County staff set to seek budget amendment approval on Jan. 26 to create 22 new parking spaces in Siesta Village; Grand Canal Regeneration Project winning over residents; lifeguard stands vandalized in December 2020; Sheriff’s Office substation leader warns about dogs on the beach and discusses homelessness outreach; and illegal single-family home rentals remain big cause for concern
Sarasota County’s Public Works Department staff tentatively is scheduled to appear before the County Commission during the regular board meeting on Jan. 26 to propose a budget amendment that would pay for 22 new parking spaces in county right of way along Ocean Boulevard in the northern part of Siesta Village.
That is an update that Public Works Director Spencer Anderson provided The Sarasota News Leader this week.
If the funding is approved, Anderson continued, the next step would be to design the spaces, 18 of which are proposed for the western side of Ocean, with the remaining four in front of the former Lofino Building, which stands at 5011 Ocean Blvd., just north of the Old Salty Dog.
Construction possibly could begin in the fall or near the end of this year, Anderson added. However, he wrote, “[T]hat is a very rough estimate at this stage.”
The commissioners approved the new parking spaces during an Oct. 6, 2020 board discussion. Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce leaders proposed the plan, noting that now-commission Chair Alan Maio originally worked on the concept in 2015. At that time, Maio has said, the county had no funding available for the initiative.
A Nov. 3, 2020 staff report estimated the expense of the undertaking at $250,000.
Still, residents remain opposed to the project, reporting concerns about the potential of accidents, as people try to back out of the angled parking spots. Siesta Key Association President Catherine Luckner also has pointed out that the sidewalk in the affected area is one of the few stretches wide enough for pedestrians and bicyclists to share with ease, “and we need to keep those wide spaces.”
During the Jan. 7 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting, Bernie Hoyt, a resident of the Whispering Sands condominium complex — in front of which some of the spaces are planned — expressed dismay that the project is moving forward.
“I’m stymied,” she said. “If anyone has any ideas,” she added, she would welcome them.
Residents have sent letters to the commissioners, underscoring their opposition, Hoyt said. “We’re going to talk to Mr. Ziegler again,” she continued, referring to Commissioner Christian Ziegler, who represents the northern part of the Key. “But we’re beating our heads against the wall.”
SKA President Catherine Luckner expressed an interest in an effort to convince the commissioners to direct staff to pursue construction of fewer vehicle spaces and, instead, install racks that could accommodate five bicycles each.
For that matter, Luckner continued, “We are seeing a lot more golf carts and low-speed vehicles [on the island] that don’t take up full parking spaces.” The parking design could be modified to offer spots for such conveyances, she added, and — again — lead to a decrease in the 22-vehicle space count.
“They’ll see that as a wonderful opportunity to make 40 spaces instead of 20,” Hoyt responded.
“Gosh, I hope not,” Luckner told her.
Siesta Chamber leaders with whom she had spoken, Luckner continued, expressed interest in seeing more bicycle spaces made available in the Village, but she was not certain that the commissioners were aware of that. “I’m willing to push that,” Luckner added. “I’m going to go to bat for us.”
Grand Canal Regeneration Project gaining volunteers
The Grand Canal Regeneration Project that the Siesta Key Association (SKA) launched in November 2020 already has seen 23 more mini reefs installed under docks in the island waterway, SKA Director Jean Cannon reported during the nonprofit’s regular meeting on Jan. 7.
David Vozzolo, a member of the project team, learned by going out on the canal in a kayak that 27 other mini reefs already had been put in place by residents, Cannon noted. Therefore, she said, “Our first attempt almost doubled the amount of mini reefs that are in there.”
The SKA effort already has resulted in 14 mini reefs being installed in the nonprofit’s target area, Cannon added. That includes Higel Avenue, Commonwealth Drive, Waterside Way, Primrose Path, Windward Avenue and Avenida Del Norte.
The last one, she said, “is our southern point.”
The goal is to install another 40 of the devices.
Cannon noted that project team members would be canvassing residents in the pilot project areas between Jan. 11 and Jan. 22, and she asked that interested SKA members “tell their neighbors” about the initiative.
Further, Cannon said, the team members are hoping to win grants and other forms of support from nonprofit foundations in the county, to help pay for the installations as well as water sampling and analysis. She invited any SKA member who knows a person associated with one of the foundations, who would be willing to pass along the person’s contact information, to email her at SiestaKeyAssoc1947@gmail.com.
The mini reefs are designed “to mimic the natural ecosystem that you have” in the area of mangroves or in seagrasses, David Wolff, the creator of the mini reefs, explained in an interview with Phil Chiocchio of Sarasota. The SKA directors showed members the video during the Jan. 7 meeting, which was conducted via Zoom.
Wolff established the nonprofit Ocean Habitats, through which he sells mini reefs.
Chiocchio’s advocacy for improved water quality in the Grand Canal led to the SKA initiative. (Chiocchio first addressed SKA members in 2019, presenting a slideshow about the history of the Grand Canal and its deterioration over the decades. He explained that the canal has only one outlet, which is in Roberts Bay.)
