Sheriff’s Office substation leader discusses dealings with public vs. private beach issues; Aug. 24 the deadline for Kompothecras’ hotel hearing comments for Planning Commission packet; Crescent Club noise complaint goes unresolved; Condo Council leaders seek more county help in cleaning up red tide debris; and unusual ‘visitors’ show up on the beach
On Aug. 24, as The Sarasota News Leader has reported, the Sarasota County Commission is scheduled to conduct a public hearing on proposed new “incidental signs” regulations related to the demarcation of private beach property.
Although the meeting agenda was not available prior to the publication of this issue, the official county notice said the hearing would be held during the morning session, which will begin at 9 a.m. in the Commission Chambers in the County Administration Center on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota.
In the meantime, Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation on Siesta Key, offered remarks about the private beach vs. public beach issue during the Aug. 5 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting.
His comments came in response to questions posed by SKA Vice President Joyce Kouba.
An SKA member had inquired about signs that property owners have erected on the island’s beaches, warning the public not to walk on private property, Kouba told Smith.
What should people do, Kouba asked, “if they are confronted by someone from a condo security force? … What is the protocol?”
Under state law, Smith explained, the State of Florida holds in trust the land and water seaward of the Mean High Water Line (MHWL). That line in every situation, he continued, is determined by a study of high and low tides at the location over a period of approximately 20 years. Surveys are part of that process, Smith added.
“Anything landward of [the MHWL] is private property,” he pointed out, “and it’s maintained by that private property owner.”
Areas seaward of the MHWL are open to the public, according to state law, he said.
“What happens if the person walking on the beach disagrees [with a condominium complex’s assertion about the public portion of the beach]?” Kouba asked.
“Then it gets a little tricky,” Smith replied. “We’re literally dealing with lines in the sand.”
He and deputies have talked with property owners and looked at surveys when questions have arisen, Smith continued. “It’s easier for us to kind of determine where that [Mean High Water Line] is,” he added, if the owner can produce a survey.
And if the owner can prove someone is on private beach property, Smith said, then the owner has the right to ask that person to leave.
Anyone on the public portion of the beach has “the right to traverse it,” Smith pointed out.
When Kouba asked whether he believes the surveys he has seen are accurate, Smith told her, “Yes,” in most cases with which the Sheriff’s Office personnel has dealt. In fact, he added, some of the private property owners have allowed an extra 6 or 7 feet of beach landward of the MHWL for public use.
If an individual on the beach is not certain where the MHWL is in a particular area, Smith pointed out, the person should stay in the immediate vicinity of the tide line, where the Gulf crests on the beach.
He has seen some situations, he noted, in which the MHWL extends into the water. Even in those cases, he emphasized, that is private property.
“Thanks for that clarification,” Kouba replied.
Then Michael Holderness, the principal owner of the Siesta Key Beach Resort and Suites in Siesta Village, along with other property on the Key, complained about a person recently having set up tents that blocked public access to the Gulf. The situation made it almost impossible for people landward of the tents to see family members who were out in the water, Holderness added.
Indicating that he had addressed Holderness’ concerns in an earlier discussion with Holderness, Smith responded, “We’re not going to physically remove people from public property.”
On Siesta Public Beach, Holderness told Smith, tents should not be allowed seaward of the lifeguard stands, as the tents block the lifeguards’ views of persons in the Gulf, which could lead to a tragedy.
Different county laws apply to public and private lands, Smith told Holderness. Interpretation of those regulations should be left to the Office of the County Attorney and to the general counsel for the Sheriff’s Office, Smith added.
“People are dying!” Holderness stressed and then began to denigrate county staff members.
At that point, SKA Secretary Margaret Jean Cannon interrupted Holderness, telling him the nonprofit could not allow him to continue those comments. She indicated that the SKA directors are determined to maintain civil discourse during their members’ meetings.
Aug. 24 deadline for email comments on Kompothecras hotel
The Sarasota County Planning Commission is scheduled to conduct a Sept. 2 public hearing on Dr. Gary Kompothecras’ proposed seven-story hotel on Old Stickney Point Road, the Siesta Key Coalition is reminding the public on its website.
Anyone interested in offering comments about that proposal should email those thoughts to the planning commissioners no earlier than Aug. 20 and no later than Aug. 24, the Coalition points out.
“We are all unified in our opposition to high-density hotels,” the Coalition notes. However, it continues, “[S]ome of our supporters have more concerns about one or more of the four proposed hotel locations.” Nonetheless, the nonprofit stresses that the decisions made in regard to the first proposal — for the eight-story, 80-foot hotel planned on four parcels between Calle Miramar and Beach Road — “will set precedents for future hearings for all the proposed hotels.”
