Siesta Seen

Parking and towing issues prompt lots of SKA questions; morass of Memorial Day beach garbage decried; county’s new cigarette butt receptacles being installed; July Fourth fireworks fundraising and beach parking updates provided; help sought for Crystal Classic founder Brian Wigelsworth; Siesta Key Environmental Defense Fund gets two noteworthy donations; and SKOB gets a new executive chef and updates its menu

Editor’s note: This article was updated on the morning of June 12 to omit incorrect information about fundraising for the Siesta Key Environmental Defense Fund.

An aerial view shows the location of Siesta Estates, across from St. Boniface Episcopal Church. Image from Google Maps

When exactly is a parking situation illegal?

That was the question Sgt. Jason Mruczek, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation, made an effort to explain during the June 1 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting.

A woman who lives in Siesta Estates — which is across Midnight Pass Road from St. Boniface Episcopal Church — raised the question after Mruczek opened the floor to questions.

On Memorial Day, the woman told him, a number of vehicles parked on the grass in front of the wall that separates Siesta Estates homes from the road. Five people called the Sheriff’s Office, she said, but no deputies were dispatched to the scene.

“We just spent a lot of money on our landscaping in front of the wall,” the woman added.

When she spoke on the phone with someone at the Sheriff’s Office, the woman continued, the response she received was, “It’s private property,” so no deputy could respond to the situation.

“I don’t understand why not one person from the sheriff’s department came out to try to help us resolve the problem,” the woman said. If someone is damaging private property, shouldn’t the Sheriff’s Office handle the situation, she asked.

If someone has parked on county right of way, Mruczek replied, a deputy could write the person a ticket.

Sgt. Jason Mruczek. File photo

“Five people called [the Sheriff’s Office],” the woman told him, noting that she called twice. The person who answered her calls, the woman added, “tried to argue with me.”
Moreover, the woman pointed out, she and other Siesta Estates residents called about five towing companies, and all refused to come to the scene unless a deputy would be there. Towing company personnel indicated that they were worried about the harassment they would have to deal with from irate vehicle owners if a deputy were not present to ameliorate the situation, the woman said.

“There’s damage now on all our brand new grass that we just paid a lot of money to fix,” she added. At one point, she continued, about 16 vehicles were parked on that grass.

“We were on ATVs all day,” Mruczek replied, “and I didn’t hear one call” from dispatch regarding parking problems at Siesta Estates.

“I’m totally dumfounded,” the woman told him, adding that she wanted to prevent a similar situation from occurring over the July Fourth holiday. She also told Mruczek that the Sheriff’s Office “could have made a lot of money” from issuing tickets, mentioning a figure of $80 per citation.

(In that type of situation, Mruczek told The Sarasota News Leader, a ticket generally is $25.)

“We can issue parking tickets to people that are illegally parked [on rights of way],” Mruczek explained, adding that he would look into the circumstances of the Siesta Estate calls on Memorial Day.

He noted that deputies issued about 200 parking tickets over the Memorial Day weekend on Siesta Key. “There were a lot of areas to get to.”

Mruczek asked the woman to pick up one of his business cards on the table at the back of the room and give him a call.

Then SKA Secretary Joyce Kouba asked what she should do, for example, if a person she did not know pulled into her driveway and just left the vehicle there while the person went to the beach. “It’s private property,” Kouba said.

“We have no right to tow someone off private property,” Mruczek explained, prompting murmurs among the approximately 60 people in the audience.

What if someone stole a bicycle from her yard, Kouba asked.

That would be theft, Mruczek replied.

As for trespassing: Mruczek said the county ordinance necessitates signage forbidding trespassing and other criteria before a deputy can issue a citation.

Siesta Key Association members gather for the June 1 meeting. Rachel Hackney photo

For example, he said, a Girl Scout can go up to a private residence and try to sell cookies, and that is not considered trespassing.

Another person sought further clarification: What if a driver parks a truck in his driveway “two blocks from the beach and just walks away, the man asked. “That’s not a crime?”

“No,” Mruczek responded. However, the homeowner can have the vehicle towed.

“It’s legal to have them towed?” the man asked.

“Sure,” Mruczek said. “[The truck is] on your property.”

Mruczek added that the Sheriff’s Office can have a vehicle towed if the vehicle is on public right of way.

“Then I can take a sledgehammer—” the Siesta Estates woman began.

“That would be criminal mischief,” Mruczek told her.

He indicated that if a disturbance ensued over a parking situation on private property, a deputy would be able to respond to that.

SKA President Harold Ashby. Rachel Hackney photo

“The law works in funny ways,” SKA President Harold Ashby said after Mruczek concluded the discussion.

