Sailboats at Beach Access 8 get a second look by county
By John Morton
Asking for forgiveness from his fellow commissioners because what he was about to say was “elementary” in nature, Christian Ziegler opened discussions about the sailboat situation at Beach Access 8 on Siesta Key by saying that while the county needs to be wary of issues like fairness, encroachments, and liability, “Some things we do are just dumb.”
The words set the stage for a unanimous vote by the Sarasota Board of County Commissioners on April 26 to not only give a 60-day reprieve for the varying number of catamaran sailboats that were scheduled to be removed beginning May 1, but to potentially find a way in which some can stay on the beach going forward.
“It will be a big hit on the community,” said Ziegler of the idea of removing the boats. His District 2 seat represents the northern half of Siesta Key, where the issue exists.
“To some it might sound silly, but it’s important to the community,” he added.
The vote came on the heels of resident James Smith, who told the commission that he’s sailed his boat from Beach Access 8 for more than 30 years, telling the board “We have no other place to go. Give us an alternative.”
He was one of several sailing enthusiasts who not only came before the board – like several did two weeks earlier – but noted that day that more than 930 people who offered signatures to an online petition shared his views.
The web address for that petition is change.org/p/save-the-catamarns-on-access-8 and as of May 20 the number of signees was at 1,068.
“I don’t think this is a public emergency any way you look at it,” said Smith, referring to the notion that the county has heard complaints that not only are some boats on private land, and others on public land, but others are in disrepair and abandoned, creating a hazard.
Smith asked the board to look at Beach Access 7, where more county land is available, as a possible new location for the boats.
County staff will return with a report that examines what other communities have done in similar situations. Naples and Key West have faced such a scenario, the county noted.
Not a simple fix
However, the issue here is complex.
For starters, about 20 boats were inventoried by the county in December, as part of a countywide initiative to address encroachments on public land, according to Nicole Rissler, director of Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources. Originally, she said she used Facebook live and other outreach methods to inform the public that boat owners had 30 days to remove the vessels, and even granted the owners another month to do so.
County Administrator Jonathan Lewis said his staff exercised “As much grace and understanding as possible” in handling the matter.
The county’s research efforts resulted in a mixed bag, Rissler said. Some boats were moved off neighboring private property, where their storage was unauthorized, only to go to the public land and join other boats where they block the 60-foot-wide beach access. Others went away altogether.
Back in December, she estimates that seven boats were on private land and the rest on public land.
Meanwhile, Rissler added, the county connected with some owners but not others. Some boats were registered, and others were not.
Beyond the county initiative, the impetus, she said, was the result of complaints that included comments about not only unauthorized staging of boats but that “people were getting hurt” on dilapidated vessels.
A look at the boats in early April by the Siesta Sand did indeed indicate that a few were in terrible condition.
Along those lines, Rissler said in her late-April report that some boats were seaworthy, and others not. At that time, she said nine boats were on the public land and four or five were still on private land without permission.
When Commissioner Alan Maio asked Rissler if the problematic boats could be removed by the Venice-based West Coast Inland Navigation District, whose duties include the removal of derelict vessels in local waterways, Rissler said these boats on the dry part of the beach fall instead under the category of lost and abandoned property. That said, the 90-day rule is imposed so owners can gather them because they have value.
“People say, ‘Just get rid of the bad ones.’ We can’t make that determination,” Rissler said. “Staff, and even experts, can say what is derelict and what is not.”
Establishing a plan
Commissioner Nancy Detert voiced her frustration with the scenario.
“I don’t know why they don’t understand our position,” she said of the opposing residents. “If someone moves or dies, does the catamaran just sit and deteriorate? Who tows it away?”
Ziegler argued that the boats have become iconic on Siesta Key, calling the scene “post card material” and noting it’s home to social and family gatherings. It even graces magazine covers, he added.
“There are only a couple places to take photos like this, and this is one,” he said.
As far as a solution is concerned, commissioners mentioned the idea of possibly creating a medallion system like they implemented at Ted Sperling Park on South Lido Key a few years back, where kayak chaos was taking place. It regulated rentals where vendors pay $500 per year for the right to do business and the field is limited to a dozen of them with a total of 165 boats.
Rissler expressed caution to the idea, noting how the process took more than two years to establish and it deals with known businesses rather than individuals. Still the commissioners expressed the need to potentially establish permit-like criteria, and likely limits in numbers, for Siesta sailboat owners who wish to remain on the beach.
“It’s lovely, it’s picturesque. Four, five or six would be OK,” Detert said of the boats, but warned that people would likely add to that amount if no limit was in place, even if they paid for the right. “At 15, 20, 25, you reach the point of diminishing returns. It goes from unique and pretty to clutter and ‘in my way.’”
A potential lottery system for a limited number of vessels was also proposed. A large number would possibly expose the county to liability issues, Lewis said.
Back to Ziegler, he compared the Siesta sailboat situation to what Manatee County faced with Greer Island on the northern tip of Longboat Key. The area is locally known as Beer Can Island.
It’s where dead, weathered wood was about to be removed before citizens cried out in protest. It was a spot where parties took place, engagements were held, and other memories were established for years, he said, and Ziegler commended Manatee County on keeping the area undisturbed.
When the report comes back in July, Maio said he wants a definitive number on how may boats are still at the access, and where they sit, before action takes place. In the meantime, he credited the Siesta Sailing community for stepping up and being heard – even it was a bit overwhelming.
“We do not need 500 more emails. We get it, we’re trying,” he said. “But feel free to send another 500 emails. This is the county commission, and we entertain all emails.”
Also, Maio was pleased with the approach.
“This group has been relentless on appearing here and contacting us. I have never gotten anything aggressive or disruptive. They handled it the way you’re supposed to handle it,” he said.