Siesta Seen

‘Dr. Beach’ says vacated North Beach Road segment should remain closed; Siesta Breeze ridership remains strong; beach park graffiti not gang-related; sea turtle nesting breaking new records; and Mike Cosentino chastises Nancy Commissioner Detert

Stephen Leatherman addresses members of the Siesta Key Association on Dec. 1, 2016. File photo

No less an authority on beach issues than “Dr. Beach” himself has weighed in on the Reopen Beach Road initiative, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

And Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman of Florida International University has offered his professional opinion that the 357-foot-long segment of North Beach Road that the County Commission vacated in May 2016 should remain off limits to vehicles.

In an Aug. 18 letter to the commission, Leatherman wrote, “I have personally inspected the section of Beach Road that is closed to vehicular traffic on Siesta Key and concluded that the present situation of pedestrian access only is best from an environmental standpoint.”

Leatherman continued, “The beach is very narrow in this location, and hence this area is subject to storm-induced overwash and erosion, making it difficult to maintain a serviceable road for cars. Also, it is not necessary for this short section of Beach road to be open to cars because there is little traffic through this residential area. At the same time, there is ample access for pedestrians.”

Leatherman attached his resume, which notes that he is a professor in Florida International University’s Department of Earth & Environment. He has written or edited 16 books and National Academy of Sciences reports, including articles titled America’s Best Beaches and Sea Level Rise: Causes and Consequences; and he has authored more than 200 journal articles and technical reports, including submissions that have appeared in the prestigious publications Science and Nature, the resume says. Further, he has provided expert testimony on 10 occasions for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, the resume notes.

Leatherman most recently made a public appearance on Siesta Key when he named the public beach No. 1 in the United States just before the start of Memorial Day weekend in May. In December 2016, in conjunction with a presentation Leatherman made to Siesta Key Association (SKA) members, he made it clear that pedestrian and bicycle access to a beach — with the resulting decrease in motor vehicles — is an important consideration when he compiles his Top 10 list each year. Siesta has headed that list twice in this decade, with 2011 marking the first occasion.

Leatherman’s letter came a little more than two weeks after representatives of the nonprofit organization Reopen Beach Road urged the audience members at the SKA’s Aug. 3 meeting to support them in reversing the County Commission’s road vacation vote.

The affected portion of North Beach Road has been closed to traffic since 1993 because of the repeated storm damage.

Two of the property owners who petitioned successfully for the road vacation have installed a rope-and-bollard barrier to prevent cars and trucks from accessing the portion of the road the county vacated in May 2016. However, public signage erected by the county makes it clear that any member of the public is welcome on that stretch, as long as the person is not in a motor vehicle.

They keep on riding

The Siesta Key Breeze waits to turn from Canal Road onto Ocean Boulevard on the morning of March 20. File photo

During the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce’s quarterly meeting in August, Chair Mark Smith announced the latest ridership figures for the Siesta Key Breeze open-air trolley.

For the month of July, he reported, the free service had 25,506 riders.

Since the Breeze was launched on March 20, he added, the total number of riders through July was 121,059, based on figures he received from Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT).

“That’s at least 60,000 cars since March 20 that didn’t have to drive down Midnight Pass,” Smith pointed out.

The calculation Smith says he has been using is that the average vehicle on the Key has two passengers; thus, for every two people who use the Breeze, one vehicle is not on the road.

“That’s substantial,” he added of the total thus far.

In an update for the County Commission — which held its last budget workshop of the year on Aug. 21 — SCAT reported that the total cost of the Breeze for its first two years of operation will be about $863,700. A Federal Transit Authority grant covers $431,900 of that expense, and a grant from the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) provides $215,900. That leaves the county paying only $215,900 for the service.

“I … want to thank my fellow commissioners, who have always supported that trolley,” Commissioner Alan Maio said after Assistant County Administrator Jonathan Lewis reviewed the figures that morning. Averaging busier and slower periods, Maio pointed out, the Breeze has had ridership between 23,000 and 24,000 a month. “That’s all positive; that’s all great.”

Earlier this year, SCAT Director Rocky Burke committed to keeping the Breeze operating indefinitely, saying his staff would find the funding to do so.

Graffiti not gang-related

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

Because the Aug. 16 Siesta Chamber quarterly membership meeting followed so soon after graffiti was found spray-painted at Siesta Public Beach and in other locations on the island, that topic also arose.

Chair Mark Smith noted that a fence along Treasure Boat Way, a facility used by Frontier Communications and a condo building also were spray-painted, or “tagged,” as the addition of graffiti is called.

Smith pointed out that when the county undertook its two-year renovation project at the beach — which officially concluded in February 2016 — staff included wiring for security cameras. However, apparently because of the expense, no cameras ever were installed.

Perhaps it is time the county found the funding to take that extra step, Smith continued, as surveillance video might have led to the identification of suspects.