In a follow-up email exchange this week with The Sarasota News Leader, Mruczek wrote that he found one call Dispatch had handled about the parking at Siesta Estates on May 30; however, he has had difficulty nailing down whether a deputy did end up going to the scene.

On May 29, he continued, a deputy did respond to a complaint from Siesta Estates, but the deputy had to leave because of the outbreak of a fight at the public beach. The deputy was unable to return to that neighborhood until later that day, Mruczek wrote; by that time, only one car was left on the right of way, Mruczek added. That vehicle was ticketed.

Mruczek also explained that he called the woman who brought up the issue at the SKA meeting and “let her know we will check [the right of way in front of Siesta Estates] July 4th weekend” and on July Fourth itself.

The holiday trash

Sarasota County Commissioner Alan Maio told SKA members during their June 1 regular meeting that he and his colleagues on the board had received emails — and he already had talked with staff — about the Memorial Day garbage “from our visitors.”

He commended representatives of Siesta organizations — including the SKA — and “citizen volunteers” for their hard work on May 31, helping clean up the beach and putting bags of the debris in “big roll-off dumpsters.”

Maio readily acknowledged that people can be most inconsiderate about their disposal of trash. “They just drop stuff when they’re done with it.”

One member of the SKA board told him last year, he continued, that half a case of raw hamburger was left on the beach following one big holiday weekend. Apparently, the people who bought the meat cooked what they needed and just “left the rest rotting in the sun,” Maio said.

Noting that Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office deputies were standing in the back of the room, he added that his son is a deputy, too. “If I were king,” Maio said, sparking a wave of laughter among the audience members, “I’d have a deputy follow every one of the people visiting. … Obviously, I’m being silly; that can’t happen.”

Commissioner Alan Maio. File photo

Speaking again of county staff, Maio told the SKA members, “We’re doing the best we can.”

Sgt. Jason Mruczek of the Sheriff’s Office told the attendees that Deputy Chris McGregor, who has worked on the island for 18 or 19 years, reported Memorial Day this year was “probably the busiest he’s seen …”

The weekend for deputies “was extremely busy,” Mruczek said, prompting titters of laugher among audience members.

Michael Shay, a long-time volunteer who organizes cleanup efforts on the Key under the auspices of Keep Sarasota County Beautiful, shared with the News Leader a response he received from Carolyn Brown, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, about the garbage. He had asked whether county staff would be willing to revisit an initiative he tried to start when he was serving as SKA president: a proposal for the county to install plastic bag dispensers at the beach accesses, to encourage visitors to dispose of their garbage as they leave the beaches.

Brown wrote Shay, “For every holiday, we order additional dumpsters, put out additional trash cans which are collected many times throughout the day and bring on additional staff resources. We have been discussing the circumstances from Memorial Day and do have plans to distribute garbage bags to beach patrons as they enter the beach. We also plan to launch a campaign to educate the public and provide awareness of the importance of maintaining a clean beach environment.”

Shay also reported that he has a group of seven signed up for the Liberty Litter Cleanup scheduled for 7 a.m. on July 5 on Siesta Beach.

Brown noted in her response to Shay that Keep Sarasota County Beautiful expects to have hundreds of volunteers assisting with that July 5 undertaking on county beaches.

“We will be diligent in our efforts and continue to evaluate and make adjustments to trash collection as well as educate the public to protect our beautiful resources; however, it is truly the responsibility of the park users to clean up after themselves,” Brown concluded her email.

On a related topic …

During his remarks at the SKA meeting, Commissioner Maio also announced that over the previous two weeks, county staff began installing 40 cigarette butt receptacles on Siesta and Turtle beaches in an effort to keep the shoreline free of that type of trash.

Keep Sarasota County Beautiful received $5,000 in the form of a 2017 Cigarette Litter Prevention Program Grant from the national nonprofit Keep America Beautiful, which is paying for the receptacles, county staff announced in May.

Maio pointed out that “thousands of cigarette butts” are being left on Siesta’s beaches.

Siesta volunteers gather with the cigarette butts they gathered on the beach on March 25. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

Michael Shay, the long-time leader of cleanup efforts on the Key, led a group in March in counting butts at the county’s request; they collected a total of 2,981 in two hours near the pavilion on Siesta Public Beach.

In concluding remarks on a variety of topics during the June 1 SKA meeting, Maio said, “Put your cigarette butts in the beautiful new, free boxes we got with a grant.”

Just a day later, Shay emailed the News Leader a photo of one of the receptacles, which had been installed at the beach access west of the Givens Street intersection with Ocean Boulevard. He noted that it has a lock on it, so someone on county staff will have to empty it.

