Commissioner Ziegler proposes idea to reduce traffic congestion generated by beachgoers; Sheriff’s Office responds to 332 calls for service on the Key in December; complaints aired about slow-moving vehicles on South Midnight Pass Road; fire causes significant damage to Roberts Point Road home; new Code Enforcement officer reminds SKA members about new state law regarding complaints; Feb. 8 Condo Council meeting to be conducted via Zoom; judge assigned to hotel lawsuits first seated in 2015; and SKA director remarks on unusual lack of email response from county commissioner
For years, the Sarasota County commissioners have mulled ideas focused on how to reduce the island traffic congestion that beachgoers produce.
This week, County Commissioner Christian Ziegler suggested a potential use of county Surtax revenue for one plan, if the extra penny of sales tax that has been in effect since 1989 is renewed this November for another 15 years.
Noting that he had talked with County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and County Engineer Spencer Anderson about his proposal, Ziegler suggested that sensors could be installed in the parking lot of Siesta Public Beach Park and in the lots at the public beach accesses on the island, to count available spaces. Information about how many slots are available at a given time then could be transmitted to a sign visible to drivers off the Key, Ziegler said.
The sign could report the number of parking spaces or percentage of spots remaining open, Ziegler added.
The same data could be relayed to an app that people could download, he continued. “You could literally be sitting in your own chair before you head out to the beach, take out your phone and say, [for example], ‘Well, there’s only 10 spots.’” In that case, a person could decide to drive to a different beach, Ziegler added.
People do not trust a sign that says simply that the parking lot is full, Ziegler pointed out.
“There’s been a lot of support on Siesta Key for this [sensor proposal],” he told his colleagues during his board report, which was part of the commission’s regular meeting on Jan. 25.
The app and signage could prevent extra cars from being on Siesta’s roads when no beach parking is available, he stressed.
If the initiative proved successful, Ziegler said, it could be used at the other public beaches in the county. “That’s a great amenity for a local community.”
The initial expense, he added, could run from $300,000 to $500,000. Therefore, it would be best to test the proposal on Siesta before rolling it out to other beach parks, Ziegler noted.
“Siesta Key’s obviously frustrated with the traffic going there,” he continued. However, if a sensor/signage/app system would prevent needless trips to the Key and the resulting waste of time driving around, looking for parking spots, Ziegler pointed out, that would be a big benefit.
An in-depth discussion on potential county projects linked to renewal of the Surtax program is planned for the commission’s Feb. 8 meeting, Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho told the commissioners earlier this month. (See the related article in this issue.)
Crime stats and new deputies on duty
As Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sheriff’s Office’s substation on the Key, noted in his most recent report to Siesta Key Association (SKA) members, “December was pretty busy,” especially the last week of the month, between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Of course, Smith pointed out during the Jan. 6 SKA meeting, that week is always busy on the island, with lots of visitors and residents taking advantage of time off during the holidays. The traffic going on and off the Key in late December reflected that, he added.
During December 2021, Smith reported, the Sheriff’s Office had 332 calls for service. (That compares to 372 calls in December 2020.)
However, 7% of those calls in December 2021 dealt with crimes involving persons or property, compared to 5% in December 2020.
Four of those incidents were related to thefts from vehicles, Smith said. Only one of the vehicles was reported to have been locked, he noted, but “There were no signs of forced entry.” Nonetheless, Smith added, “We take the person at their word.”
Smith then pointed out that, every month, he reminds SKA members to keep their vehicles and homes locked. “It’s easy to do, to help prevent yourself from being a victim of crime.”
He also noted that some of the incidents in December 2021 involved unattended items left on Siesta Public Beach. People will leave personal belongings on the shoreline when they go into the water, he explained. Yet, people walk the beach, looking for such items, he stressed.
Anyone who plans to go into the water should make sure someone is watching his or her property, Smith added. However, the best way to ensure against thefts is to lock up valuables in vehicles before heading to the shore, he pointed out.
On a positive note: Smith told the SKA members that as of Jan. 6, “We have two more deputies that are assigned to the Siesta Key Substation.”
