New funding agreement inked for the Breeze; road swap process explained; Memorial Day weekend promises big crowds and lots of trash; deputies making progress at Accesses 1 and 2; island hurricane practice rumors dispelled; county’s Emergency Services leaders demonstrate great rapport with audiences; snowy plover nests discovered on the Key; and an update on turtle nesting
Thanks to a unanimous County Commission vote on May 8, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) will contribute $431,876 to the Siesta Key Breeze open-air trolley through the rest of the state’s current fiscal year, as well as FY19.
Additionally, a staff memo provided to the board says the Breeze in March recorded its highest ridership mark since it began operating in March 2017: 36,195.
Officially, the board last week approved the execution of an agreement with FDOT for Public Transit Block Grant program funding. The action came as part of the vote on the May 8 Consent Agenda of routine business items.
A county staff memo explained that Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) began a new Route 10 on Siesta Key in July 2014 with grant funding through an FDOT joint participation agreement. In March 2017, SCAT launched the Breeze, replacing the buses. To continue operating the trolley, the memo continued, the new joint participation agreement was necessary so FDOT financial support could be secured through Dec. 31, 2019.
On Aug. 24, 2017, the memo said, the county’s Procurement Official authorized an amendment to the contract the county had approved with Ride Right LLC to operate the trolley. That amendment renewed the contract through Feb. 28 of this year. Then, Amendment No. 2 won the Procurement Official’s approval; the contract was renewed for another six months for $627,191.60, the memo explained.
The total amount covered in the agreement is $863,752 for each of two years, the memo noted. FDOT is covering 25% of the expense of operating the Breeze, the memo explained, while a Federal Transit Administration grant will pay 50% of the expense and the county will pick up the remaining 25% as a match for the federal funds.
As a result of keeping ridership records, the memo pointed out, SCAT has found the peak period is February through April. “The lowest ridership occurred in September and October 2017,” the memo added.
SCAT adjusted the service levels for the Breeze on May 1, reducing the number of trolleys operating Monday through Thursday, the memo said. The Breeze will continue to run from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and from 10 a.m. to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, the memo noted.
Road swap process clarified
Rumors continue to fly about the proposed Sarasota County/FDOT road swap involving River Road in South County and the roads that traverse the Key. In response to Sarasota News Leader questions, Zachary Burch, government affairs and communications manager for FDOT, reported in a May 14 email that he was able to confirm that the segment of Stickney Point Road west of U.S. 41 — which is included in the proposed deal — was an FDOT recommendation.
In a telephone discussion last week with the News Leader, Burch emphasized what L.K. Nandam, FDOT’s District One secretary, had written county staff in a May 2 letter: The goal was to match miles for miles as much as possible in the swap. Burch added in his May 14 email, “We take a number of factors into account when looking for road swap options, including lane miles, maintenance responsibilities, regional significance, and many others. Sarasota [County leaders] did express their unwillingness to take over the Stickney Point Bridge, which was originally part of our offer, and we removed it.”
Further, Burch explained the process to achieve the swap. “[O]nce both the County and State agree on the road transfer limits and terms, [the initiative] includes a legal review by both the County and State [and] the County must pass a resolution supporting the transfer,” he wrote. A public hearing will be conducted, he continued, and a Cultural Resource Assessment Survey [will be undertaken] by the Florida Division of Historical Resources, which assesses if there are any culturally significant areas that need to be preserved and/or that all sides are aware of them prior to the transfer.”
After all of those steps have been completed, Burch pointed out, “both the State and County would sign the agreement to finalize the transfer.”
Calm before the storm
Sgt. Jason Mruczek, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation on Siesta, told the News Leaderbefore the start of the May 3 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting that deputies relish the calm between the end of spring break season and Memorial Day weekend.
As he pointed out in his report to the SKA members that day, Memorial Day “is by far one of the busiest two to three days of the year,” right up there with July Fourth.
Plans already have been made, he said, to install a signboard at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road, cautioning drivers headed to the Key over Memorial Day weekend that they can expect delays. That sign should be in place a couple of days before May 25, he indicated.
Last year, over Memorial Day weekend, he continued, Sheriff’s Office personnel closed the public beach parking lot for a few hours each day, “just because it got so congested in there.” The closure gave everyone a breather from the fights over spaces, Mruczek noted, adding that he expects deputies will take the same action this year.
SKA Secretary Joyce Kouba told him she recalled the Sheriff’s Office also putting up a sign at the intersection of Beach Road and Midnight Pass Road to let drivers know when the beach parking lot was full.
Mruczek said the sign, as he remembered it, directed people to alternative parking areas, including St. Boniface Episcopal Church, where people can make a donation in exchange for leaving their vehicles.
St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church, which is a little further east on Midnight Pass Road, used to follow a similar practice, Mruczek continued. However, church leaders stopped that after having to contend with a tremendous quantity of garbage last year from beachgoers who used the parking area.