Speaking of the Fourth of July …

Siesta Chamber leaders are hard at work once again, raising money for the July Fourth fireworks spectacular on the public beach.

“We’re plugging away,” Ann Frescura, executive director of the Chamber, told the News Leader this week.

Image courtesy Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce

During a general membership meeting the Chamber board conducted on May 17, Frescura explained that it costs about $50,000 to produce the show that annually wows tens of thousands of people. “We will be reaching out to the community to make our goal a reality.”

Sponsorships include individuals’ or company names on signage, access to a preferred viewing area, parking passes, free beverages and light snacks. The sponsorship levels range from $500 to $5,000.

For more information, visit the Chamber website or call 349-3838.

As for the beach parking lot on July Fourth: Sgt. Jason Mruczek of the Sheriff’s Office reported to SKA members on June 1 that deputies will follow the same procedure they implemented last year, which won the department accolades: After the lot fills, deputies will not allow more vehicles to enter. When enough vehicles have left to ensure drivers can find parking spaces, deputies will reopen the lot.

Additionally, he said, “we’ll try to get some sign boards out a few days before [the holiday],” reminding people that they should expect heavy traffic on the Fourth.

Chuckles among the audience members indicated that Mruczek was making an understatement on the latter point.

Help for Brian Wigelsworth

During the May 17 Siesta Chamber membership meeting, Chair Mark Smith reported, “We have very sad news.”

Brian Wigelsworth, Siesta’s own master sand sculptor who originated the idea for the Siesta Key Crystal Classic, “is battling throat cancer,” Smith said, “and he doesn’t have any insurance.”

Brian Wigelsworth. Image courtesy of the Crystal Classic

Maria Bankemper, who has been a chair of the Crystal Classic for most of its existence, has set up a Go Fund Me page for people who would like to help Wigelsworth, Smith added. The page may be found here.

The Go Fund Me site reports that Wigelsworth remains “positive that he will become healthy again,” but he is concerned about his family.

As of June 5, the amount raised was $4,735 of the $10,000 goal, the webpage notes.

The page assures readers that they do not have to give money; they can show their support by sending Wigelsworth a message. “Every little bit will help him along the way through his journey,” the page adds.

Bankemper, who is the Chamber’s treasurer, is co-owner of the Best Western Plus-Siesta Key Gateway Hotel on South Tamiami Trail, just off Stickney Point Road. 

Ask and you shall receive

People who stayed until the end of the May SKA meeting know that Siesta property owner and Realtor Michael Holderness offered to match a $1,000 contribution to the Siesta Key Environmental Defense Fund. As it turns out, Vice President Catherine Luckner announced during the June 1 SKA meeting, one person did accept that challenge.

Luckner added that she had not gained the contributor’s approval to reveal her name.

Michael Holderness. File photo

The donation “was awesome,” Luckner said. In fact, she noted, it ended up exceeding $1,000.

“Thank you so much for what you’ve been doing,” Luckner told the audience, referring to all the contributions people have provided for the nonprofit’s fight of the proposal to dredge Big Sarasota Pass to renourish a 1.6-mile stretch of South Lido Key.

The next step in the SKA’s fight is a Florida Department of Administrative Hearing procedure this summer: Aug. 22-25 and Aug. 28-31 in Sarasota. Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2) and the Florida Wildlife Federation also will plead their cases in opposition to the dredging plan. 

New chef, new menus at SKOB

Stephanie Brown, general manager of Siesta Key Oyster Bar (SKOB), has announced the hiring of Gino Calleja as the restaurant’s new executive chef.

“Chef Calleja has extensive experience in the restaurant industry,” a news release notes, including his most recent, 10-year stint as executive chef “at a very well-known restaurant in downtown Sarasota.”

Chef Gino Calleja. Contributed photo

Before coming to Florida, the release continues, Calleja worked in New York City as the executive chef and manager of three popular restaurants. “Chef Gino is a brilliant chef of superior quality and talent, and we are fortunate that he has joined our team,” said Brown in the release. “His culinary talent and experience, business sense, management skills, and dedication are going to help SKOB grow to the next level which includes increasing the diner’s choices of quality ingredients.”

Calleja is introducing new menus for brunch, lunch and dinner, along with new ingredients sourced from local and/or sustainable farms, the release adds. “Siesta Key Oyster Bar is a popular restaurant and I wanted to introduce creative menu items while retaining the most popular choices,” Calleja continued in the release. “SKOB has a solid number of loyal local fans who let me know which menu items were sacred,” he added with a laugh, the release noted.

A number of menu items are gluten-free, the release points out.

The Siesta Key Oyster Bar is open seven days a week.