Are some property owners drawing too big a line in the sand?

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By Rachel Brown Hackney,

In late March, Sarasota County commissioners talked of having received numerous complaints from the public regarding signage warning people off “private beach” areas.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler — who represents the northern end of Siesta Key as part of District 2 — raised the topic and asked for his colleagues’ support for a county staff report that would explain “specifically what’s allowed and what is not allowed” on the beaches, along with options for addressing public complaints.

“I think (the situation is) something that’s really starting to boil over a little bit over there,” Ziegler said.

Chairman Alan Maio suggested that the Office of the County Attorney assist with preparation of that report.

The Gulf & Bay sits next to the public beach, and “no trespass” signs help keep it free of beach chairs and non-guests/residents. (photos by John Morton)

“There’s lots of legalities involved here,” Maio noted.

Staff completed the report in mid-April. However, the document did not delve into the issue of private versus public beach concerns. Instead, it offered options for how to regulate what staff called “incidental signs.”

On Tuesday, Aug. 24, in response to that information, the commissioners will conduct an initial public hearing on proposed changes to the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC) in regard to what county staff has characterized as “incidental” signage. (The UDC contains all of the county’s land-use and zoning regulations.)

That hearing may prove to be an opportunity for Siesta residents to elaborate on concerns they have cited in emails.

It is scheduled for the board’s morning session, which will begin at 9 a.m. in the County Administration Center located at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota.

The agenda typically is not available until the Thursday evening prior to the meeting. In this case, that date would be Aug. 19.

A staff memo in the board members’ agenda packet for June 8 — the date they voted unanimously to approve the advertisement of the Aug. 24 hearing — did note that the March 23 discussion related “to signs on private beaches that have been recently installed by property owners.”            

The memo added, “The privately installed signs declaring certain areas to be ‘private’ have caused many complaints to the county from members of the public visiting beaches.”

Then, referencing the April 15 staff report, the memo said, “While the county may not prohibit these types of signs (as a result of a 2017 court case involving Walton County, in the panhandle), the county may wish to initiate an amendment to the sign regulations in order to minimize adverse impacts on both property owners and visitors and in order to prevent a proliferation of privately-installed signage on beaches in a haphazard, misleading or dangerous manner.”

The staff memo also pointed out that a second hearing would be needed on the proposed ordinance. That tentatively has been set for Sept. 21, the memo added.

The draft ordinance addresses the following:

• The number of signs that can be allowed on the beach: No more than four could be used, with one extra sign permitted for every 500 feet of property boundary.

• The size of the signs.

• The height of the signs. (The maximum in an open use or residential zoning district would be 6 feet; for non-residential districts, 15 feet.)

• The distance between signs.

• The length of time the signs could stay in place.

• The portability of the signs.

Further, the draft ordinance calls for the removal of signs from the beach from dusk to dawn during sea turtle nesting and hatchling season. The draft also says the total area of all signs on a specific piece of property can be no greater than 16 square feet in a residential district, 32 square feet in an open use district, and 80 square feet in non-residential districts.

“Additionally,” the draft ordinance points out, “a post-and-rope, post-and-chain, or similar type system is considered to be a fence. Therefore, any post-and-rope, post-and-chain, or similar type system, whether anchored on a temporary or permanent basis, located seaward of (the Gulf Beach Setback Line and the Barrier Island Pass Twenty-Year Hazard Line) shall not be erected without obtaining a coastal setback variance.”

Planning Commission recommends approval of changes

On July 1, the county’s Planning Commission members voted 9-0 to recommend that the County Commission approve the proposed ordinance.

During their hearing, they did engage in debate over some facets of the issue of private versus public beach.

Planning Commissioner Laura Benson of Venice emphasized that persons who just want to keep people from crossing a public beach near their homes would not be allowed to erect signs, as she understood the ordinance when she read it.

Deputy County Attorney Joshua Moye concurred with that interpretation.

Yet, “Isn’t that the problem?” Planning Commissioner Kevin Cooper of Sarasota asked. “You’ve got a lot of debate over who owns the beach. You’ve got the mean high water line.”

He was referring to state law that says the public portion of a shoreline is the “wet beach” area.

“Are we really solving any problem here?” Cooper continued. “Ultimately, do we need to decide who owns the beach and who doesn’t own the beach? … When is that conversation?”

Moye replied that the proposed ordinance is directed at persons who own private beach property, who can demonstrate that with a survey.

Moye added that part of the problem is “Where is that line (between private and public beach property)?”

However, he pointed out, one key concern for staff was how many signs persons can post. “Right now, they’re putting (up) unlimited signs. We can’t say ‘No.’” That was the primary impetus for the ordinance, Moye said. It will limit the number of signs allowed.

Assistant County Attorney David Pearce also mentioned the aesthetics issues behind the proposed new regulations.

With no members of the public present to offer remarks, the hearing was closed.

Planning Commissioner Andrew Stultz made the motion to recommend that the County Commission approve the draft ordinance, as written, and Benson seconded it.

Without further remarks from a board member, the motion passed unanimously.

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