Siesta Seen

An FDOT ‘oops’ occurs on Siesta and Higel; graffiti discovered at Siesta Public Beach and on Frontier Communications property; the new fence along Siesta Drive also an FDOT project; people urged to keep vehicles locked to avoid burglaries; Turtle Beach Campground improvements underway; and FDOT warns about upcoming short-term, nighttime bridge lane closures

A red flag is attached to the new 30 mph sign just south of the entrance to Roberts Point Road from Higel Avenue. Rachel Hackney photo

If you spent much time driving along Siesta Drive and Higel Avenue from Aug. 11 through the middle of this week, you probably wondered what was going on with the changing speed limit signs.

Zachary Burch, government affairs & communications manager for the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), told The Sarasota News Leader that crews from the department’s Manatee Operations Office were supposed to install new signs lowering the speed limit from 40 mph to 30 mph just in the vicinity of the sharp curve where Higel intersects with Siesta Drive.

In an Aug. 15 email, he wrote, “Unfortunately [the signs] were placed incorrectly. We removed the ones that were in the wrong areas. The ones that currently remain are still not exactly correct and we will be adjusting them soon. They should be located 110 feet south of Ogden Street and 90 feet east of Flamingo Avenue. We apologize for the confusion and will have them corrected very soon.”

He added in a subsequent email, “They don’t make many mistakes when they do these installations, but when you install thousands of signs in a year, there is bound to be one.”

In June, a different FDOT spokesman told the News Leader that the 30-mph signs were expected to be posted by mid-July in an effort to reduce the potential for accidents in the sharp curve.

When the News Leader first contacted Burch on Aug. 10 to ask about the reason for the delay in the signs going up, he replied that a regulation formally lowering the speed limit from 40 mph to 30 mph had to be approved first. That had been accomplished, he added, “and we are in the process of getting the new lower speed limit signs and having them installed. Crews from our Manatee Operations Office will be installing them very soon.”

Electronic warning signs alert drivers to their speed just east of the curve on Siesta Drive. Rachel Hackney photo

After the News Leader reported to Burch late on the afternoon of Aug. 11 that the speed limit all along Siesta Drive and Higel Avenue had been lowered to 30 mph, he checked with other staff and then indicated that a mistake might have been made. He added that FDOT personnel would be inspecting the situation on Aug. 14.

Graffiti found at beach park

About 4 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 12, a homeless person from Pennsylvania discovered that graffiti had been sprayed on the outside walls of the main restroom building at the historic pavilion in Siesta Public Beach Park, the Sheriff’s Office reported.

More graffiti covered the wall where the soft drink machines are located, the Sheriff’s Office report added.

A Sarasota County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR) attendant contacted the Sheriff’s Office shortly before 8 a.m. on Aug. 12 and spoke with Deputy Chris McGregor, the report said. She added that no video cameras operate in the vicinity of the pavilion, according to the Sheriff’s Office report.

The 56-year-old homeless man told McGregor he left the pavilion about 11 p.m. on Aug. 11. The man added that he had not seen any possible suspects in the area, the Sheriff’s Office report noted.

Graffiti covered walls at Siesta Public Beach Park over the weekend. Photo courtesy of the Siesta Sand Facebook page, via Bob Brown

McGregor spoke to a second homeless person who also said he had not seen any potential suspects, the report added.

In response to a query from the News Leader, county Media Relations Officer Jason Bartolone wrote in an Aug. 14 email, “Staff from our Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources department and from our facilities maintenance team have begun to paint all the areas impacted and we expect the cleanup to be completed today, barring any weather issues.”

The damage was estimated at $900, the Sheriff’s Office report noted.

More graffiti is evident on walls near the pavilion. Photo courtesy Sarasota County Government

In a related incident, graffiti also was discovered on property at 5600 Midnight Pass Road owned by Frontier Communications. That apparently occurred on the night of Aug. 11, as well, according to two Sheriff’s Office reports, filed by separate officers.

