Siesta Seen

SKA members hear details about July Fourth traffic; trash tales told; beach cigarette butt litter decreasing; beach holes pose threat to turtles; and SKA members voice worries over Big Pass dredging proposal

Vehicles are parked illegally on this right of way in Siesta Isles on July Fourth. Photo contributed by Harriet Cuthbert

Illegal parking, illegal fireworks, traffic congestion, fights over spaces at the public beach and lots of trash: It was pretty much a typical July Fourth holiday on Siesta Key, Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office staff, residents and Sarasota County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR) staff said during the July 6 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting.

Sgt. Jason Mruczek reported that the beach parking lot was full at 8:15 a.m. on the holiday. “Saturday and Sunday were pretty steady,” just slightly busier than a normal weekend, he noted, but “not as crazy as Memorial Day weekend was.”

As they did last year, Mruczek explained, deputies closed the beach lot when it was full and then re-opened it only when enough people had left to enable more visitors to find spaces. The department also posted signs at the intersections of Stickney Point Road/U.S. 41 and Beach Road/Midnight Pass Road to alert people to expect delays, and it used social media to caution people to be patient, he added.

“We did write a lot of tickets,” Mruczek said, referring to people parking illegally on county rights of way.

At Siesta Estates, he continued, deputies wrote about 40 tickets.

A Siesta Estates resident complained at the June SKA meeting about the number of vehicles parked illegally in front of that neighborhood, which is across Midnight Pass Road from St. Boniface Episcopal Church. Mruczek had promised her officers would keep a check on the situation over the July Fourth holiday.

(One Siesta Isles resident told The Sarasota News Leader that she was impressed with how quickly a deputy showed up after she called to complain about five vehicles parked in front of her house.)

Sgt. Jason Mruczek listens to a question during the SKA meeting on July 6. Rachel Hackney photo

In response to a question, Mruczek said he was unaware of the Sheriff’s Office having any vehicles towed, but he had no details about private property situations.

Yet another “kink in the works,” so to speak, was an accident on the Stickney Point Road bridge around 9:30 a.m. on July 4, audience members said.

Margaret Jean Cannon reported that she drove by it on her way off the island. “They were fender benders, mostly.”

Mruczek told the approximately 35 people present that because the Florida Highway Patrol investigated the incident, he had no details about what had happened.

SKA Vice President Catherine Luckner also took the opportunity to applaud the Sheriff’s Office for the quick work to put out a grass fire near the beach caused by illegal fireworks.

“[The response] was very well done,” she added.

“It was a bit chaotic at the time,” Lt. Donny Kennard replied, noting, “There are probably about 500 videos [of it] on YouTube.”

Mruczek reported that lifeguards and a couple of deputies grabbed fire extinguishers to fight the flames before the Fire Department crew arrived. Still, he said, because a number of people had left the beach parking lot, the firefighters were able to get to the scene quickly.

As for the trash …

During the July 6 SKA meeting, Cindy Turner, manager of Siesta Public Beach, talked of all the county staff and volunteer efforts that went into preparation before and after the holiday weekend to try to keep the beach as clean as possible.

Planning had been going on for weeks, she said — what she referred to as “the performance before the curtain goes up.”

The county’s Keep Sarasota County Beautiful staff provided 4,000 yellow bags, which county employees and volunteers distributed to beachgoers, she pointed out. The goal was to be able to count how many of those bags people actually disposed of themselves. Although Turner cautioned that the count was not precise, staff estimated that the public used 1,000. “We feel pretty good about the number,” she added, but the total actually might have been a bit higher, as county staff was unable to check the receptacles at the beach accesses before a contractor emptied them in the mornings.

Shawn Yeager and Cindy Turner await their turns to speak during the July 6 SKA meeting. Rachel Hackney photo

As county employees drove along the beach on ATVs and walked through the crowds, Turner continued, they offered bags to people, to supplement the distribution volunteers handled at the beach accesses. “The majority of people [on the beach] were very receptive,” she said.

People had asked her whether she felt the endeavor was a success. “To us, it’s a success,” she pointed out. Yet, staff was still disturbed on the morning of July 5. “It’s disgusting, disheartening, it’s troubling” to see so much debris left on the beach, Turner added.