(The Calle Miramar project was to be the focus of an Aug. 19 public hearing before the Planning Commission. That meeting was set to begin after the News Leader’s deadline for this issue. Therefore, details of that proceeding will be in our Aug. 27 issue.)
Adhering to the Aug. 24 deadline for comments on the Kompothecras project will ensure that the emails are included in the packet of information that will be provided to the Planning Commission members in advance of the Sept. 2 meeting, the Coalition points out.
Further, the Coalition encourages the public to send copies of those emails to the county commissioners. Their hearing on the Kompothecras plans has been set for Nov. 2. The public County Commission hearing on the Calle Miramar hotel project is set for Oct. 27.
Crescent Club noise complaint goes unresolved
At 12:18 a.m. on Aug. 8, the News Leader learned, a Siesta resident emailed Sarasota Mayor Hagen Brody and the other city commissioners to complain about alleged noise violations at the Crescent Club on South Midnight Pass Road.
The individual wrote, “I’m well aware of the numerous complaints against the crescent club and its new rich Dr. Owner and his MTV failed star son, but their status as fake celebrities should not allow them to be so obnoxious to the residents that live near their club.”
(Siesta businessman and chiropractor Gary Kompothecras — whom many island residents refer to as “Dr. Gary” — came up with the idea of the MTV show Siesta Key several years ago. Kompothecras’ son, Alex, was one of the stars of the first 42 episodes of the show. Then, MTV fired him, saying the network had been alerted to alleged racist social media posts and comments that Alex had written.)
The email writer continued, “We have been coming here for 28 years and until this year we have never heard so much loud music up until 2 am every night. It is absolutely pathetic that you allow this to continue.
“How would you like it if someone sat outside your house playing music and not very good music at that since they hire a bunch of no talent hacks to butcher great songs until 2 am every night,” the writer added.
“People live over here this is a residential area yet you refuse to impose [any] sound restrictions on open air clubs like this. The previous owner is probably embarrassed at what it’s become.
“Just because ask Gary is paying off someone to break the law doesn’t make it right. Come over here at midnight and 1 am. Sit inside one of the condo units and feel the walls shaking and the air throbbed so bad you get headaches.
“If they want live music make them go inside or enclose the area. Also they have the band facing out towards the street it’s an absolute disgusting display of inconsiderate low class trailer trash that thinks behaving like this is acceptable.
“That is an extension of the people who are elected to make sure this town is respectful of the residents who live here. This needs to stop and you are the people responsible for making the changes.”
The writer concluded the email with the following:
“Disgusted and annoyed.
“Do your job.”
“Sir,” Brody responded, at 6:58 a.m. the same day, “The crescent club [sic] is in the county not in the city of Sarasota. Please direct your comments at them. Thank you.”
City Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch also responded to the writer, explaining, too, that the Crescent Club is within the county’s jurisdiction. She copied City Manager Marlon Brown on her email, as well as County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and the county commissioners, “so they have the opportunity to read your email … and have the opportunity to respond,” she told the writer.
Early in the afternoon of Aug. 8, Lewis emailed Brown to tell him that county staff had been informed of the complaint and was reviewing it.
When the News Leader this week asked for copies of any county email exchanges in regard to the complaint, Kim Francel, the county’s public records coordinator, replied on Aug. 17, saying that staff was unable to find any other emails about noise at the Crescent Club between Aug. 1 and Aug. 16. The latter date is when the News Leader made its request for public records.
“In accordance with Section 125.69 [of the Florida Statutes],” Francel added, “any code violation complaint submitted must include the name and address of the complainant …” She referenced Senate Bill 60, which went into effect on July 1.
“After a few attempts by staff to contact the citizen who submitted the complaint (initially via email to the City of Sarasota) and receiving no response,” Francel continued, the matter has been closed with no action.”
Francel did provide the News Leader copies of the staff emails that went to the person who submitted the complaint to the city, along with emails among staff members related to the issue.
In one note, dated Aug. 10, county Code Enforcement Technician Susan M. Anderson pointed out that it was her second attempt to find out whether the individual would provide his name and address, “per the requirements of [Senate Bill] 60. If you do provide this info,” she told the person who had contacted city leaders, “I can then create a request for a Code Enforcement Officer to investigate.”
Another staff email exchange, which included Susan Stahley, the primary Code Enforcement officer on the Key, noted that the Crescent Club does not have a Special Exception from the county to play music after 10 p.m.
Code Enforcement staff ultimately notified Matt Osterhoudt, director of the Planning and Development Services Department, about having made two attempts — as he had requested — to contact the person who emailed the city commissioners. (Code Enforcement is part of Osterhoudt’s purview.)
Osterhoudt then informed the county commissioners that the individual did not respond to the staff outreach. Thus, the case had been closed.