“This is a real shame,” he added of the situation.

Sgt. Jason Mruczek. File photo

Kay Kouvatsos of Village Café suggested that perhaps, because of concerns about disrupting turtles during nesting season, the county had installed such a low level of nighttime lighting that cameras would not be able to pick up images well after dark. More sophisticated cameras that could operate in such low-level lighting, she added, would be a lot costlier.

“We’re talking Green Beret type of stuff,” Smith concurred laughingly.

“We just all need to be vigilant,” he added, keeping an eye out for suspicious activity at night and in the early-morning hours.

Then Michael Shay asked Sgt. Jason Mruczek, the Sheriff’s Office’s substation leader on the Key, whether the graffiti appeared to be gang-related. Shay added that he had heard a rumor that since “Orlando” was one of the words spray-painted on structures, the perpetrators were from an Orlando gang.

“It did not appear to be associated with any known gangs,” Mruczek replied, noting that that was the view of the department detectives who deal with gangs.

Sea turtles continue to set nesting records

Along with the other barrier islands, Siesta Key has continued to see its number of sea turtle nests climb to record levels this season, Mote Marine Laboratory has reported.

Through Aug. 19 — the latest figures available prior to the News Leader’s deadline this week — 630 nests had been reported on Siesta, compared to 447 for the same period of 2016, Mote said.

Casey Key still led all locations in that Aug. 19 report, with a total of 1,809.

On Aug. 8, with the turtle nesting season at its halfway mark, a record-breaking number of nests had been counted from Longboat Key to Venice, Mote Public Relations Manager Shelby Isaacson wrote in a news release: 4,385 loggerhead and 77 green turtle nests. “This is an increase of more than 1 percent for loggerheads and 1,183 percent for green sea turtles compared with the entire 2016 nesting season,” Isaacson added.

Mote Marine Laboratory provides weekly statistics during turtle nesting season. Image courtesy Mote Marine

Four of the green turtle nests have been discovered on Siesta, Mote’s data show.

Nesting season officially begins on May 1 and concludes on Oct. 31.

Mote’s Sea Turtle Conservation and Research Program is in its 36th year, Isaacson noted.

Going after Detert

Even though county staff had scheduled just one business item on the County Commission’s Aug. 23 agenda — a public hearing on a construction and yard waste recycling plant proposed near the Celery Fields — the board allowed public comments on other topics, as always.

Mike Consentino addresses the County Commission on Jan. 25. File photo

Only two speakers took advantage of that Open to the Public period before the hearing began, and one of them was Mike Cosentino. This time, Cosentino identified himself as president of Cosentino Construction as well as president of Reopen Beach Road.

“You all know who I am,” he quickly added. “You know why I’m here.”

When he appeared before the board on May 24, he continued, he “brought to light” the fact that two of the commissioners had received campaign contributions from an individual who does not live in the county or vote in the county. Yet, those commissioners “voted for the illegal and short-sighted giveaway of Beach Road.”

During those May comments, Cosentino talked of his research regarding Dennis and Wendy Madden, who were among the couples who petitioned last year for the 357-foot-long road segment to be vacated. Cosentino said they had given money to Chair Paul Caragiulo and Commissioner Alan Maio, who were elected to the board in 2014.

After he concluded his remarks that day, Cosentino pointed out on Aug. 23, Vice Chair Nancy Detert told her colleagues, “‘I didn’t know we had to listen to that,’” as Cosentino put it.

As the News Leader reported in early June, what transpired was as follows:

Addressing Caragiulo, Detert said, “Apparently, you believe in true democracy, where anybody can get up and say anything to us for 3 minutes, and it’s kind of a nice philosophy. Most of us would get angry or upset or want to rebut.”

Allowing Cosentino to levy allegations against the board members without their offering any responses — as is their protocol — is “kind of a new concept to me,” Detert added. “To be accused of some of the things that speaker comes and tells us at every meeting, it’s a little hard to sit through. I just congratulate your calmness and fairness, frankly,” she said to Caragiulo.

Commissioner Nancy Detert. File photo

On Aug. 23, Cosentino told the board members that Thomas Jefferson said, “It’s not only our duty but our obligation to bring light when our government is not being responsive to us.” Therefore, Cosentino added, “I feel it is my duty and obligation to point these things out. That is why I have a lawsuit against this county. … That’s why you are going to keep seeing me until Beach Road has reopened and justice is served.”

Singling out Detert, he reminded her that when she was sworn in as a commissioner in November 2016, she told the audience she felt that she had become akin to a police officer in that it is her duty on the board to serve and protect.

“You’re either part of the problem or you’re part of the solution,” Cosentino said to her on Aug. 23. “In my opinion, you have chosen to not be part of the solution. I am not quite certain who it is you are protecting and serving, but it is not me.”