Although modeling indicated a turn to the north later in the week, McCrane added, no one could predict with certainty what Eta would do.

By Nov. 11, with Eta having taken a turn back toward Southwest Florida, tropical storm force winds and rainfall were battering the county.

In a Nov. 11 Facebook Live video, McCrane urged people to stay out of the Gulf of Mexico — thinking of surfers’ attraction to the conditions, no doubt. “It’s amazing to see those waves crash,” he said. Nonetheless, he advised people to stay indoors, if at all possible.

The lifeguard stands on the county-operated beaches were moved back from the shoreline in an effort to protect them, Jamie Carson, manager of communications, added in the Facebook Live segment.

Surfline, which provides reports on conditions at numerous county beaches, listed the surf height at 6 to 10 feet near Point of Rocks on the southern part of Siesta on the afternoon of Nov. 11. The wind speed was 30 knots, Surfline added.

Lights on again

Last month, the News Leader reported that one streetlight in Siesta Village was out, and the Florida Power & Light Co. streetlight at Beach Access 5 was no longer shining at night.

Lisa Cece, Sarasota County’s special district coordinator, who serves as the county liaison to the Siesta Key Village Maintenance Corp., told the News Leader she would work to remedy those situations.

And, indeed, she was successful, according to a reader who expressed enthusiasm for her efforts. As of last week, the reader reported, both lights were back on

Siesta Key Chapel welcomes new senior pastor

The Rev. Dr. Ruth Herron Smalt. Image courtesy Siesta Chapel

As Siesta Key Chapel celebrates its 50th anniversary as a Presbyterian USA church, the Rev. Dr. Ruth Herron Smalt has been called as its sixth senior pastor, the church has announced.

Smalt relocated to Siesta from the historic First Congregational Church on the Massachusetts island of Nantucket, a news release noted.

“The people of Siesta Key Chapel have been warm and welcoming in creative ways during this season of social distancing,” Smalt said in the release. “Our big excitement is preparing for the Chapel’s 50th Anniversary Golden Jubilee Celebration on Sunday November 8, when we will meet on the physical campus of the Chapel,” she noted.

The church also will live-stream the event, the release pointed out.

The service will include worship with special music, installation of Smalt by the Peace River Presbytery, communion, “and a celebration of the past 50 years as we envision a bright future at the Chapel and in the community,” Smalt said in the release.

Smalt, who was reared in Rye, N.Y., the release continued, holds a doctorate in educational administration and supervision, a Master of Science in education, and a Master of Divinity degree.

“Seminary had long been in God’s plan [for her],” the release added. “She was always active in her church as a leader and teacher, as well as a national speaker at Christian camps and conferences, while engaged in her careers …” She has been an educator and the executive director of a nonprofit organization, the release noted, pointing out that she also has raised a family. “Once her girls were off to college, the time was right to follow God’s calling,” the release said.

Siesta Key Chapel is putting plans in place for a gradual, small-group opening in late fall, the release continued. In the meantime, “Pastor Ruth invites congregants and leadership to one-on-one outdoor ‘meet-the-pastor’ time in the Memorial Garden, under the Pavilion, and out in the community. She makes pastoral care visits to the hospital and to homes, meeting outdoors whenever possible, finding ways to safely and joyfully care for her congregation,” the release added.

For more information about the church, visit