Siesta Seen

Sen. Gruters making another attempt to stop smoking on the beaches; Fire Station 13 stats reported for 2020; Sheriff’s Office releases its report on 2020 incidents on the Key; Sgt. Smith provides monthly update to SKA members; amplified advertising and music on the beach spark concerns; ‘Dr. Gary’ fails to win seat on City of Sarasota advisory board; Grand Canal Regeneration Project update provided; and county’s new kayak operators’ program launched smoothly

State Sen. Joe Gruters. Photo from the Florida Senate website

As he has in previous years, state Sen. Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota) has filed a bill in the 2021 Florida legislative session that would give local governments the ability to restrict smoking at their beaches and in parks.

The short title of Senate Bill (SB) 334 is “Florida Clean Air Act.”

The bill would amend Section 386.209 of the Florida Statutes to allow counties and municipalities to “further restrict smoking within the boundaries of any public beaches and public parks that they own. Municipalities may further restrict smoking within the boundaries of public beaches and public parks that are within their jurisdiction but are owned by the county if doing so would not conflict with a county ordinance.”

Additionally, the bill would prohibit smoking within any state park.

If it wins passage in the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis signs it into law, it would go into effect July 1.

Gruters filed the bill on Dec. 18, 2020, state Senate records show. On Jan. 26, it won approval from members of the Senate Community Affairs Committee on an 8-1 vote. The next day, it moved to the Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

A companion Florida House bill has been filed, legislative records also show. As of March 5, no votes had been taken on it.

The sponsor of the House version — House Bill (HB) 239 — is Rep. Thad Altman (R-Indialantic).

‘Smoke-Free Zone’ signs used to be posted at county beaches. File photo

In his previous two terms in the state Senate, Gruters filed bills to try to end smoking on public beaches, but he was unable to garner sufficient support from his colleagues for the measures to pass.

In a December 2012 court ruling involving the City of Sarasota, a 12th Judicial Circuit Court judge pointed to a state law that prevents local governments from imposing smoking bans on public property.

A July 21, 2011 opinion issued by the Florida Attorney General’s Office in a case involving the St. Johns River Water Management District said, “In sum: The Regulation of smoking is preempted to the state pursuant to [the Clean Indoor Air Act], and the … District may not adopt a policy prohibiting smoking or tobacco use that is broader than the terms of [that statute].”

After the December 2012 court ruling, the Sheriff’s Office ceased enforcing the county ban on smoking on Siesta Public Beach. Sgt. Scott Osborne, then the leader of the Siesta substation, told The Sarasota News Leader that the fine for a citation had been $100.

Fire Station 13 stats reported for 2020

Generally each spring, the leaders of the Siesta Key Condominium Council invite Sarasota County Fire Chief Mike Regnier to one of the nonprofit’s meetings so he can report on Fire Station 13’s activities for the previous year.

Because of the pandemic, the council has been conducting its meetings via Zoom. Therefore, instead of having the chief make an appearance during one of those sessions, the council sent its members copies of the Fire Station 13 statistics for 2020 and 2019, so members could compare the data.

In 2020, that report notes, the Fire Department dealt with 62,995 incidents countywide; 1,653 of those occurred on the Key.

In 2019, that report says, Station 13 handled 1,569 of the 64,372 incidents reported countywide.

Out of the 2020 total on the island, the report says, 1,208 were related to emergency medical situations; 44 entailed motor vehicle collisions — including one extraction; three incidents involved pedestrians struck by motor vehicles; 31 elevator rescues; 10 water/surf rescues; and nine watercraft rescues took place.

Of the 445 fire-related calls, the report continues, two involved structure fires; 18 others entailed other types of fires; 42 involved hazardous conditions; 188 false alarms were recorded; crews dealt with two lightning strikes without fires; and 77 calls were for other types of service.