Sheriff Kurt Hoffman had included the new positions in his budget for this fiscal year, which the County Commission approved.
On Jan. 6 and Jan. 7, Smith explained, he put the new officers on day shift so they could become familiar with operations on the island, though he pointed out that both the deputies have worked on the Key over the years. Nonetheless, he continued, he wanted to make sure they understood how he and his staff handle situations. “I think they’re going to work out great,” he added of the new officers.
As of that weekend, he noted, the new deputies primarily would be working the late shift — from around 4 p.m. until about 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. “That’s kind of what we’re shooting for.”
Having extra help at night, he said, should make it easier for the Sheriff’s Office to deal with the array of complaints that typically are logged during those hours — from juveniles gathering in the beach parking lot after it closes to reports of loud noise and speeding cars.
He also told the SKA members that the Sheriff’s Office already had begun planning for its Spring Break operations this year. Although March typically is the busiest month, that is “right around the corner.”
“Excellent news about two more deputies assigned to the Key,” SKA member Jann Webster responded to Smith’s report.
When Lourdes Ramirez asked whether the deputies would be assigned to specific areas at night, Smith told her, “They’re going to cover the whole Key” — including Siesta Village, the South Village area in the vicinity of Old Stickney Point and Midnight Pass roads, and the beach.
SKA President Catherine Luckner then asked about the new county parks hours. She wanted to be certain, she continued, that the 10 p.m. closing time applies to Siesta Public Beach, its parking lot and the county’s beach accesses.
“I literally just had this discussion with the new deputies,” as well as the lieutenant and captain to whom he reports, Smith responded. “The entire [beach] park closes at 10 [p.m.].”
That goes for the public portion of the shoreline, which is any area seaward of the Mean High Water Line, the parking lot, and all of the beach accesses, he noted. County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department staff took quite a bit of time changing all the signage at the parks to ensure the correct hours were listed, he said.
“Going forward,” Smith continued, “we’re going to probably start looking into more enforcement” of the hours. He said he believes it is a second-degree misdemeanor to violate a county ordinance, such as the one the County Commission approved for the park hours.
Although most county parks close at 10 p.m., Smith added, to be certain about the hours at a specific facility, anyone may visit the webpages for county parks on the county’s website.
Electric bike and slow-moving vehicle issues
During the Jan. 6 Siesta Key Association meeting, members asked Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sheriff’s Office Substation, about the increasing use of electric bicycles and golf carts on the island.
First, Jann Webster asked him to reiterate the rules for people riding electric bikes. “There are so many families on [them],” she pointed out. “Makes everyone, I’m sure, so nervous.”
People on electric bikes have the same rights as persons on normal bicycles, Smith replied. They can ride the vehicles on the roads, in the bike lanes and on sidewalks, he said. As far as the state is concerned, he added, no difference exists in an electric bike versus a person-powered bike.
The one big difference for Sarasota County, however, he stressed, is that electric bicycles are not legal on the public beaches. Smith has pointed out in the past that individuals may ride the vehicles on the beach only if they are pedaling the bicycles.
Another SKA member, Jim Wallace, who lives on the south end of the island, pointed to another problem: golf carts and other slow-moving vehicles on South Midnight Pass Road.
“I think most of the people on the south end of Siesta Key would say the experience we suffered, if you like [at the end of December 2021] was unusual and terrible,” Wallace pointed out.
Golf carts and electric bicycles were plentiful on the road between the 7-Eleven — which stands at 6619 Midnight Pass Road — and the intersection of Stickney Point Road and Midnight Pass Road, Wallace indicated. Yet, those vehicles just cannot move as fast as cars, trucks and SUVs, he continued. As a result, he stressed, they tie up traffic.
As he recalled, Wallace said, Smith had talked in the past of its being illegal for such slow-moving vehicles to operate with other traffic on the road. “If you don’t enforce that rule,” Wallace added, “it’s going to be madness on the Key, with what’s going on between bikes and golf carts.”
The speed limit on the southern portion of Midnight Pass Road is 40 mph, he pointed out.