The mini reefs attract oysters, which are known as “filter feeders” because they eat algae, Wolff continued. They can filter about 30,000 gallons of water a day, he said. Thus, the area around a mini reef has cleaner water, so the devices draw juvenile fish and crabs looking for hiding places, he noted.
“The whole point [of installing the devices],” Cannon added, “is to create juvenile sea life.”
Ocean Habitats had been looking “for a large-scale deployment [of mini reefs] in an area that needs a lot of help, and the Grand Canal needs help,” Wolff pointed out. In response to a question from Chiocchio, Wolff said he was not aware of any other large-scale project underway in the county.
“We have almost 5,000 mini reefs in the water in Florida,” Wolff said. A number of the devices are in use in the Bahamas, he continued, and a project has been planned for Australia, but it is on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The mini reefs are made of polypropylene, which is far sturdier than ordinary plastics, Wolff pointed out. The material holds up so well in saltwater, he added, that the mini reefs can last for about 500 years. And the mini reefs are recyclable, he noted.
Cannon showed the approximately 40 participants in the Jan. 7 meeting a slide featuring a new mini reef alongside a mini reef that has become home to shellfish.
Along with Wolff, Cannon noted, a Florida Sea Grant agent and staff members of the Sarasota County Public Works Department and the Stormwater and Environmental Management divisions have been offering their advice and support for the SKA’s undertaking. Sea Grant agent Armando Ubeda, she said, will train the project team members on how to take scientific measurements and analyze them, in an effort to demonstrate how the mini reefs are working.
People can donate money to help pay for the water sampling, SKA President Catherine Luckner noted.
“If you contribute $100,” Cannon said, “we’ll let you put a name on a mini reef.”
Another facet of the initiative that the team is interested in pursuing, Cannon continued, is the installation of aerators in the canal to provide more oxygen in areas where the canal’s flow is especially constricted.
Luckner noted that she was surprised to learn that the 9-mile canal “is actually longer than Phillippi Creek. A lot of people have no idea of that.”
Thirty years ago, Luckner added, the water was so clear in the Grand Canal that people routinely swam in it.
Sheriff’s sergeant provides December 2020 update
During the Jan. 7 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting — which was conducted via Zoom — Sgt. Arik Smith, who leads the Sheriff’s Office substation on the Key — noted that the department recorded 372 calls for service for the month of December 2020. Nineteen of them, or about 5%, were of the more serious nature that the FBI used to classify as “Part 1” crimes, he said.
A new standard for reporting crimes to the federal government has gone into effect, Smith explained. In the past, law enforcement agencies provided data for what was called the Uniform Crime Report. That has been replaced by the National Incident Based Reporting System, or the NIBRS. “Law enforcement officials are big on acronyms,” he added.
The new system is more inclusive than the Uniform Crime Report, Smith pointed out. As a result, he continued, crime statistics for some areas might go up. However, Smith said, “It really doesn’t affect us too much [on the Key],” given the nature of most of the offenses officers handle there.
The NIBRS website says the system “captures details on each single crime incident — as well as on separate offenses within the same incident — including information on victims, known offenders, relationships between victims and offenders, arrestees, and property involved in crimes.”
Over the past couple of years, the percentage of the more serious crimes on the Key each month consistently has been in the 4% range, out of total number of calls, Smith told the SKA members.
In regard to December 2020 incidents: Smith reported that someone broke into one vehicle that was unlocked and left unattended. “Again,” Smith stressed, “lock your cars.”
A couple of residential burglaries were reported, too, he noted. In those cases, persons left their garage doors open. As with vehicles, Smith urged SKA members not to leave their homes unlocked and unattended, because those situations invite “crimes of opportunity.” The latter could be eliminated, he pointed out, if people were careful about locking up behind themselves.
One set of noteworthy incidents in December, he continued, involved vandalism and burglaries at lifeguard stands on Siesta Public Beach. He said he believed those crimes were related to the influx of visitors on the Key during the holiday season. The incidents occurred two or three nights in a row, he added, at different stands. Not only were items taken, Smith pointed out, but things were moved around inside the stands.
“We’ve put some extra patrols out there at night,” he noted, in an effort to prevent similar crimes.
This is not the first time the Sheriff’s Office has dealt with burglaries involving lifeguard stands, he told the SKA members.
Dogs on the beach, please
During his remarks to SKA members on Jan. 7, Sgt. Arik Smith reprised comments he has made from time to time.
“The Sheriff’s Office does not take lightly [reports of dogs on the beach],” he stressed. “There’s no lax behavior on our part. … We try to approach every single person we see,” he said, who has brought an animal onto the beach to let the individual know that a county ordinance forbids such action. Only service dogs are allowed on the beaches, he added.
Even then, Smith said, a service animal “needs to be under control and on a leash and with the owner, unless that animal is performing its service. Then it can go off-leash.”
He had talked with SKA President Catherine Luckner prior to the meeting that evening, Smith noted, indicating that she had asked him to remind everyone about the county regulations.
