Rope-and-post systems still will have to be permitted through county Coastal Setback Variance process, commissioners decide
It took almost exactly an hour — including comments from five speakers — for the Sarasota County Commission on Sept. 28 to settle on a revised ordinance governing the use of signage designed to prevent people from trespassing on private beach property.
In response to concerns expressed by speakers, the commissioners agreed to reduce the separation between signs or flags from 250 feet to 50 feet. They also concurred on allowing 8-foot flags as a means of denoting private beach areas, and they agreed to the use of sandwich boards.
However, in spite of a request from Casey Key homeowners, the commissioners refrained from proposing any changes to the county’s Coastal Setback Code in regard to use of rope-and-post or chain-and-post systems to warn away trespassers.
That decision followed Assistant County Attorney David Pearce’s explanation that the Coastal Setback Code requires board approval for such systems, as they are considered fences under the provisions of county law.
Pearce noted concerns of the county’s Environmental Protection Division staff that rope-and-post fencing can be potentially harmful to nesting sea turtles: Turtles could become entangled in such systems.
Laly Ballard, who was representing homeowners on south Casey Key, urged the commissioners to allow private property owners to erect rope-and-post fencing in the vegetation line as yet another means of warning members of the public off their parcels. “We don’t feel that that is going to deter anything other than large human trespassers,” she pointed out.
Both Ballard and Chris Tribelli, another south Casey Key homeowner, stressed that persons who own private property can be held liable for accidents involving people crossing their lands.
He closed on his property in May, Tribelli said. “The amount of trespassing and lawlessness that I’ve seen on my property is just unbelievable.”
A woman who was on his property just that morning insisted that the entire beach is open to the public, Tribelli added. One of his neighbors had to tell her that she was wrong, he said.
“I’m against ropes, posts, fences,” Commissioner Nancy Detert told her colleagues as they discussed further tweaks to the draft ordinance that they had talked about during the initial public hearing, which was conducted on Aug. 24.
When she asked Pearce what recourse people have when conflicts arise over who owns a portion of the beach, he replied that the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office handles trespassing issues.
“You’re not going to [call the Sheriff’s Office] in the middle of a sunny day when you’re both in your swimsuits arguing,” Detert told Pearce. “I’m looking for an ordinance that [the public] can depend on, that the people understand …”
He referred her to Chapter 810 of the Florida Statutes, which includes sections on trespassing and unauthorized entry on land.
“I think we need to start educating the public about these rules,” Detert said.
At another point during the discussion, Detert emphasized, “I think no individual owns the natural environment. … What I care about is water wars and conflicts between people who are lucky enough to live on the beach and people who would like to walk on the beach, because they think they have a right to do that.”
In response to a question from Commissioner Christian Ziegler, Pearce noted that language in the County Code allows beachgoers to erect flags, such as an American flag or a U.S. Marine Corps flag, to mark the areas they have staked out on the shoreline. Those flags are governed by Chapter 90 of the County Code, Pearce said.
As the board members neared the making of a motion on updates to the ordinance that Pearce had prepared following the Aug. 24 hearing, Chair Alan Maio stressed that they were doing nothing that would preclude the flying of the American flag.
At the outset of the Sept. 28 hearing, county Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson pointed to changes in the draft ordinance since Aug. 24, on the basis of the discussion that day. Among them, she said, the aggregate size of an incidental sign permitted in residential zoning districts had been increased to 24 square feet; and flags attached to a whip pole could be 6 square feet and 6 feet tall.
The signs will be allowed only from dusk to dawn, she added.
The very first speaker to address the board on Sept. 28 — Clayton Taylor of Casey Key — protested the fact that the signs could not be kept up at night. Speaking on behalf of the South Casey Key Homeowners Alliance, the North Casey Key Association and the Casey Key Association, he told the commissioners, “I think [that provision] is an intrusion into our First Amendment [rights]. … It’s an … unfair restriction to place upon us as landowners and citizens of the county.”