Following up on complaints
During his report to SKA members on May 3, Sgt. Mruczek also offered updates on a series of issues members raised during the April 5 SKA meeting.
First, he asked member Dave Thomas, who lives on the Grand Canal, whether boating problems had eased, noting that he had asked representatives of the Sheriff’s Office Marine Patrol to contact Thomas about speeding boaters.
“I spoke to several people,” Thomas replied. They referred him to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Thomas added, whose staff updated him on efforts regarding signage for the canals to warn boaters not to speed.
“I’ve seen the sheriff’s boat twice this week [on the canal],” Thomas noted. “They were going nice and slow, so I didn’t have to yell at them,” he joked.
The volume of boaters has declined since the height of tourist season ended, Thomas told Mruczek, but some drivers still “push the limit” in terms of speed.
Thomas noted other types of situations that have caused him concern, as well. For example, he continued, “Sometimes you see a boat with no driver; guy’s going into the cooler for a beer. Sometimes it’s a 5-year-old kid driving,” which would not be as much a cause for alarm if an adult were seated next to the child, Thomas pointed out.
SKA President Gene Kusekoski also noted that he lives on the Intracoastal Waterway, and he has been seeing speeding jet skiers. “Is it worth calling somebody about that?” he asked Mruczek. By the time an officer could get to the scene, Kusekoski added, the skiers would be gone. Kusekoski said that most of the problems occur between the Stickney Point Road and the Siesta Drive drawbridges.
If the situation is a recurring one, Mruczek responded, Kusekoski should let him know. Then, Mruczek would contact the Marine Patrol about keeping an eye on the area.
“Most days, it’s random,” Kusekoski said, noting that on one occasion, he saw “a couple of kids” run aground on an oyster bed.
A woman in the audience told Mruczek that she has been worried about people in kayaks and on paddleboards who have had near misses with speeding boats as they move from the bayous into Sarasota Bay. “No Wake Zone” signs used to stand at the locations where the bayous empty into the bay, she said.
When Mruczek asked her about the specific spots she was referencing, she said she was talking about Bayou Louise and Bayou Hansen on the northern end of the island.
“I will pass that along to our Marine Patrol, as well,” he replied.
Regarding issues at Beach Accesses 1 and 2, Mruczek noted that deputies have “been to Access 1 a lot, especially after 9 p.m.,” when the public parking hours end there.
A couple attending the April SKA meeting complained about loud partying and about people letting dogs run loose on the beach at Access 1, which faces Big Pass at the end of North Shell Road.
“I think we’ve had a lot of success with enforcement there,” Mruczek told the May SKA audience.
Additionally, he continued, “Access 2 has been a lot better.” Nonetheless, he noted, the Sheriff’s Office has received some reports of “vehicles going very fast on [Avenida] Messina,” toward the heart of Siesta Village, from Access 2.
The previous day, he said, a person in a big truck was ticketed for careless driving on Avenida Messina. “Hopefully, that will deter some other behaviors.”
When Mruczek started taking questions, a man in the audience asked whether it is legal to pass the Siesta Key Breeze trolley when it stops to pick up passengers on Midnight Pass Road. (The trolley circulates between Turtle Beach Park and Morton’s Siesta Market on Canal Road in the Village.)
“I’m going through my rolodex of traffic laws,” Mruczek replied as he thought about the question. “I’ll look into that one.”
In a May 9 telephone interview with the News Leader, Mruczek said his research had determined that no one can pass the trolley when it is in a No Passing Zone. Given that almost all of the Breeze’s route is along roads with double yellow lines, he added, people just need to be patient. “That is my official answer.”
They cannot pass the Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) buses, either, he pointed out, when those vehicles are picking up or dropping off riders in No Passing Zones.
Yet another question at the SKA meeting focused on service vehicles parking for long periods of time in the center turn lane on Midnight Pass Road.
“That can’t be done,” Mruczek replied.
It is common for beer and food delivery trucks to park in the center turn lane in Siesta Village, Mruczek continued, but they usually complete their business quickly enough that deputies do not ask them to leave. Short periods for such parking are all right, he added.
Then Kusekoski explained that he had made note of a cement truck parked in the center turn lane near his home on Midnight Pass Road for an hour or two.
Mruczek told Kusekoski that deputies would keep an eye out for that type of situation.
When Sarasota County Emergency Management Chief Ed McCrane appeared at the May 3 SKA meeting to offer an update on new hurricane procedures, he took questions, as usual, after he concluded his presentation.
Erin Kreis, a new SKA board member, asked whether the drawbridges were opened after the evacuation of the Key was ordered ahead of Irma’s arrival in September 2017. She stayed with friends in Georgia, she pointed out, but people told her that such action was taken with the bridges.
McCrane assured her that the bridges are locked in the down position. Notices to Marinersare sent in advance to owners of vessels tall enough not to be able to proceed under the bridges, he added.
