By Phil Colpas
It was just a matter of time.
As the popularity of Siesta Key continues to grow, ownership of its beaches’ fine crystalline sand — and exactly what that means for property owners and beach visitors — is increasingly a topic of discussion. Formerly a mostly peripheral subject, no-trespassing signs on the beach have become a top-of-mind issue for many property owners as land disputes continue to explode.
Some of these residents decided to bring their concerns to the Sarasota County Commission.
Darrel Peters was the only citizen to address the commission at the first signage public hearing on Aug. 24, and he was one of five to speak at the second public hearing on Sept. 28. Peters definitely has a vested interest in the subject — he serves on the board of directors at Gulf & Bay Club, a condo that is located immediately south of Siesta Key’s public beach.
At the second hearing, Peters reiterated his belief that the problem isn’t flags or signs, but rather the huge influx of people that is moving into private beach property.
Since its construction in 1964, Gulf & Bay condominiums did not mark its beach with signage until October 2020, Peters said. Because there were so many people impeding owners’ and guests’ access to the shoreline, condo owners felt they had no choice but to erect signs along their property line.
Peters said that Gulf & Bay sets aside 20 to 25 feet of its private beach for public use, and that the signage program is working well. Peters and fellow Gulf & Bay resident Susan Lister thanked law enforcement for working in tandem with them.
At the first hearing, Peters asked the commissioners to include flags and sandwich boards in the sign ordinance, and requested that the signage be allowed to be a maximum of 6 square feet per sign, instead of 4 square feet. The county commissioners appeared impressed with Peters’ cogent presentation, essentially adapting his suggestions into the proposed ordinance revisions.
At the second hearing, Peters was instrumental in convincing commissioners to reduce the minimum space in between signs from 250 feet to 50 feet.
Commissioners tasked staff with augmenting the amendment to include these revisions. According to county zoning administrator Donna Thompson, revisions included the aggregate size of an incidental sign permitted in residential zoning districts to be increased to 24 square feet;, and a flag attached to a whip pole is to be a maximum of 6 square feet and 8 feet tall.
At the second public hearing, Sarasota County Commissioners heard comments from five concerned citizens: Darrel Peters and Susan Lister of Siesta Key; and Clayton Taylor, Chris Tribelli and Laly Ballard of Casey Key.
Despite an argument from Taylor that the ordinance restricts “free speech from dusk till dawn, for our ability to have a sign or a message on our property,” the signs will still have to be removed at night for the safety of both humans and endangered nesting sea turtles.
Likewise, commissioners were not receptive to Casey Key residents’ suggestions of rope-and-post fencing to cordon off private property.
According to Assistant County Attorney David Pearce, any area seaward of the mean high-water line is open to the public.
Said County Commissioner Nancy Detert, “We need to start educating the public about these rules. I think no individual owns the natural environment. I care about … (resolving) 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.”
Based on public input, the Board of County Commissioners also decided to increase the height maximum of flags from 6 feet to 8 feet; decrease the separation distance of incidental signs from 250 feet to 50 feet; and allow the use of sandwich boards as a form of advertisement.
The board found the proposed ordinance to be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan and approved it by a 5-0 vote.