In the first report, Deputy Kyle McNight wrote that on Aug. 12, he was conducting business checks about 6:30 p.m. in the area “after hearing about the criminal mischief” at the beach park. When he entered the Frontier site, he continued, he “noticed several different areas had been vandalized with spray paint. Several of the markings and phrases were a … match to the other criminal mischief that had occurred at 948 Beach Rd …”

He had been in the area between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. and had not seen any graffiti or “suspicious looking persons around the building,” he wrote.

A wall near the soft drink machine also had been sprayed. Photo by Bob Brown on the Siesta Sand Facebook page

McKnight was unable to contact anyone at the substation, he added, noting that “work vans are in and out of the area during normal business hours.”

A deputy on routine patrol just before 8 a.m. on Aug. 13 also noticed the graffiti, which — he wrote — had been spray-painted on a mirror, a building and a generator fuel tank at the unmanned location. As with the beach park, Deputy Scott Baker noted, no surveillance cameras appeared to be positioned on the property. “There are no known suspects or witnesses at this time,” he added.

About that new Siesta Drive fence …

Motorists heading on and off Siesta Key over recent days most certainly have noticed that a fence and swing gate are being installed along the road just east of the north drawbridge, adjacent to the lookout over Sarasota Bay.

In response to a News Leader question about the project, Jan Thornburg, senior communications manager for the City of Sarasota, wrote in an Aug. 14 email that the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is undertaking the work on the site, which is FDOT property.

A new fence is under construction on FDOT right of way on Siesta Drive. Rachel Hackney photo

“The City, on behalf of the residents of San Remo and Bay Island/Siesta Association, requested enhanced safety and control/access of the area,” Thornburg pointed out. “FDOT agreed.”

The public will continue to have access to the area 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Thornburg noted. However, she added, “Vehicle access will be prohibited between 11 pm and 5 am.

The surrounding neighborhoods have been kept informed during the discussion.”

In response to a News Leader request for details from FDOT about the fence, Zachary Burch, government affairs and communications manager for the department, wrote in an Aug. 15 email, “The City requested that we install the bollards and the gate and FDOT agreed. We should be finishing the installation this week. The City will be responsible for opening and closing the gate. We explained to the City that it must remain open during the daytime hours, and I believe that the agreement was that they would only close it from 11 PM to 5 AM.”

On June 30, Sarasota Vice Mayor Liz Alpert notified Police Chief Bernadette DiPino and City of Sarasota senior staff members that she had received a phone call from a San Remo resident who had reported a number of attempted break-ins and one car theft.

The San Remo neighborhood is on the south side of Siesta Drive, near the FDOT property.

“There have been several neighborhood meetings about [the incidents],” Alpert added in her email, noting that the San Remo residents questioned the safety of the city.

As for break-ins …

During the Aug. 3 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting, Sgt. Jason Mruczek, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation on the Key, told the audience that 10 to 15 vehicle burglaries had been reported in recent weeks on the north end of the island.

He mentioned incidents on Higel Avenue, Treasure Boat Way and Commonwealth Drive, among others.

Most occurred late at night, he added, and “a lot of the cars were unlocked.”

Sgt. Jason Mruczek. File photo

Mruczek reminded the audience members, “Lock your cars; don’t keep anything in plain sight.”

When Mruczek asked whether anyone had questions for him, SKA member Dave Thomas replied, “I have noticed a lot more people just driving around, kind of rubbernecking in our neighborhoods.”

Thomas added, “Some look absolutely like tourists” who have taken the wrong road. However, Thomas continued, “Others [have been] a little bit questionable.”

On Tuesday evenings, Thomas noted, he has grown accustomed to seeing scavengers scouring his neighborhood, looking for items that have been put out for Waste Management to collect on its Wednesday routes on the Key. He has learned to distinguish those drivers from others who appear to have no reason to be in the area, he indicated.

On any occasion when someone sees someone suspicious, Mruczek responded, the person should not hesitate to call the non-emergency number for the Sheriff’s Office: 316-1201. If a matter is urgent, though, Mruczek pointed out, a person should call 911.
“Definitely, keep an eye out,” Mruczek advised residents.

