County staff to research issue and provide report to commissioners
After the Sarasota County Commission voted unanimously on Aug. 30 to approve a lawsuit settlement with Siesta Beach Lots LLC over issues related to Siesta Key’s Beach Access 3, Commissioner Christian Ziegler advocated for the county’s purchase of the land that was the focus of the litigation.
“That’s a legacy,” Ziegler stressed. “When are you ever going to be able to acquire property that you can turn into public beach for the community?”
He added, “It’s probably the most exciting thing the county has the potential to do, in my mind.”
Ziegler further noted of the property, “It’s within walking distance [of Siesta] Village,” adding, “There’s already a new hotel that’s going up there,” plus numerous vacation rental units in the immediate area.
The hotel he was referencing is the one planned on four parcels between Beach Road and Calle Miramar. On Oct. 27, 2021, he joined Commissioner Nancy Detert in voting against the application for that project. The commission vote that day is the subject of two lawsuits in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court, as well as a challenge underway in the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings. (See the related article in this issue.)
Additionally, Ziegler said on Aug. 30, the newer section of public beach would help alleviate congestion at Siesta Beach Park.
Earlier this year — in March — Ziegler told his colleagues that he believed the county should try to buy shoreline property that would be accessible to residents of the northern portion of the barrier island.
As for the legal issue that the board members addressed on Aug. 30: Just before a trial over the Siesta Beach Lots complaint against the county was to begin, in early July, the Office of the County Attorney and the attorney for Siesta businessman and property owner Michael Holderness — the principal of Siesta Beach Lots — announced to 12thJudicial Circuit Court Judge Stephen M. Walker that they had reached a settlement.
Holderness previously had offered to settle the Access 3 lawsuit — and a second complaint he has filed against the county — for $4.8 million, plus other county concessions. Among the latter was a provision that he could construct a tiki hut on part of the shoreline property he owns seaward of Beach Road south of the intersection of Columbus Boulevard and North Beach Road. Further, Holderness wanted the county to install a lifeguard stand in Block 7 of the Mira Mar Beach subdivision on the island, where several of his lots are located. He offered to pay for a second lifeguard stand in Block 8 of that subdivision.
Further, Holderness wanted to exchange one lot “for a small parcel” adjacent to Fire Station 13 on Siesta Key, which is immediately south of the public beach park.
Holderness has maintained that county beach access signage appears to be an invitation to members of the public to gather on private beach parcels, such as his shoreline lots. He has emphasized to Siesta Key Association members that, if more beach property on the island were in public ownership, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office could provide better supervision of crowds and work more successfully to prevent incidents such as the Memorial Day shooting that sent one young woman to the hospital with a non-life-threatening injury. (No arrest ever was made because of lack of witness cooperation during the investigation, Sheriff Kurt Hoffman told members of the Siesta Key Association during their Aug. 4 meeting.)
In an Aug. 5 response to a reader’s comment on a Sarasota News Leader article about the proposed settlement, Holderness wrote that the owners of the private beach lots “only want a safe place” that is properly managed. He noted the desire for more lifeguards, as well as extra law enforcement officers. Further, Holderness wrote that any public county shoreline property would be overseen by the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department staff. “Without Park & Rec rules,” he added, “[I]t’s lawless.”
With settlement discussions underway prior to the scheduled, July 11 start of the non-jury trial in the Siesta Beach Lots case, Assistant County Attorney David Pearce explained to Holderness’ attorney, Daniel Guarnieri of the Berlin Patten Ebling firm in Sarasota, that state law made it necessary for the county staff to obtain “two valid appraisal reports” for any property valued at more than $500,000, if a local government was considering purchasing the land. (The News Leader submitted a public records request this week for the appraisals for the Holderness property; the publication had not received a response prior to its deadline for this issue.)
County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht explained to the commissioners on Aug. 30 that Holderness contended that he owned the northern half of Beach Access 3, which is the extension of Columbus Boulevard. That access is next to Lots 14 and 15 in the Mira Mar Beach subdivision, which are among Holderness’ shoreline parcels.
Holderness argued that the county had abandoned the northern half of Columbus Boulevard. The Office of the County Attorney denied that the county had done so, Elbrecht added.