Traffic trying to get off the island was backed up between 4 and 6 p.m. south of Sanderling Road the last week of December 2021, Wallace said, which was a situation “I’ve never seen before …”
(A Nextdoor thread that The Sarasota News Leader saw on Dec. 28, 2021 included more than 60 comments in response to a post about traffic backed up to Turtle Beach the previous day. One person wrote that four adults and three children under 7, who had taken two cars to Siesta Public Beach on Dec. 27, “stayed to experience sunset. A big mistake!” the person added. “Took well over an hour and a half to even escape the parking lot!”
Another person wrote, “Put a bridge up at the South End of Key.”
Yet one more of the 96 comments said, “Welcome to season. It’s only going to get worse!”)
During the SKA discussion, Smith replied that signage specifies that no low-speed vehicles are allowed on the section of South Midnight Pass Road with the 40-mph speed limit. “It’s just not safe because slow-moving vehicles aren’t rated to handle a crash at that kind of speed,” he explained.
However, north of the 7-Eleven, Smith noted, such vehicles legally can use the road.
“That area is very dangerous,” Wallace stressed of the area closer to the South Midnight Pass Road commercial district. “There’s no sidewalk in front of the Crescent Club anymore,” he added. People at the bar tend to spill over onto the bike lane, he pointed out.
Smith concurred with Wallace’s assessment of that area, adding that he and the officers on the island have been trying to work on the situation “and make that a little bit safer.”
Golf carts and electric bicycles can be used on the roads in the vicinity of Siesta Public Beach Park, Smith added. “You don’t have to necessarily go the speed limit,” he explained. “To my knowledge, there isn’t a speed minimum on those roads, just a speed limit.”
Another area of Midnight Pass Road where slow-moving vehicles cannot operate, he noted, is the section between the “hump bridge” over the Intracoastal Waterway and the Beach Road intersection, because of the 40-mph speed limit.
If people are renting vehicles that are illegal to drive on the island, “Why do we let them do that?” Wallace asked.
Smith did not respond to that.
Fire at Roberts Point Road home does major damage
Among other incidents on the Key in December 2021, the Sarasota County Fire Department responded at 3:27 a.m. on Dec. 17 to a fire reported at 3931 Roberts Point Road, the News Leader has learned.
Damage to the structure itself was listed as $467,248 — out of a value of $519,164, the report said. The contents lost were put at $93,450, out of a total value of $103,833, the report added. Another portion of the document said that smoke and flames damaged “roughly 90% of the home,” as well as an out building. (Sarasota County Property Appraiser Office records note a boat dock on the site.) “There was also heat damage to a white [Buick] SUV parked in the driveway,” the report added.
The Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office website says the house was built in 1930, but the listing indicates that the structure was renovated in 2000. The house has five bedrooms and four bathrooms, the property record notes, with total living area of 3,675 square feet.
In 2021, the house and land had a market value of $776,600, the Property Appraiser’s Office data show. The current owners — who have a Lakewood Ranch Address — paid $950,000 for the parcel in September 2020, the record says.
The weather was clear at the time of the fire, the Fire Department report noted.
When the fire engine from Station 13 on the Key arrived, the report said, the crew saw heavy smoke and flames at the two-story, wood-framed, single-family residence.
The firefighters had been alerted to the potential of people still being inside the house, the report noted. However, it turned out that the two occupants had managed to get out of the home before the fire engine arrived, the report said. At least one smoke detector was in operation in the structure, the report indicated.
The fire appeared to have begun on a porch, the report noted.
Ultimately, the engines from Fire Stations 11 and 12 also were called to the scene, the report added.
A fire investigator also was called because of the crew members’ “inability to locate the source of the fire and due to high dollar value [of the structure],” the report pointed out.
The fire finally was under control by 5:28 a.m., the report said, but the last unit did not leave the scene until 4:11 p.m. on Dec. 17.
Code Enforcement update
New county Code Enforcement Officer Rick Russ, who took over the Siesta Key territory from Code Enforcement Officer Susan Stahley late last fall, offered a few remarks to Siesta Key Association members during the Jan. 6 meeting.