Red tide woes
After red tide conditions worsened on Siesta in early August, the leaders of the Siesta Key Condominium Council (SKCC) sent an email to the County Commission, “to request additional County resources to assist in red tide cleanup of the public portion of the beaches for the entire coast of Siesta Key. In addition, we would like to see the County allocate resources throughout the year to assist in beach cleanup,” the email said.
“The effects of red tide have left several areas throughout Siesta Key littered with dead fish,” the Condo Council leaders continued in their Aug. 4 email. “Vacationers who visit Siesta Key spend a significant amount of time going to the beach. As a result of the record number of visitors to the Key, the beach is busier than ever. Several visitors use the entire beach, not just the public beach. Currently, the County is maintaining just the public portion of the beach. Properties along the non-public portion of the beach don’t have the resources or equipment to adequately clean their beach. As a result, many dead fish have not been removed from the beach resulting in unbearable beach conditions.
“Obviously,” the SKCC leaders added, “this is not good for tourism. Siesta Key generates a significant amount of tax revenue for Sarasota County. We ask that some of the revenue be used to clean up all areas of the beach throughout the year.”
County staff has explained on numerous occasions that staff has to abide by a beach-cleaning policy that the County Commission approved in 2013.
That policy went into effect after county staff dealt with scores of complaints in 2012 about dead fish and seaweed accumulating on the county’s beaches.
On May 7, 2013, Carolyn Brown, then the director of what was the county’s Parks and Recreation Department, pointed out to the commissioners that in December 2012, “We had a significant fish kill event.” Many of the deceased creatures “washed ashore on privately owned beaches,” Brown noted, prompting “a lot of phone calls” from those property owners.
However, Brown said, existing county policy prevented staff from responding.
A memo Brown provided to the commission in advance of that regular meeting discussion in 2013 explained that, in 1995, the board adopted a Beach Cleaning Policy, which it amended in 1997. That policy did “not clearly or adequately address the use of public funds for the removal of dead fish or seaweed on private property,” the memo said. “In fact, aspects of the language are inconsistent with the Florida Statutes and/or case law as it relates to public beaches and the public use of private property.”
The memo also pointed to the importance of the beaches to the county’s economy and noted that Parks and Recreation used the Tourist Development Tax (TDT) Emergency Fund to pay for beach cleaning under special conditions “at County-owned public beaches, beach accesses and certain areas seaward of the mean high water line,” which is specified in Florida common law.
Brown told the commissioners that those special conditions cleaning costs out of the TDT fund had ranged from $408,403 in 2007 to zero in 2009. The expense for 2012 was $122,680.
County staff met with administrative staff, representatives of the County Attorney’s Office and the county’s Natural Resources, Operations and Maintenance, and Health departments to discuss the 1995 beach cleaning policy, the memo continued. The resulting determination was the need to improve the policy’s language, including a clarification of “what areas of the beach are or could be considered ‘public’ or customarily used by the public for consistency with the law.”
The discussions resulted in agreement that the county could spend taxpayers’ dollars to clean private beaches if the following conditions were met:
- The beach is in close proximity to a county-owned beach or access that has been customarily crossed or used by the public.
- A public purpose can be established.
- “The area to be cleaned is landward of the approximate mean high water line and seaward of any pronounced escarpment, dune, vegetated area, access bridge or stairs or shore protection structure such as a revetment or seawall …”
- The owners or designated representatives provide written permission to the county that also acknowledges “the historic customary use of the beach or access by the public.”
The form for that written permission would be available online, the memo noted; it could be submitted to Parks and Recreation electronically or in person, “even to staff on the beach.”
The memo in the board packet further pointed out that the new draft policy had been shared with representatives of the Barrier Island Group, which includes members of the Siesta, North Manasota Key, Manasota Key and Casey Key associations. A few clarifications to the policy were made after they reviewed it, the memo said.
The commissioners ended up adopting the new beach cleaning policy during that May 2013 meeting.
In an Aug. 17 update to the news media, County Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant noted that regular beach grooming takes place Monday, Wednesday and Friday on Siesta Beach, and on Thursday on Lido Beach. “County staff will continue to monitor and evaluate public beaches and access points each morning to determine if conditions meet the beach cleaning policy threshold,” she added.
‘Interesting migrants’ reported on Siesta
With beach-nesting birds’ reproductive season coming to a close, Kylie Wilson, coordinator of Audubon Florida’s Shorebird Stewardship and Monitoring Program in the county, offered some unusual tidbits in her Aug. 13 report.
“I had 100+ Skimmers at Siesta this week!” she wrote. “Our nesting Skimmer colony settles at Lido each year but in the non-breeding season many of our local resident skimmers move to Siesta.”
Wilson also noted some different visitors on the Key: “There were a couple of interesting migrants at Siesta this week as well; a Pectoral and a Stilt Sandpiper were some of the nearly dozen shorebird species present.