This rendering shows a night view of the planned new structure for Fire Station 13. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The mean response time from 911 Dispatch’s receiving a call to a fire or rescue vehicle’s leaving Station 13 was 1.1 minutes, the report says. From the time of departure to arrival on scene, the mean time was 6.1 minutes, the report adds.

In 2019, the mean time from Dispatch’s receiving a call until Fire Station 13 equipment rolled was 6.01 minutes, that report notes. The mean time from departure to arrival on scene was 5.05 minutes.

A graphic attached to the 2020 report shows that March and June 2020 were tied for the highest number of EMS calls in a month — 128. February 2020 was in second place, with 122 calls, while January was in third place, with 112. The Fire Station 13 crew handled 110 EMS calls in May. The low month of the year for those calls was April, with 77.

July 2020 was the top month for fire calls, with 50 reported, the graph shows. In September, crews responded to 45 fire calls, with 44 reported for June 2020.

Sheriff’s Office reports on its 2020 Key statistics

In a fashion akin to the 2020 report from the Sarasota County Fire Department, the Sheriff’s Office provided data to the Siesta Key Condominium Council that compared figures for 2019 and 2020.

Among those statistics, the Sheriff’s Office noted a jump in battery cases at Siesta Public Beach. The count in 2020 was 22, a 175% jump from the total of eight in 2019. Additionally, the number of thefts rose 75% year-over year — from 16 at the beach park in 2019 to 28 in 2020.

The number of vehicle burglaries at the beach in 2020 was six, compared to four in 2019; and two robberies were reported in 2020, double the number in 2019, the report says.

During presentations to Siesta Key Association (SKA) members over the past couple of years, Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation on the Key, has pleaded for people to keep vehicles locked and to make sure they do not leave valuables in plain view. It is not at all uncommon, Smith has pointed out, for individuals to go through the parking lot at Siesta Public Beach, trying locks to see whether they can get into vehicles.

These charts are included in the Sheriff’s Office’s 2020 report for Siesta Key. Image courtesy Siesta Key Condominium Council

In good news, the 2020 report notes that the number of residential burglaries fell 46% from 2019 to 2020 — from 24 to 13. However, the total for vehicle burglaries was 41 in 2020, up from the figure of 40 in 2019.

People often also fail to lock their vehicles at their homes, Smith has stressed to SKA members. During almost every meeting, he reminds participants to make every effort to prevent crimes of opportunities at their houses and condominiums, too.

And in more recent law enforcement news …

Spring break season appeared to get an early start in February, Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation on the Key, reported during the March 4 Siesta Key Association meeting (SKA).

He noted that the month seemed pretty busy for department personnel on the island.

The total number of calls for service was 365, Smith said. Of those, 23 — about 6% — were of the more serious nature that the FBI used to classify as “Part 1 crimes.”

“We had two vehicle burglaries; we had six assault and battery cases, [for] all of which we have suspects identified and arrested,” he noted.

Additionally, six bicycle thefts were reported, he continued.

“Again, the bicycles seem to be a target of interest lately,” Smith pointed out. In all of those cases, he added, it appeared that locks had been cut.

Sgt. Arik Smith addresses SKA members in early February 2020. File photo

However, Smith stressed, “I say it every single time: Please lock your doors; put your valuables away,” and make it difficult for a person to steal items, he told the approximately 40 SKA members who participated in the March 4 meeting.

Moving on to comments about the annual influx of students on the Key, Smith noted that spring break season officially was underway as of March 1.

“You guys are going to see a lot more of us.” Extra deputies will be on patrol every day, he said, and members of the Mounted Patrol will be out on the public beach each day.

Smith encouraged SKA members to feel free to speak with officers and, especially, to let them know if problems arise. “We’re here to help.”

Concerns raised about amplified advertising and music on the beach

In regard to a concern of beachgoers, SKA President Catherine Luckner asked Sgt. Arik Smith of the Sheriff’s Office whether amplified advertising is legal on the public beach.

She had had several complaints, Luckner said, from people who felt “very uncomfortable and very disturbed” by persons coming near them with megaphones. They had likened the situation to having “a radio in your ear,” she added.

