Siesta Seen

Bill to ban smoking on beaches fails again; Sheriff’s Office crime stats compared for March 2019 and this March; a long-time fan of the island is seeking volunteers to help him make it look its best; father and daughter nearly needed a water rescue; bicycle crash the latest incident in sharp Ocean Boulevard curve; the Fire Department chief provides update on Station 13 construction; and the snowy plovers continue to have their ups and downs in nesting

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

Once again, state Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, was unable to push his “no smoking on the beach” bill through the Florida Legislature.

Senate Bill 334 did garner two favorable committee votes — in Community Affairs (8-1 in support) and Environment and Natural Resources (5-0 in favor) — the bill’s webpage shows.

The last listing for it was on April 21, when it was on the agenda for a meeting of the Rules Committee. A notation with that listing says the hearing was “Temporarily Postponed.”

The Legislature adjourned about midafternoon on April 30.

The bill would have allowed counties and municipalities to restrict smoking “within the boundaries of any public beaches and public parks that they own,” and it would have prohibited smoking in state parks.

An amendment to the proposed bill was approved by the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, the webpage says. State Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Lake Mary, proposed that, the webpage notes.

That amendment would have allowed the smoking of cigars and pipe tobacco “within the boundaries of any public beaches and public parks” owned by local governments, as well as in state parks.

The companion House bill, HB 239, never made it out of the Environment, Agriculture & Flooding Subcommittee, where it ended up on March 16, that webpage says.

This legislative session marked Gruters’ third attempt to enable local governments to regulate smoking on the beaches.

Comparison of island crime stats offered for month of March

Having heard from Siesta residents who believe crime is up on the Key, the News Leader contacted Kaitlyn R. Perez, community affairs director for the Sheriff’s Office, for some comparison data.

During the April 1 meeting of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation on the island, reported that the department received 620 calls for assistance on the Key in March. He noted that only 50 of those — 8% — were what used to be classified as Part 1 incidents, which the FBI considered the most serious types. (He also has explained that the classification system changed this year.)

Lt. Paul Cernansky (left), who formerly served as the substation leader on the Key, talks with Sgt. Arik Smith about crime statistic reports before the start of the May 2, 2019 Siesta Key Association meeting. Smith succeeded Cernansky as substation leader. File photo

Last March, of course, when the COVID-19 pandemic was getting underway, far fewer visitors were on the island for the latter part of the month. Therefore, the News Leaderasked Perez about the stats for March 2019, which was more of a routine spring break month.

The Sheriff’s Office’s crime analyst indicated the total number of calls for service on Siesta in March 2019 was 537, Perez told the News Leader. Of those, Perez added, 22 — 4% — were considered Part 1 crimes.

The News Leader also checked on visitor statistics for this March and March 2019.

For years, Visit Sarasota County, the county’s tourism agency, has contracted with a Tallahassee firm, Downs & St. Germain, to undertake research into visitor data each month. Downs & St. Germain conducts interviews with visitors and uses a variety of sources to arrive at its figures, its principals have explained to the county’s Tourist Development Council.

For March 2019, the firm put the total number of visitors to the county at 683,130. This year, the figure was 603,200.

However, since December 2020, Sgt. Smith has indicated in his SKA reports that tourism has been trending higher on the island. Because people are far less worried about contracting COVID-19 when they are outdoors, based on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, has talked in public meetings about people having been drawn to Sarasota County. Not only does the county have a wide variety of beaches, but it also has many parks and a variety of other outdoor amenities.

Want to help keep the Key’s landscape clean?

The News Leader heard this week from a long-time fan of Siesta who has a keen desire to see that the island looks its best.

He is asking for volunteer assistance in that endeavor.

We are providing our readers a copy of his letter:

“My name is Matthew Binkley and I am the owner of Bink’s Land and Sea. My services consist of how to boat smart, boating/conservation education, and captain services.

“As a child, I grew up in Bradenton and my mother worked as the charge nurse in the emergency room at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. I used to ask her to drop me off at Siesta Key Beach on her way to work … I learned to love the beautiful island.

This image touts the Keep Sarasota County Beautiful Adopt-A-Road program. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“After moving from Bradenton to Sarasota in 1989 and then graduating from Florida State University in 1993 with a Bachelor’s degree in Criminology, I became a State Law Enforcement Officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Much of my time as an officer was spent protecting the waters in and around Siesta Key. I am currently a Deputy with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office.

“My first assignment as a deputy sheriff was patrolling Siesta Key on night shift. I then transferred to the Community Policing Unit on Siesta Key, where I spent eight-plus years working with many businesses and groups protecting and improving the quality of the beach and island. Currently I am assigned to the Marine and Motor/Traffic Unit, where I spend much of my time on the island or the waters that surround Siesta Key. As I have seen the popularity of Siesta Key grow, I decided I wanted to protect the island I have spent my life enjoying, but in another way. I adopted a road under the Keep Sarasota Beautiful program in the name of my business.

“My responsibilities include keeping Midnight Pass Road between Stickney Point Road and Turtle Beach clean of roadside debris. I conduct four to five clean ups a year, including the Great American Clean Up, Liberty Litter Clean Up, and International Clean Up. The amount of litter has increased with the growth of tourism and residential density.

“The objective of this letter is to bring awareness to my mission of promoting partnerships focused on maintaining and sustaining a healthy, clean, and beautiful Siesta Key environment. I am requesting any volunteer participation or interest to contact me at I provide a volunteer T-shirt, gloves/wipes, trash bags, and water. The clean up takes approximately three hours and is typically scheduled from 7 to 10 am. It is conducted on foot and the walking distance is approximately 5 miles.