“I will be here every month,” he said, to provide information and education.
Russ pointed out that Code Enforcement officers “enforce the quality-of-life issues in Sarasota County.”
However, he emphasized, because of a change in state law last year, anyone who wishes to file a complaint with the Code Enforcement division has to provide a name and address. Calls should be made to the Sarasota County Contact Center, he added, which may be reached at 941-861-5000. Staff members who take the calls ensure that the information goes to the appropriate section of Code Enforcement, Russ added.
For example, the Public Utilities Department has staff members who deal with problems related to that department’s work.
Russ further noted that he had had more calls over the past few weeks, prior to the meeting, than he did earlier in his tenure as the officer on the Key.
For one example of complaints with which he has contended, he talked about signs for The Cottages at Siesta Key that had been placed in the county rights of way. He had talked with representatives of that business, he said. (It is located at 1101-1105 Point of Rocks Road.) Nonetheless, he added, he had seen more of the signs appear.
Once a formal Code Enforcement complaint has been filed with county staff, Russ continued, the individual who made it is welcome to call him directly and check on the status of the situation. His cell number is 941-264-4988, he said.
“My dad always said that the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” Russ added. “That’s what happens.”
Feb. 8 Condo Council meeting to be conducted via Zoom
Although the leaders of the Siesta Key Condominium Council conducted their January meeting in person at Siesta Key Chapel, concerns about the surge of infections linked to the Omicron mutation of the COVID-19 virus have prompted them to schedule the next meeting via Zoom.
The Feb. 8 meeting, which will begin at 3 p.m., will feature Mike Angers of Brown & Brown Insurance of Sarasota, the Council’s email blast noted.
Angers will provide an overview of the condominium insurance market and talk about specific issues, such as whether the state of Florida has adequate insurance capacity for condominium associations, and the higher premiums that are being charged.
The Council leaders also are inviting anyone with a general question related to insurance issues to email the question in advance to firstname.lastname@example.org, adding that “every effort will be made to address your question” during the Zoom session.
The hotel hearings judge
In a number of past court challenges to County Commission approval of projects on or near Siesta, the presiding 12th Judicial Circuit Court judge has been Andrea McHugh.
In the cases involving complaints against the high-rise hotels the board members approved late last fall, the judge is Stephen Walker.
In researching Walker, the News Leader learned that he began his service on the Circuit Court bench in January 2015. He earned a Bachelor of Arts from Stetson University in 1987, his biography says, and then he earned his law degree from the University of Florida College of Law in 1990.
The biography also notes that he has been a Florida Bar board-certified specialist in criminal trial law since August 2003.
Ballotpedia notes that he was an unopposed candidate for the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in 2014. Prior to his initial election, it says, Walker worked as a criminal defense attorney for more than 20 years.
Walker, who lives in Venice, was re-elected in November 2020 — again, unopposed, the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections website says.
An unanswered email from the SKA to a commissioner
During the Dec. 7, 2021 County Commission meeting, SKA Director Robert Luckner voiced frustration to the commissioners about his efforts to determine whether an item advertised for a hearing on that agenda would apply to the barrier islands.
The issue was a proposed amendment to the county’s zoning regulations to allow for the construction of affordable housing units — about 750 square feet in size — above ground-floor retail space in commercial centers. It was targeted at such complexes that no longer are thriving.
The measure was seen as another means of spurring the creation of dwelling units for people such as teachers, firefighters and nurses, who are being priced out of many rental properties in the county — as speakers have told the commissioners in recent months.
Luckner noted that he emailed Commissioner Christian Ziegler with the SKA’s questions, but he did not get a response. “I’m sure [the email] got lost in the surge of things,” Luckner added.
“When did you email me?” Ziegler asked.
“The 24th of November,” Luckner replied, adding, “I know you’re all busy.”
Luckner then pointed out that Ziegler, who represents the northern portion of the island, in District 2, is usually very responsive.”
Chair Alan Maio, who is term-limited, represents the majority of the island, which is in District 4.