“If you see people on the beach, please call us. That’s what we’re here for,” Smith told the SKA members. “Don’t feel like it’s a nuisance to us.”
Smith did ask that persons report dogs on the beach by calling the Sheriff’s Office’s non-emergency number, which is 941-316-1201.
That is the best way to reach an officer for a timely response, Smith said.
Earlier in the week, he noted, he had heard Gov. Ron DeSantis talking about how “people are flooding into Florida,” because the state does not have the COVID-19 visitor restrictions that have been put in place in many other areas.
Further, Smith noted, “Our home sales … are rising through the roof.”
Both situations, he continued, appear to be leading to more people on the beach in Sarasota County.
Moreover, “I think there’s a huge learning curve,” he added, for visitors and new residents in terms of becoming familiar with Sarasota County laws, which is why more dogs have been showing up on the beach.
Again, Smith told the SKA members, “If you see [a dog], please call us. … That’s what we’re here for.”
Helping the homeless
Another question an SKA member posed to Sgt. Arik Smith during the Jan. 7 meeting was, “Do we have any kind of regulations about homeless [persons]? A lot … are coming into the Village.”
The speaker inquired whether the Sheriff’s Office could prevent that from becoming “a real issue.”
“It’s not against the law to be homeless,” Smith responded. However, he continued, county regulations do prohibit sleeping and camping out of doors in many areas.
A couple of years ago, Smith continued, then-Sheriff Tom Knight — with the support of the County Commission — implemented a Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), which includes four or five deputies and three or four civilian case workers. The HOT members try to reach out to homeless individuals, Smith said, to help those persons get into emergency shelter facilities and, eventually, housing. “That’s their main goal,” he added of the team members.
“If you do see some homeless people around,” Smith told the SKA members, “more often than not, we’ve spoken with them” and worked to put the HOT officers and case workers in touch with them.
Illegal private home rentals decried once again
Another topic that arose during the Jan. 7 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting was the rentals of island homes that can sleep more than 20 people.
Maribel Figueredo, who lives in the Siesta Isles neighborhood, raised the issue during a discussion of the three hotel projects proposed on the island — including plans for an eight-story hotel on Calle Miramar, just off Ocean Boulevard; and Dr. Gary Kompothecras’ 120-room hotel that would stand on Old Stickney Point Road.
The Sarasota County Commission, Figueredo said, should consider those projects — plus plans to redevelop the Siesta Key Beach Resort and Suites on Ocean Boulevard — in context with the increasing number of private home rentals.
Referring to properties advertised that can sleep 28 or more people, she stressed, “Those aren’t private residences. … They’re three stories high. … They’re really mini hotels.”
SKA President Catherine Luckner responded that Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation on the Key, had told her that a continuing climb in the number of calls for service the department is receiving on the island is not related to permanent residents but to visitors. “That tells you something,” Luckner added. “That should give us some leverage,” Luckner pointed out, in working to encourage the county commissioners to take a broader look at the situation on Siesta.
Then Franklin Tugwell, who lives on Avenida de Paradisio, which is close to the northern end of Siesta Village, talked about the fact that five of the 14 houses on his street have been turned into rental properties since he moved to the Key about eight years ago.
“I have rentals on three sides,” he said. Some of the owners, he added, “are breaking the rules.” One of those houses has 12 beds available in it, Tugwell noted, referencing advertisements for it.
Sarasota County regulations allow for the rental of a single-family home only once every 30 days. However, SKA members have complained for years that more residences in single-family neighborhoods are being advertised through online platforms such as Airbnb and Vrbo.com for visitors to rent more often than once a month.
A friend of his, Tugwell noted, who lives across the canal from Tugwell, “has now sold his home” and is leaving Siesta. The reason is that the friend became frustrated by all the noise from partying visitors in the friend’s community on the Key, along with the garbage associated with illegal short-term rentals, Tugwell explained.
Residents have complained for years that, because visitors often leave days before Waste Management makes its weekly rounds on the island, piles of garbage those visitors leave become malodorous and draw vermin.
“A large number of people are breaking the law,” Tugwell continued. “This is a trend now. This entire street could be rental houses that could be breaking the rules.”
Tugwell pointed out that he has become aware of companies buying single-family homes that come onto the market and then turning them into rental properties that can be managed by services on the Key. The situation, he said, is “changing the nature of the neighborhood fundamentally, and it’s populating … our area with a lot more people” than the Key saw in years past.
SKA member Mike Holderness, who is one of the owners of the Siesta Key Beach Resort and Suites, located at 5311 Ocean Blvd., pointed out, “I’ve been trying to get a registration process [in place]” for short-term rentals in single-family neighborhoods. Thus far, he added, he had been unsuccessful in gaining support for that from Sarasota County staff. He has been told, he said, that the County Commission would have to direct staff to work on such an initiative.
If such a registration process were in operation, Holderness explained, then county Code Enforcement officers could use the information from the forms to track down the owners of homes advertised for illegal short-term rentals. That would help staff pursue appropriate remedies and stop the action, he added.