Siesta Key Breeze ridership up again; contractor disrupts traffic flow at Stickney Point Road/Midnight Pass Road intersection; more crashes reported in area of curve on northern part of Ocean Boulevard; Sheriff’s Office community affairs director explains protocols for calling in Highway Patrol; Sheriff’s Office substation leader reports on March crime; and the first snowy plover nest survives the Easter holiday weekend
Even with COVID-19 precautions in place, the Siesta Key Breeze has been ferrying lots of passengers around the island, as documented by Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT).
In response to a Sarasota News Leader request for the latest ridership figures, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester provided a new chart from SCAT, which had been updated through February.
Even with every other row blocked off, the trolley carried 17,271 people in January and 21,182 in February, the chart shows. Those figures were down 56.03% and 57.51%, respectively, from the same months in 2020 — before the pandemic made itself known in Florida.
However, the passenger count took a big jump in March, Winchester noted: The tally was 42,664. That compares to 31,519 in March 2020. However, the trolley service was suspended as of March 3, 2020, in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The trolley did not resume its runs between Turtle Beach Park and Siesta Village until June 15, 2020.
In March 2019, the Breeze served 62,699 passengers.
Having been in operation since March 2017, the trolley has been a favorite of riders — and the county commissioners, as they have made clear numerous times over the past few years.
When the News Leader checked TripAdvisor’s websites for comments on the Breeze, it found a total of 71 reviews as of April 8, with 52 of those marking their trolley experiences “Excellent” and another 13 saying they were “Very Good.”
For example, in February a rider from Fayetteville, Ark., reported, “Very convenient and easy to get on and off. … “We will certainly take this again when going out to eat or to the shore.”
That review gave the trolley four stars.
A five-star review posted in September 2020 was written by someone who stayed near Crescent Beach. That person pointed out, “We never waited more than 15 minutes for a trolley. They also had all the windows open and blocked off every other seat for social distancing. It was a relaxing, perfect way to get around the island. And it was free!! All of our drivers were very friendly.”
Big problems on April 8 at the Stickney Point Road/Midnight Pass intersection
A completely unexpected situation on April 8 at the intersection of Stickney Point Road and Midnight Pass Road prompted a Siesta resident to send a note of ardent complaint to County Commission Chair Alan Maio.
The resident copied the News Leader on the email and the responses he received.
“It is incredible that the right turn from Stickney Point to Midnight Pass is closed for construction today!” the person wrote Maio just after 11:30 a.m. on April 8.
“Where is the Code Red call to advise us that we need to change our plans if we want to leave the Island? Where are the Sheriff’s team [members] to help direct and improve traffic flow?” the person added. The Code Red point referred to the county’s emergency alert system, which changed last year to AlertSarasotaCounty.
Maio forwarded the note to County Engineer Spencer Anderson, who replied to the writer just after 2:30 p.m. on April 8: “This was a contractor working without a permit. Once the situation was determined, the contractor was instructed to remove the closure and leave the site.”
After the News Leader asked for more details, Anderson explained in an April 12 email, “The contractor indicated that the work was being conducted for the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), but FDOT advised the contractor to permit the work through Sarasota County due to the recent road transfer.”
Anderson was referring to the years-long effort to swap River Road in South County to FDOT authority in exchange for the county’s assuming jurisdiction over roads on Siesta Key, including the segment of Stickney Point Road west of U.S. 41.
“The contractor had not applied for a permit from Sarasota County and was told to leave the site until the work was property permitted. The contractor complied with the permitting process,” Anderson added in his comments to the News Leader.
“Once permitted,” Anderson pointed out, “the work will be limited to the hours of 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. Unless there are significant impacts as a result of work being conducted, we do not authorize daytime lane closures on major roads.”
More vehicle crashes occurring on Ocean Boulevard
Over the years, residents who live along Ocean Boulevard in the vicinity of Gleason Avenue and Sand Dollar Lane have heard — and seen the result of — many accidents, as drivers have failed to negotiate the sharp curve in that area.
Although the 90-degree curve where Siesta Drive intersects with Higel Avenue is more commonly known for crashes, serious injuries have resulted in those at the Ocean Boulevard site, as well.
Owners of the parcel at 4420 Ocean Blvd. have installed boulders and taken other measures to try to protect their property, as residents have noted, with photos provided to the News Leader.