Even if the county had abandoned the road at some point, Elbrecht explained in a memo to the commissioners, a state law makes it clear that the county owns the property because “it has continuously maintained the road for a period of seven years.” He was referring to Section 95.361 of the Florida Statutes.
The settlement, Elbrecht continued, called for Siesta Beach Lots to waive its claim of abandonment. “In turn,” the memo said, “both parties acknowledge that the issue of regular maintenance by the County would be unresolved. However, to amicably resolve the lawsuit,” the memo pointed out, the county would not “seek to establish a maintained right-of-way map,” which would be considered evidence that the northern portion of Columbus Boulevard is within county ownership.
Additionally, the county and Siesta Beach Lots would pay the costs and fees each incurred with the litigation.
Essentially, Elbrecht told the commissioners, the parties “are maintaining the status quo” of Beach Access 3.
The memo noted that the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department would “continue to operate and maintain Beach Access #3 as it has done in the past.”
Although the lawsuit over the Access 3 issues would be settled if the commissioners approved the proposal before them, Elbrecht pointed out on Aug. 30, a second Siesta Beach Lots complaint against the county — involving an allegation that the county has blocked access to Lots 14 and 15 in Block 7 of the Mira Mar Beach subdivision “through the erection of post-and-rope in front of Beach Access #3 and the barricades (including a drop-down barricade) at the intersection of Beach Road and Columbus Boulevard. That matter is set for trial in February 2023.”
Following Elbrecht’s summary of the settlement, Chair Alan Maio asked Elbrecht to confirm that the county would pay nothing to Holderness; that the settlement would not change anything regarding Access 3, and that the public would continue to have full access to the Gulf of Mexico via Access 3.
“That’s correct,” Elbrecht responded to each question.
Commissioner Nancy Detert then made the motion to approve the settlement, and Commissioner Ron Cutsinger seconded it; it passed 4-0, with Commissioner Michael Moran absent.
The prospect of a north Siesta public beach
During the March 8 County Commission meeting, Ziegler first raised the issue of the county’s purchasing beachfront property on the northern end of Siesta Key.
At that time, he never mentioned Siesta Beach Lots’ proposal for the lawsuit settlement. However, he told his colleagues that day, “The price is pretty high,” adding, “I don’t want everyone to get their hopes up.”
(County documents and emails that the News Leader obtained through public records requests said that the Office of the County Attorney received Holderness’ settlement offer in the Access 3 case on March 22.)
Ziegler then talked about the fact that he had discussed the potential acquisition with County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, indicating that they had looked at a map with several parcels that were available. Ziegler also emphasized the prospect of being able to connect new public shoreline property on Siesta with the beach park that the county owns, whose address officially is 948 Beach Road.
Further, Ziegler acknowledged that the effort was in “very early stages [with] a lot of hurdles to overcome.” Nonetheless, he added, “I think it’s worth taking a step or two forward.”
Chair Alan Maio agreed, but no other commissioner offered a comment.
During the Aug. 30 discussion, Ziegler noted that other Siesta residents had reached out to him about the prospect of selling the county land they own that is south of Access 3. That would facilitate a connection of the Siesta Beach Lots property with the public beach park, he pointed out.
For many years, he continued, the county has been acquiring natural lands east of Interstate 75; yet, he said, he is unsure of the number of people who actually use those lands after they are opened up for the public. “I think [the additional] public beach is a no-brainer,” he said.
Restrooms but no parking lot would be needed for the new county beach property, Ziegler added, though perhaps some space reserved for golf carts could be carved out of the area and left unpaved.
Maio then pointed out that the county has a dedicated, voter-approved revenue stream for the purchase of new parkland. Forty percent of the proceeds from the 0.25-mill tax imposed on property owners is designated for that purpose, Maio noted. (That tax is in effect through Dec. 31, 2029, but it could be renewed.)
If owners of beach parcels would be willing to sell the land to the county at the appraised prices, Maio indicated, then the county tax revenue stream likely would enable the county to make such purchases.
“I’m in agreement that that would be perfect,” he said of adding to the county’s holdings on Siesta Key. “How do we move forward on this?”
County Administrator Lewis replied that he felt the Office of the County Attorney would be needed to collaborate on any potential plans for such acquisitions, especially in regard to any potential negative ramifications.
Lewis added that he would accept the discussion as direction for a board assignment, so staff members could look into the relevant issues and report their findings to the commissioners.