Kreis said she also heard that county staff turned off the water to the island after the Irma evacuation was ordered.
The staff of the Public Utilities Department does depressurize the water and sewer systems after people have had time to evacuate, McCrane explained. “We do it to protect the equipment,” he added. It is not a measure designed to make people more likely to evacuate, he said.
In response to a question from Margaret Jean Cannon about returning to the island after a storm, McCrane explained that county staff will employ a color code system. Red will mean conditions remain unsafe; yellow will mean access will be restricted to property owners. Green will be the sign that anyone can go onto the island.
Residents will need photo identification, he pointed out, if they want to go onto the Key during a Yellow code, McCrane added. If someone has an out-of-state driver’s license, he explained, the person can use a Sarasota County utility bill, for example, to prove that the person is a property owner on Siesta.
Additionally, he said, if a property owner has hired someone to assist with clearing debris after a storm, for example, that contractor will need a letter from the property owner making it clear that the contractor has permission to go to that specific address.
Responding to a related question, McCrane acknowledged, “We kept the bridge blocked for a little bit” after Irma so the Public Utilities staff could get the water pressure back up on Siesta.
A longer delay was imposed on access to Lido and Longboat keys, he pointed out. Lido had 12 Australian pines that blew down, blocking the roadway, while Longboat had power lines down.
Great rapport with the audience
In years past, when the Siesta Key Association (SKA) hosted its annual hurricane outlook program, county Emergency Management Chief Ed McCrane came alone. Last year and again this year, McCrane was joined by Rich Collins, his boss, who is the county’s emergency services director.
Collins seems as at ease with the public as McCrane and as ready to flash his sense of humor.
On May 3, before McCrane began his in-depth report on changes in county procedures for hurricane season, Collins stepped to the podium. How many of the approximately 40 people present, he asked, watched “all the spaghetti models” the National Hurricane Center provided last September as weather prognosticators tried to figure out where Irma was going to go?
A lot of hands flew into the air.
“I quit eating spaghetti after Hurricane Irma,” Collins said.
His daughter, he continued, has teased him that if she has a daughter one day, she plans to name the child Irma.
Collins also described the county’s Emergency Services staff watching Irma’s path shift as she approached the Florida peninsula. On the afternoon or night of Sept. 9 — before she finally struck the Florida Keys on Sept. 10, he pointed out — the National Weather Service team in Ruskin underscored the potential danger for the west coast of the state. “Their almost exact words were, ‘This is the storm we never hoped would happen.’”
Then, after Irma “took a jog to the east,” Collins continued, instead of 10 feet of storm surge the westerly track could have brought to the county’s shoreline, Irma ended up pushing all the water out of Sarasota Bay, leaving manatees aground. “To me,” he said, “it speaks to the force and power of a hurricane.”
Collins wrapped up his remarks with the comment, “I like to say the next storm’s going to be 14 years from now, after I retire.”
County Emergency Management Chief Ed McCrane is well known for flavoring his presentations with a wide variety of anecdotes. When he spoke to SKA members on May 3, he once again managed to sprinkle in a few.
For example, McCrane reminded the audience that once storm winds become sustained at 45 mph, no emergency responders are allowed out on the roads out of concern their vehicles could be flipped by gusts. During Irma’s passage through the area, he said, 320 calls for assistance “were held up.” It was 1:30 a.m. on Sept. 11, he added, before those first responders could begin handling the backlog. Still, McCrane noted, by sun-up, all the calls had been cleared.
When he was working with the state during Hurricane Ivan’s strike in September 2004, he said, 950 calls were “stacked” when the wind level reached 45 mph sustained.
Nesting birds update
In her May 11 update, Sarasota Audubon steward Kylie Wilson reported, “The biggest news this week is the discovery of two new Snowy Plover nests on Siesta! Our very dedicated volunteer and Siesta resident, Dick, found the first nest on Saturday with one egg in it. The Snowy momma continued laying eggs slowly over the course of the week and yesterday was spotted laying on a full clutch of three eggs! Keep your hopes high and start the 28-day countdown for chicks!”
She continued, “The other nest was very well hidden [her emphasis]. We had been seeing a female that appeared gravid (with eggs) for the past couple weeks but hadn’t been able to find a nest. Come to find out she is hunkered down on a mound, tucked away back in the grasses. We are unsure of how long this female has been incubating so there may be chicks sooner than we thought!!”
No turtle nests as of May 12
With Mote Marine having released its first three counts of sea turtle nests this season, Siesta had none as of May 12.
Although the season officially starts May 1, nests were found in April, Mote reported.
Neighboring Casey Key had eight loggerhead nests as of May 12, the Mote records showed, with nine on Longboat and one on Lido Key, for a grand total of seven on those islands. Another two had been discovered on Venice Beach.
Last year, for the same period, a total of 50 loggerhead nests had been reported on the county’s beaches, with five on Siesta.
No green turtle nests had been reported as of May 12, Mote data showed.