The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office has documented two recent incidents in that curve. The first occurred at 2:24 a.m. on March 26. Then, on April 10, a crash was reported in the same general area of the road, with a citation noting the address as 4431 Ocean Blvd.
A third happened on March 14, a resident of that area told the News Leader.
The Sheriff’s Office issued an email blast at 2:45 a.m. on March 26, warning drivers that Ocean Boulevard was closed in both directions at Sand Dollar Lane, so the Florida Highway Patrol could deal with the incident.
One lane finally was reopened at 3:32 a.m. that day, Lt. Scott Mruczek of Patrol Operations noted in a subsequent email blast.
Because the Sheriff’s Office provided assistance only, Kaitlyn R. Perez, the department’s community affairs director, told the News Leader that no formal report was completed. However, she did provide the publication a copy of the limited account that an officer wrote for the Sheriff’s Office’s records.
That document noted that a single vehicle was involved — a white pickup truck — and it struck a tree. The driver was trapped in the vehicle, “stuck in windshield,” the document said. Two other persons were ejected from the truck, it noted.
A trauma alert page was sent, the document added.
At 2:44 a.m., extrication of the driver began; it was completed at 2:51 p.m.
In the meantime, at 2:48 a.m., Sarasota Memorial Hospital was advised that three patients would be transported.
Rescue 13, from the fire station on Siesta Key, handled one transport; Station 11’s rescue unit took care of the other one, the document noted. (Station 11 is located at 2200 Stickney Point Road.) Finally, one of the county Fire Department’s Rapid Response vehicles transported the third patient, the document indicated.
In the most recent incident in the curve, the Sheriff’s Office reported that Christian Scott Zimmer, 21, of Sarasota was charged with Driving Under the Influence (DUI) and DUI Crash with Property Damage, both misdemeanors.
The Sheriff’s Office received the call about that incident at 11:15 p.m. on April 10, the report says. Zimmer was eastbound on Ocean Boulevard in a Chrysler convertible, the report notes. As he approached the Higel Avenue intersection, it adds. “The vehicle went into a patch of decorative trees and shrubbery …” Then it proceeded “over two red reflectors” and “a solid wooden post” before crashing through a red wooden decorative lattice and coming to a halt after striking a tree.
When a deputy arrived “minutes later,” the report says, Zimmer was still in the driver’s seat with the motor running. After he exited the convertible, the report adds, he “was unsteady on his feet, almost falling into the drainage ditch.”
The Fire Department transported him to Sarasota Memorial Hospital “for chest and left shoulder pain from the seatbelt of his vehicle,” the report says.
Damage to the vehicle was estimated at $3,000.
When the deputy spoke with Zimmer in the hospital, the report notes, Zimmer was lying in a bed. His “speech was severely slurred, and he was having difficulty remembering the crash,” the report points out. “There was a strong odor of an alcoholic beverage emanating from his breath as he spoke. [His] eyes were bloodshot and glossy.”
After the deputy read Zimmer his Miranda Rights, the report continues, Zimmer told the deputy that he had been with a friend in Siesta Village. Zimmer added that “they had not been anywhere in particular but had been walking around on the street.” He also told the deputy that he had not consumed any beverages. Finally, Zimmer said, he told his friend he was “‘too tired’ and that he wanted to go home,” the report notes.
Zimmer added “that it was raining at the time of the crash and that his vehicle spun out, despite evidence showing that he drove straight off the right shoulder.”
The deputy noted that the rain had stopped about 10 minutes prior to the time of the crash. Then Zimmer told the deputy that he suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and that the medication he takes — “an amphetamine,” the deputy wrote — “makes him sleepy.”
Further, Zimmer reported that he wears glasses, but he did not have them on at the time of the crash because he is not required to do so, according to his driver’s license.
After his discharge from the hospital that night — shortly after the interview with the deputy — Zimmer did agree to participate in specific exercises designed to determine whether a person is intoxicated.
Following those exercises, the deputy wrote that he found probable cause to charge Zimmer with the two misdemeanor counts, and Zimmer was transported to the jail “without issue,” the report says.
He was placed under bond totaling $620, the Sheriff’s Office’s Corrections Division records show. Zimmer’s arraignment is set for May 27.
When does the Highway Patrol respond to crashes?
In response to questions the News Leader has received from readers, we asked Kaitlyn R. Perez, the Sheriff’s Office’s community affairs director, about the protocols for deputies to call in the Florida Highway Patrol.