“If you have any questions or concerns, do not hesitate to contact me. Thank you in advance for your consideration and cooperation.”

A swimming emergency reported off Sandy Hook

Just after 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, April 24, emergency personnel were alerted to a father and daughter who appeared to be in trouble in the water off Sandy Hook, on the northern part of the Key, the News Leader learned.

The Sheriff’s Office “case card” on the incident said that after a 17-year-old juvenile went into the water, the current started to pull her away. Her father swam out in an effort to help her, the card added, but both ended up drifting north. They were finally able to make their way back onto the shore, the card noted.

A Sarasota Police Department Marine Patrol Officer helms a boat in spring 2020. Image courtesy Sarasota Police Department

(A case card typically is filed instead of a full report whenever the Sheriff’s Office is not the lead agency responding to an emergency, the department’s Community Affairs staff has explained to the News Leader.)

Although a person had phoned 911 after seeing the juvenile in distress, the card indicated, emergency personnel were called off en route to the scene after the father and daughter reported that they were all right.

Genevieve Judge, the public information officer for the Sarasota Police Department, told the News Leader that that agency’s Marine Patrol initially responded with Sheriff’s Office personnel.

Another crash on Ocean Boulevard

On the night of April 24, another incident, with an initial report of an injury, occurred in the sharp curve on Ocean Boulevard just north of the Gleason Avenue intersection.

This time, the victim was a bicyclist, the Sheriff’s Office has reported.

Just after 7:30 p.m. on April 24, a caller alerted 911 Dispatch that a man appeared to have fallen off his bike and was bleeding from his head, a Sheriff’s Office case card said.

The caller saw the bicycle in the street, the card noted.

Later, the caller said that the man was trying to ride away from the scene.

The caller indicated a lack of information about exactly what had happened, the case card indicated.

Then, at 7:44 p.m., the crew members on the rescue unit from Fire Station 13 reported that they had found the man and that he had not sustained any injuries, even though he had fallen off his bike.

An aerial map shows the location of the Ocean Place intersection with Ocean Boulevard on Siesta Key. Image from Google Maps

No property damage was observed at the scene, the case card said.

The location of the incident was identified as Ocean Place, which is just north of Sand Dollar Lane.

Regular readers will recall that that curve on Ocean Boulevard long has been the scene of vehicle crashes.

Update on construction of new Fire Station 13

During a late April Facebook Live interview, Sarasota County Fire Chief Michael Regnier talked with Media Relations Officer Sara Nealeigh about the progress on the new Fire Station 13, which is under construction next to Siesta Public Beach.

“We’re about 90% complete,” Regnier said of the project, which began about 10 months ago.

The crews have been operating out of temporary facilities the county rented in a building just south of the site, he noted. “They can’t wait to get into the fire station.”

The construction of Fire Station 13 is well underway in late April. Image courtesy of Sarasota County via Facebook Live

If construction stays on schedule, Regnier added, the new building should be ready for occupation in July — around the beginning of summer.

And it will be hurricane-hardened, Regnier and Nealeigh emphasized, which the previous building — constructed in the 1970s — was not.

Crews still will be evacuated in advance of a storm’s potential strike on the county, Regnier explained, but as soon as the county’s Emergency Services leaders give the “All clear” for a return to the island, the crews immediately will be back at the station, ready to serve in whatever capacity is needed.

And speaking of the original structure: “There’s a little piece of history in this station,” Nealeigh said of the new facility.

“We were able to preserve a lot of that brick” from the 1970s structure, Regnier explained: It is being used for exposed brick walls in the new building.

As they conducted the interview, workers were busy in the background. As Regnier put it, “[There are] a lot of things happening right now.”

First snowy plover nest destroyed by crow, but birds trying again

This is Mr. Spot on Siesta Key. Image courtesy of Kylie Wilson

In early April, Kylie Wilson, coordinator of Audubon Florida’s Bird Monitoring & Stewardship Program in Sarasota County, was excited to report the first snowy plover nest of the season on Siesta. She found it near a spot vacationers had staked out on the beach, and the couple did not hesitate at all to move after she explained the situation to them, she reported.

However, on April 22, in her email update that week to volunteers and other interested persons, Wilson wrote, “Unfortunate news to start off with: [T]he Snowy Plover nest failed over the weekend.”

Crows were the culprits, she added, noting that she had found crow tracks at the empty bowl of the nest on the beach, and she had seen the crows on the game camera she had set up near the site.

“On my past two Siesta surveys,” Wilson continued, “I haven’t seen any Snowy Plovers. Hopefully the birds are off finding a safer place to nest. It is sad that Siesta has so many challenges for them to overcome to be successful.”

In her April 30 update, Wilson wrote that she had seen no snowy plovers on the island at all.

This is Mrs. Spot. Image courtesy of Kylie Wilson

Finally, in her May 8 report, Wilson again had good news: “The Snowy Plover pair that lost their nest a couple weeks ago is back! I can tell it is the same pair by comparing photos and looking at the unique facial patterns. This female is fairly light and the male has a unique, faint dark spot on his chest. I have begun to call them Mr. & Mrs. Spot. They were seen together yesterday, foraging in the same area where the nest was. Mrs. Spot definitely looked to be carrying eggs so I’ll be keeping a close eye out to see if they chose to renest! I counted 3 plovers on Siesta this week.”