Nonetheless, she continued, staff who worked on the beach last year after the Fourth assured her, “‘This is nothing; this is half of what we had last year.’”

After Mote Marine volunteers checked for turtle nests, she said, it was about 6:10 when county employees received the “All clear” to tackle the trash.

Turner lauded the many volunteers who came out to help, including those signed up for the Liberty Litter Cleanup sponsored by Keep Sarasota County Beautiful. The owners of the Beach Club, The Cottage and The Hub Baja Grill in Siesta Village also had organized volunteers to help, she noted.

One couple, who were visiting Siesta from Tennessee, came up to offer their assistance, Turner noted. They were staying in a condo across from the beach, she said, and they told her they had talked about how bad the garbage situation must be on the morning of July 5. They have been coming to Siesta for 10 years, Turner added. They told her, “‘We love this beach,’” so they just wanted to help.

By 8:30 a.m., Turner said, everything was clean.

“Somebody said, ‘How do you stop that trash?’” Turner continued. “I don’t know that you can.”

The lifeguards counted more than 50,000 people on the public beach — just in the area between the lifeguard stands — from Saturday, July 1 through July 4, she pointed out.

Trash bags are strewn along the northern part of Siesta Public Beach. Photo contributed by Michael Shay

One factor that contributes to the trash left on the beach, she noted, is the consumption of alcohol. “I saw a lot of intoxicated young people.”

In fact, she said, she tried to shame some of them into collecting their trash by stooping to pick up beer bottles and offering yellow trash bags to the young people next to the bottles.

As Michael Shay, organizer of a Liberty Litter Cleanup crew on July 5, had told the News Leader last week, Turner related to the SKA audience that county staff referred to one area of the beach as “Tent City.” “It was tent to tent to tent to tent of young people,” Turner explained.

As the thunderstorm began — and the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce fireworks show came to a fast end — people “took off running,” Turner pointed out. During the cleanup, she continued, “We found a lot of cellphones.” (That comment drew gasps from some SKA audience members.) Additionally, “a lot of beach chairs” with all sorts of college logos were in the same area the next morning, she added. “I’m picky about litter,” Turner said. Nonetheless, she confessed, “I’m not sure I would have carried my aluminum chair in that lightning.”

A better ‘butt’ situation

The issue of cigarette butt litter also arose again during the July 6 SKA meeting. Siesta businessman Michael Holderness brought it up, describing one recent day when rain and the resulting stormwater, combined with the high tide, ended up washing a lot of butts into the storm drains.

One of the new cigarette butt receptacles stands at the beach access west of Givens Street, off Ocean Boulevard. Rachel Hackney photo

About two days later, he said, he saw “literally thousands of [butts] on the beach,” and they appeared to be from the Village.

Would it be possible, he asked Sgt. Jason Mruczek and Lt. Donny Kennard of the Sheriff’s Office, to erect signs in the Village, warning people they could be fined $250, for example, for littering cigarette butts.

Enforcement is not the key, Kennard replied. Appealing to people from an emotional level on that type of issue works best, he said. Therefore, Kennard recommended an educational campaign to encourage people to throw their cigarette butts in the garbage containers in the Village.

Shawn Yeager, who manages the beaches and water accesses as a staff member of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, reminded the audience about the $5,000 grant Keep Sarasota County Beautiful received earlier this year that enabled staff to install 39 cigarette butt receptacles at the Siesta and Turtle public beaches, as well as at the beach accesses.

Cindy Turner, the Siesta Beach manager, added that Keep America Beautiful research has shown that for every receptacle in use, the county should see a 9% decrease in the number of butts people litter. “We’re emptying those weekly,” she added of the receptacles.

In August, Turner continued, county staff will undertake another count of butts on the beach to determine how much of an impact the grant initiative has had by that time.

She did tell the SKA audience that county crews have found far fewer butts on the beach after the Drum Circle is held.

Keep Sarasota County Beautiful would like to work with the Siesta Chamber, the SKA and other groups to try to find more grant opportunities, including funding to help with a program in the Village, Turner continued.