Improvements at the campground

The Turtle Beach Campground will be closed through the end of September, Sarasota County staff informed the County Commission last month, so the water, sewer and electrical infrastructure can be replaced.

By unanimous vote on July 12, the board approved the project without comment. The work was scheduled to begin this month and be completed no later than Sept. 30, according to a memo staff provided the board.

An aerial view shows the location of the Turtle Beach Campground. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The total expense will be $1,050,000, with $974,303.40 to be paid to Tampa Contracting Services of Palmetto. That aligned with county staff’s estimate for the work, the memo indicated.

Commissioner Alan Maio made the motion to approve the work; Commissioner Michael Moran seconded it. No member of the public had signed up to comment on the plans.

The staff memo pointed out that the county purchased the campground in 2006. During the 2016 fiscal year, the memo continued, the facility had an occupancy rate of 83%, generating revenue of $536,000.

The water and sewer lines and electrical equipment date to about 1970, the memo added.

“The age of the infrastructure and the maintenance to keep it in a safe and working condition has become problematic and has increased in the last two years,” the memo explained. “The environmental impact on these systems from the salt air and moisture due to the close proximity to the Gulf of Mexico has accelerated system fatigue.”

“Further,” the memo continued, “RV campers have become larger than when the campground infrastructure was first installed and their increased service demands are taxing the systems. For these reasons, [the county’s] Facilities Maintenance [Division staff] has recommended that the water/sewer/electrical infrastructure within the Turtle Beach Campground … be replaced as soon as possible … to minimize the potential for a catastrophic failure,” the memo said.

This is the view from the Turtle Beach Campground looking toward South Midnight Pass Road. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

Campground customers were notified that reservations would be suspended for the two-month period projected for the work, the memo pointed out.

As for hiring the firm to undertake the work: The memo said that although representatives of 70 firms viewed the solicitation, only two vendors attended the non-mandatory, pre-bid meeting, and only one submitted a bid. Procurement Department staff contacted the other vendor, the memo added, but could not get a response as to why it submitted no bid. “Noteworthy is that the qualifications were revised at the pre-bid meeting based on the vendor’s request,” the memo continued, “but even so, the firm did not bid on the project.”

In evaluating potential reasons for the receipt of the single bid, staff considered the following factors, the memo pointed out:

  • “The construction industry is booming, resulting in fewer bidders.” Another recent project that went to bid also resulted in just one response, the memo noted. That was the Blind Pass Septic Sewer Upgrades Project.
  • “This project has a very tight construction schedule consisting only of the months of August and September,” and the contractor is required to pay cash damages if the work is not finished on time. “This limited schedule is designed to complete the improvements before seasonal campers return,” the memo added.
  • “It is primarily site work during the rainy season.
  • “It is in a somewhat remote area with high traffic.”

On June 1, the memo continued, Procurement Department staff issued a Notice of Recommended Award for Tampa Contracting Services.

Because only one firm bid on the project, the memo pointed out, staff did weigh the option of delaying the project for a year. However, that idea was rejected, the memo said, because staff determined the risk that the infrastructure could fail was too high, and construction costs likely would increase.

Bridge maintenance alert!

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) District One Roadwatch Report for the week of Aug. 13 offered these advisories for Siesta Key:

  • State Road 758 (Siesta Drive) at the Siesta Key drawbridge: Crews will be undertaking a bridge maintenance project, with nighttime/overnight east- and westbound lane closures planned from 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 24, to 4 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 23, and from 9 p.m. on Aug. 24 to 4 a.m. on Aug. 25. “Use caution and expect possible delays,” the report adds.

State Road 72 at the Stickney Point drawbridge: Crews will be undertaking a bridge maintenance project, with nighttime/overnight east- and westbound lane closures planned from 9 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 28, to 4 a.m. on Aug. 29 and from 9 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 31, to 4 a.m. on Sept. 1. “Use caution and expect possible delays,” the report says.