Such complaints can be addressed under the guidelines of the county’s noise ordinance, Smith responded. “What we need for enforcement,” he explained, is “a victim or a complainant who’s willing to give their name” and sign a Sheriff’s Office form documenting an incident. Law enforcement officers “can’t be victims,” Smith added.

SKA President Catherine Luckner. File photo

A deputy can determine whether a specific noise exceeds the relevant level as noted in a chart in the county ordinance, he continued. However, an officer also has to give the person making the noise “a reasonable amount of time to come into compliance with the ordinance.” That period is 15 minutes, he said.

“If they come into compliance,” Smith noted, “then we no longer have a violation.” If the person refuses to comply, he said, the officer can write the person a citation. Moreover, Smith pointed out, if the same person receives a second citation within a specific time frame, the person can be arrested. He was not certain, he added, whether that period is six months or a year.

The best number for a person to call about a noise issue is the non-emergency number for the Sheriff’s Office, Smith said. That is 941-316-1201. However, if an individual feels the situation is an emergency, he emphasized, that person should go ahead and call 911 Dispatch.

“Well, that helps a lot,” Luckner told him.

Smith did note one caveat in the noise ordinance: “The unamplified human voice,” he said, is not covered in the county regulations. In other words, if an individual simply is talking very loudly on the beach, an officer cannot warn the person.

In response to a question seeking to clarify some of his remarks, Smith pointed out that an officer has to observe a violation to be able to issue a warning about the need for compliance, or a citation. “You can remain anonymous if you like,” Smith added, but without a complainant’s cooperation, a deputy cannot take any action.

Kompothecras loses out on DID board seat

Not only does Siesta resident Gary Kompothecras own property on the Key, but he also owns parcels in the city of Sarasota.

As a result, he was one of six persons who recently applied for two seats on the Downtown Improvement District (DID) Board of Directors in the city.

When the city commissioners discussed the applications during their March 1 meeting, Mayor Hagen Brody mentioned “Dr. Gary” was one of those seeking appointment who had not previously served on the DID board.

This graphic shows the boundaries of the Downtown Improvement District in the city of Sarasota. Image from the DID website

As the DID website explains, the organization’s mission is to improve the downtown core of the city of Sarasota. Persons who own property within the DID boundaries pay a special ad valorem tax each year to raise revenue for district initiatives, such as landscaping improvements.

In response to the application question about whether he owns property in the city, Kompothecras named the parcels located at 2101 S. Tamiami Trail, 1517 State St. and 1977 Clematis St. Of those, he noted, the State Street property is within the Downtown Improvement District.

Officially, the county Property Appraiser’s Office records show, the owner of that State Street parcel is Bethkom Holdings LLC. Kompothecras purchased the property in September 2012 for $1,150,000, the Property Appraiser’s Office records note. In 2020, the market value of the land and the 14,940-square-foot building on it was $2,172,600, the records say.

Responding to an application question about other civic organizations on which he has served, Kompothecras noted that he formerly was a member of the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport Authority and the board of directors of Space Florida. He added that he has been a resident of Sarasota for 39 years and owns a “large amount of property in area.”

Grand Canal Regeneration Project update offered

Another topic covered during the March 4 Siesta Key Association meeting was the status of the nonprofit’s Grand Canal Regeneration Project, which was launched in November 2020.

Director Margaret Jean Cannon, who has been leading the effort, reported that 74 of the 878 homes on the 9-mile-long canal that have docks have had mini reefs installed. The devices, made by the nonprofit Ocean Habitats attract oysters, which filter the water around them. Cleaner water, Cannon has explained, draws other sea life, including juvenile fish.

This graphic is among those Margaret Jean Cannon showed SKA members on March 4. Image courtesy Siesta Key Association

The SKA group planned another installation of mini reefs on March 5, Cannon said, and then it would put the initiative on pause until April.