Three or four areas in the Village should be the focal points for such an initiative, Holderness replied.

Watch out for the turtles!

With turtles appearing to be on track — no pun intended — for another record-breaking nesting season, Siesta residents recently raised concerns about holes beachgoers are leaving.

One person sent the News Leader a photo of a turtle trapped in a hole, pointing out that the creatures cannot just back up if they start into a trench someone has left on the shore.

A turtle is trapped in a hole on a beach. Contributed photo

After checking with staff in response to a News Leader query, county spokesman Drew Winchester reported in a July 10 email that Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department employees are working with the SKA leaders and others to increase awareness of the situation and to educate visitors about the danger to turtles.

On its website, Mote Marine’s turtle nesting tips includes this advisory: “[B]each furniture, trash and other obstacles can impede sea turtles and their young.”

Nesting season began on May 1 and will conclude on Oct. 31.

The photo sent to the News Leader was not taken on Siesta Beach, Winchester added.

As of the latest count from Mote Marine Laboratory — documenting nests for the week of July 2-8 — Siesta had a total of 488 nests, while Casey Key led the way with 1,400. In comparison, Siesta Key had 310 nests for the same period of the 2016 nesting season, although 1,437 were reported by that time on Casey Key.

The July 2-8 report said the Manatee side of Longboat Key had 442, while the Sarasota side of that island had 557. Lido Beach had 112 nests, and Venice had 443.

Mote Marine provides regular updates on turtle nesting as the season progresses. Image courtesy Mote Marine

The week of July 24-30, 2016, Siesta Key broke its previous record of 408 total nests, set in 2015.

Mote’s final count for 2016 nests put the Siesta total at 476. Altogether, the county had 4,578 last year.

‘An everybody issue’

During the July 6 SKA meeting, audience members voiced frustration that insufficient public attention is being paid to the potential dredging of Big Pass to renourish about 1.6 miles of South Lido Key.

One man told the directors it was his first time attending an SKA meeting, and he was present because of seeing the nonprofit’s full-page advertisement in the July issue of Siesta Sand.

The headline is, “Boaters/Businesses: Will this recreational area be destroyed?” The ad features photos of boats and people on the sandbar in Big Pass and explains facets of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/City of Sarasota proposal for removing about 1.2 million cubic yards of sand from the pass. (See the related story in this issue.)

The SKA paid for this ad in the July 2017 Siesta Sand. Image courtesy SKA

There is nothing in the ad “that is not factually based,” SKA Vice President Catherine Luckner told the approximately 35 attendees of the meeting.

Bob Spicer, who recently became an SKA director, explained that the SKA board members have a strategy for more extensive advertising. “This board just needs to agree when and where [to place those ads].”

“People think this is a sand war between Lido and Siesta,” Lorna Nagler said. “This affects everybody. How do we get the word out?”

Nagler continued, “It’s not an environmental issue. It’s an everybody issue.”

She suggested more use of social media, perhaps with the hashtag #savebigpass.

Luckner pointed out that Spicer — who has an extensive professional marketing background — worked on the Siesta Sand ad with fellow SKA Director Joe Volpe and Dave Thomas, a longtime member of the SKA’s Environmental Committee.

Lorna Nagler. Rachel Hackney photo

Then Luckner explained to new members that the original Save Our Sand group was an SKA committee that fought to prevent the City of Venice from dredging Big Pass for a beach renourishment project more than 20 years ago, in the early 1990s. (The nonprofit Save Our Siesta Sand 2 — SOSS2 — is chaired by Peter van Roekens, who served as an SKA director for many years before his retirement from the board in 2014.)

The SKA and SOS won that fight in 1994, Luckner continued. In fact, she said, the same law firm that represented SOS in that legal challenge is the firm that the SKA hired for the current challenge: Hopping Green & Sams of Tallahassee.

SOSS2’s members “essentially are partners with us now,” she explained, as the two nonprofits are sharing resources for the upcoming Florida Division of Administrative Hearings proceeding in late August. That will be the first forum for the legal challenges to be fully heard, she added.