Tribelli of Casey Key also argued for the signage to be allowed 24 hours a day. “Our liability and potential harm is not restricted t dusk to dawn,” he told the commissioners.
Taylor pointed out that “hundreds, if not thousands” of turtle nest signs are posted on the beach each season. Homeowners should be able to use the same type of signage that the Turtle Patrol volunteers erect, he continued.
“If we further control the traffic through our section of the beach,” he said, that would benefit turtles and birds. “They do get a lot of interference from people walking all over the beach and across the private lands.”
He and his wife proposed signage that he showed the board members, which he said would make it clearer where members of the public are allowed on the shoreline and where they are not.
None of the commissioners commented on the image that Taylor showed them.
The genesis of the ordinance that the commissioners ended up approving last week was a discussion that Commissioner Ziegler raised in March. As the board member who represents the portion of Siesta Key within District 2, Ziegler pointed to the emails and phone calls he had received about disputes over signs marking private beach property on the barrier island.
The commissioners asked staff to prepare a report with recommendations about how best to address the issue. The resulting document offered details about how “incidental signs” could be regulated, to protect wildlife as well as private property rights.
That report also explained a legal precedent set by a 2017 federal court case involving signage on Florida’s Panhandle. Thus, County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht explained, any restrictions on signage had to be “narrowly tailored” so as not to impinge on First Amendment rights.
The Gulf & Bay perspective, redux
During his Sept. 28 remarks, Casey Key resident Taylor stressed that members of the public need to be educated about the portion of the beach that they legally can access.
As Assistant County Attorney Pearce noted, the Mean High Water Line (MHWL) is the line of demarcation. Any area seaward of that line is open to the public.
During the Aug. 24 hearing, Darrel Peters, a director of the Gulf & Bay Club Association on Siesta Key, requested that the proposed ordinance allow flags as well as signs. He also proposed the increase in the maximum square footage of a sign from 4 feet to 6 feet.
Peters was back on Sept. 28 with further appeals.
First, he noted that language in the revised ordinance called for the incidental signs to be no closer together than 250 feet. If that stipulation remained in the regulations, Peters said, then the Gulf & Bay Club would be restricted to two signs on its portion of the beach, which is immediately south of the county’s Siesta Beach Park.
Gulf & Bay uses five flags and three sandwich boards, he continued, showing the commissioners a photo he also had presented to them on Aug. 24.
“When we began this project,” he explained of the marking of the condominium association’s area of private beach, “we didn’t have that many [signs] out there.”
After dealing with various situations related to the private beach issue, Peters pointed out, Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation on the Key, “suggested to us that we add additional signs.” The goal has been to ensure that people see the signs, Peters said.
“We try to be a good neighbor to the public beach,” Peters told the commissioners, showing them another image that illustrated the fact that Gulf & Bay does allow members of the public to use part of its private section of the shoreline. “We provide about 20 to 25 feet for them.”
Another Gulf & Bay resident, Susan Lister, told the commissioners that she initially had concerns about the erection of the private beach signage. However, she explained, “Our security folks were instructed that they were to be respectful of the public and that we were trying to implement this in the best way possible.”
Lister also noted of the Sheriff’s Office’s personnel, “They’ve been a great partner in this effort.”
The use of the signs and flags “really works,” she added. If the new ordinance reduced the number of allowed signs, she said, “It’ll just make the job for us [and the security staff] much more difficult.”
When Chair Maio asked Assistant County Attorney Pearce about reducing the separation from 250 feet to a smaller number, Pearce responded, “It’s a policy decision by this board. … We are happy to adjust that number if the board sees fit.”
At one point, County Attorney Elbrecht suggested that, if extensive revisions were proposed to the ordinance that day, the board members might wish to continue the hearing until a specific date. As it turned out, though, Pearce said he would have no difficulty referring to the notes he had made and then providing an updated copy of the ordinance for Maio to sign following the vote.
Based on the copy of the signed ordinance that The Sarasota News Leader received from the county’s Public Records Division, it appears that Maio signed the document on Sept. 29.