Of the four areas of the island targeted for the project, she pointed out, the Ocean Beach/Sarasands section has had the fewest number of mini reefs put in place: 13 at 10 of the 301 homes with docks. That figure compares, for example, to the 10% coverage in the Palm Island area of the Key.

Yet another concern with the Ocean Beach/Sarasands area, she said, is the fact that its water flow is low as a result of sediment build-up. Further, Cannon added, most of the residents have floating docks, which are not suitable for mini reefs.

Cannon did note that residents in Riegels Landing, which is located off Midnight Pass Road just north of St. Boniface Episcopal Church, plan to install mini reefs on all their docks on the water. However, she said, that neighborhood is situated on the Intracoastal Waterway.

This map shows the location of Riegels Landing on Siesta Key. Image from Google Maps

In regard to the planned pause: As Cannon explained it, the SKA project team needs to conduct more extensive water testing, so it can document the effects of having the mini reefs in the canal. For example, she said, are the devices producing the desired results?

Although people have volunteered to assist with that testing, Cannon continued, they will have to be trained. Moreover, she noted, “Water testing requires outside labs, and outside labs cost money.”

This slide shows a brand new mini reef (left) in comparison to a mini reef that already has become home to sea life. Image courtesy Siesta Key Association

She did add that the team is collaborating with the Center of Anna Maria Island, with 160 mini reefs having been installed on that island, and with Ryan Schloesser of Mote Marine Laboratory. Schloesser has pointed out to the SKA team that mini reefs are just one means of improving water quality, Cannon noted. The primary problems leading to degradation of local waters, he told the SKA group, are loss of habitat and shoreline hardening, Cannon added.

Further, he has explained that it takes time for the mini reefs to achieve their potential.

After Cannon concluded her remarks, SKA President Catherine Luckner talked of the fact that the canal regeneration project has proven one of the most appealing undertakings the nonprofit ever has conducted. SKA leaders have received so many positive messages and inquiries about becoming involved in it, Luckner added.

County’s CRTO program has smooth launch

During several County Commission meetings last fall, a number of kayak tour operators working at Turtle Beach Park on south Siesta and at Ted Sperling Park on south Lido Key Beach complained that the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR) issued an Invitation for Bids for suppliers “to provide non-motorized water vessel activities” at both sites.

Many of the company representatives complained that they likely would go out of business, as they could not afford the payments staff was indicating would be necessary for them to continue to lead tours in those locations.

In response to a News Leader question at the time about the reasoning behind the solicitation, county staff wrote in an email, “As a result of the growth of this [Commercial Recreation and Tour Operator] program, staff was challenged to identify a mechanism that limits the available permits to aid in balancing the use of the natural resource while providing all interested individuals/businesses a fair and equitable opportunity to provide services in the park. An IFB provides an opportunity for the greatest number of vendors to participate versus a Request for Proposal.”

On March 1, the Commercial Recreation and Tour Operator (CRTO) program made its formal debut.

Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, sent this photo, taken at the Turtle Beach Park kayak launch area, to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In an email to county administrators, Nicole Rissler, director of the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, wrote, “The program has launched smoothly with seven concessionaires at [Sperling Park] and five at [Turtle Beach Park] with no negative impact to the visitor experience or to the park’s operations.”

Rissler added, “Staff have been diligently working over the past several months to get the program started and has taken great pride in the successful start to this partnership with our local small business vendors. We especially appreciate the assistance of staff within the Office of the County Attorney, County Administration and Office of Financial Management – Procurement for their support with this project. Additionally, we have created a webpage which cross-promotes the program and permitted concessionaires.”

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis forwarded the update to the commissioners, writing that he thought they would be interested in the information.

The county webpage Rissler referenced lists the approved vendors for both parks. Among those operating at Turtle Beach Park are Siesta Key Bike & Kayak and Ride & Paddle by Siesta Sports Rentals and Ultimate Kayak SRQ, all of which have south Siesta locations.

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