Thanks to legislature vote, cigarette smoking at county beaches, parks may be illegal again — and a Siesta Key businessman is elated
By John Morton
Mike Holderness has for years been fed up with cigarette butts on Siesta Key. As a manager of several beachfront properties, part of his business routine was to pick through the surf and sand, plucking the debris.
“After a hard rain, a few days later we’d be filling an entire trash bag with cigarette butts,” said Holderness of him and his staff. “And that’s just between Beach Access 2 and 3.
“When you litter your cigarette butt in the Village, it eventually ends up in the Gulf. People need to know that.”
With the permission of several businesses in the Village, Holderness even placed several signs warning people that cigarette litter carries a whopping $250 fine.
“It’s not a real fine — although it should be — but I was hoping to pull on people’s heart strings,” Holderness said. “And it did make a difference.”
But not enough to keep state Sen. Joe Gruters, who represents Siesta Key, from pressing for a bill to ban smoking in Florida’s public beaches and parks — presuming a county or municipality chooses to enact such a prohibition.
First introducing his bill in 2019 and never seeing at get through the House for three straight years, it not only won House approval late in February but was also cruised through the subsequent Senate vote on March 2. Both votes were in overwhelming support, the Senate being 30-8.
Now, unless Gov. Ron DeSantis overturns the vote, beginning on July 1 a local governing body can vote to put the measure into place.
While Holderness’ threat of fines is fake, this time around they’d likely be real. What they’d be would be determined, as far as Siesta Key is concerned, by the Sarasota County Board of Commissioners if indeed it supports the ban.
Back in 2007, the county did indeed impose such a ban with a 4-1 vote. However, in 2013, a circuit court judge ruled that state law governs smoking when it comes to public spaces, stripping local governments from their power to enforce it whatever they set in place.
The ACLU played a big role in fighting the issue, but not this time. Most opposition in Tallahassee among lobbyists came from entities related to tobacco.
Gruters, however, did not get everything he wanted. Cigar use is still allowed, unless a cigar has a plastic tip, as is pipe use. They don’t feature the same non-biodegradable risks like traditional cigarettes, whose filters can take up to 10 years to decompose, depending on conditions.
Gruters was happy to make them exempt, noting their use was a limited problem.
And while the issue of being subjected to second-hand smoke was at the forefront of previous arguments – one that triggered inside smoking bans – this time it was issue of litter that ruled the day. Gruters reported that it’s the No. 1 piece of debris collected during beach clean-up efforts.
And there’s another wild card that played a role, Holderness said. Both he, Gruters, and Siesta Key Association president Catherine Luckner have met with Dr. Stephen Leatherman, the professor and coastal ecologist at Florida International University in Melbourne who’s behind the highly-touted “Dr. Beach” best-of rankings.
“Dr. Beach has said he’d reward beaches that were anti-smoking in his ranking system,” Holderness said. “That should be a huge incentive for every beach community in the state.”
In fact, when Leatherman placed No. 1 status on Crescent Beach in 2011, he noted its cigarette ban. The beach also hit his top spot in 2017, despite the ban having been lifted statewide.
And there’s no doubt that beach rankings by the likes of Dr. Beach and TripAdvisor play a role in influencing some tourists regarding vacation destinations, Holderness said.
“So, it’s even more than ecology. It’s also about the economy,” Holderness said.
Does he think Sarasota County commissioners will make the most of this new opportunity with a vote supporting a ban?
“I can’t imagine them saying no,” he said. “In fact, I’ll think they’ll pull this out in a big way. They’ll want to step forward and protect the county’s No. 1 prize – Siesta Beach.”