Perez provided an in-depth response via email on April 7.
“In terms of the Florida Highway Patrol’s response and ours,” she wrote, “here is an excerpt from our Patrol Bureau manual:
“It is the policy of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office that traffic crashes occurring in the unincorporated areas of Sarasota County should be investigated by the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) with the exceptions set forth in Section IV below. In any of these exceptions, or when the FHP is not available, a deputy shall be assigned to conduct the crash investigation. Whenever possible, a traffic deputy shall be assigned as the primary unit. However, when injuries are involved, the nearest deputy shall respond to the scene and render first aid where necessary.
“FHP is notified of crashes throughout the unincorporated areas of Sarasota. Our agency will respond to the crash to access if first aid is required, gather basic driver’s information and assist with moving vehicles off the roadway to clear lanes for continued flow of traffic. Our Deputies will work crashes based on FHP trooper availability, severity of crash/injuries and vehicles involved (commercial vehicles). If our Deputies can work a basic crash they will conduct the crash investigation and cancel FHPs response to the scene. This alleviates FHP from having to work smaller, less involved crashes so they can work the more laborious crash investigations. Also, FHP works all traffic fatalities homicides (THI) in the unincorporated areas of the county.”
“As you are likely aware from past budget presentations,” Perez told the News Leader, “we are working the majority of Sarasota County crashes. Often times, it may be easier for our deputies to work a crash and clear the scene before a trooper is able to get there. We don’t think a citizen should have to wait on the side of the road for an extended period of time … for service. Speaking of which, we just recently signed an MOU [memorandum of understanding] with [the Florida Department of Transportation] and the Traffic Incident Management (TIM) Team to work collaboratively to clear traffic crashes as soon as possible. Here is a link to that post with more info”: https://www.facebook.com/SarasotaCountySheriff/posts/5611423865536126
Perez added, “[W]e are trending upward and over the past few years, have worked more than double the number of crashes worked by FHP.”
“Also in 2019,” she pointed out, “we reallocated six of our full time positions to create an additional Traffic Unit. What that now means is we have fulltime Traffic coverage 24/7/365. Long story short… traffic is and always will be a priority for our agency. We will continue to work crashes as needed.”
Lots of calls in March for Sheriff’s Office help
During the April 1 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting, Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation on the Key, underscored for the members just how busy tourism has been on the island.
“Everybody can tell … spring break is in full effect,” Smith said. “We’ve been seeing a lot more people.” However, he added, this year, Sheriff’s Office personnel had noticed fewer high school students coming from other areas to enjoy spring break on the beach.
“Fingers crossed,” Smith said, but as of that day, all seemed to be “going pretty well …”
In March, he continued, the Sheriff’s Office received 620 calls for assistance. Only 50 of those — about 8% — involved the more serious types of incidents that the FBI used to classify as Part 1 crimes. (Smith has explained that a different type of national reporting system has supplanted the Part 1 crime reports.)
Among the March incidents, he noted, six were residential burglaries. “Five of them were very close together” during a single evening, Smith added. Residents had been able to provide the Sheriff’s Office “a lot of security footage,” he pointed out. As a result, “We have a pretty good idea of who we thought [committed those crimes].”
And, once again, he stressed, the majority of the thefts reported from vehicles occurred after people failed to lock those vehicles.
Smith reminded SKA members to lock their cars and to keep their valuables out of sight.
Additionally, he said, two electric bicycle thefts were reported in March, along with the theft of a van and a golf cart. The latter two were recovered, he noted.
Good news for the first snowy plover nest, so far
In her April 9 email blast to volunteers and interested members of the public, Kylie Wilson, coordinator of Audubon Florida’s Bird Monitoring & Stewardship Program in Sarasota County, wrote, “Our first [snowy plover nest on Siesta Key] survived Easter Weekend and the pair has at least two eggs. I’ve also regularly seen two other pairs of plovers on Siesta and one of the females looks pretty gravid so we may have another nest soon!”
“Gravid” is the avian equivalent of pregnant, Wilson has noted.
During the April 1 Siesta Key Association meeting, Wilson reported that she had found the nest. In fact, she wrote in her email update that week, it was very close to two chairs whose occupants were enjoying Siesta Public Beach. She asked if they would be kind enough to move, she added, and they were happy to do so.