By Rachel Brown Hackney
It took about three hours and 45 minutes, a last-minute proffer from the petitioners in one public hearing and discussion about interpreting a section of the Sarasota County Comprehensive Plan, but the County Commission on May 11 finally agreed to abandon a 360-foot segment of North Beach Road on Siesta Key, which has been closed to through traffic since 1993, staff pointed out.
The segment is between Avenida Messina and Columbus Boulevard.
The board also approved a Coastal Setback Variance petition filed by Dennis and Wendy Madden that will allow them to tear down five nonconforming structures with a total of 12 dwelling units between North Beach Road and Avenida Veneccia so they can erect a new three-story, six-unit structure that will comply with all current building standards.
The commission voted 4-1 on both requests, with Commissioner Christine Robinson in the minority. Robinson was most vocal about the Comprehensive Plan’s language regarding not only public access to the water but also connectivity of road systems. She told Charles Bailey III of the Williams Parker law firm in Sarasota — the agent for the petitioners — that she kept coming back to the language in Section 1.1.13, which says, “The County shall not vacate road segments on waterfronts along any creek, river, lake, bay or Gulf access point and shall encourage right-of-way use of these areas for coastal beach and bay access.” “It doesn’t give an out,” she said.
Parcels the petitioners own seaward of the affected section of North Beach Road are on the Gulf of Mexico, Bailey explained. Therefore, the 360-foot part of North Beach Road at the focus of the hearing is not on the waterfront. “In effect, we are going to convert this into a beach access,” he added of the road segment.
Comissioner Charles Hines pointed out, “There has to be some wiggle room in our Comp Plan in situations where this ‘shall not’ doesn’t make sense.” He said he could go along with the concept of the waterfront access being linked to the parcels on the Gulf side of the road.
Hines then asked County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh whether the commission could require the petitioners to stipulate that they would provide a public easement over those seaward parcels to allow for public access. DeMarsh said such a “easement” could be negotiated.
After checking with his clients, Bailey responded, “We would proffer to enhance the access forever [with] a 5-foot pedestrian or bicycle access out to the sandy beach that doesn’t exist today. … That would formalize and provide a legal description that would be recorded in the public records.”
Additionally, Bailey told the board, current pathways to the beach that cross the petitioners’ parcels would be allowed to remain open to the public.
A number of speakers who live on Siesta Key had voiced concern about maintaining public access to that affected portion of road if the board approved the petition for abandonment.
Baily already had testified that if the board approved the road abandonment, that would ensure “forever and in perpetuity the public’s continued use of the right of way for walking, biking and things they’re not allowed to do now — sitting, watching sunsets and anything you can do on the public beach. We’re going to enhance and expand the use of the right of way and make it safer.”
Lin Kurant, the county’s Real Estate Services Department manager, explained that the 60-foot-wide segment of road has been repeatedly damaged by weather events through the decades. An engineering study the board authorized in 2012 offered a range of options to stabilize it, all exceeding $2 million, she added. The commission chose a “no action alternative” that entailed monitoring and maintaining the road as necessary.
Weiqi Lin, a member of the environmental permitting staff, explained that Dennis and Wendy Madden would need to have the road vacated to unify property they own — including the parcels with the nonconforming structures and one seaward of North Beach Road — to create sufficient square footage to support the new dwelling units in compliance with the county’s Zoning Code.
The plan also called for ensuring that no construction ever would be allowed on the three lots the three sets of petitioners own seaward of the stretch of North Beach Road sought for abandonment, Bailey pointed out.
Along with the Maddens — who listed their address as Ada, MI, in their application — the petitioners were J. Edward Ramsey and Christy S. Ramsey of Bristol, IN; and William Caflisch and Sheila S. Caflisch of Sarasota.
Before Bailey began discussing the road abandonment, he told the board, “We were just ambushed with this letter [from the SKA].”
The letter says the SKA board was not made aware of the plans until the organization’s regular meeting on May 5, when Bailey talked about it under “New Business.” Board member Joe Volpe stressed that during public comments, noting, “I’m under oath.”
In June 2015, Bailey said, he gave SKA President Michael Shay a copy of the application. Shay later informed him that the SKA’s executive committee had reviewed the material and did not feel the necessity of seeking a vote of the full board, Bailey added.
When Commissioner Robinson asked why all of the board members had not signed the letter, which was on SKA letterhead, Volpe explained the bylaws did not allow the board members to vote over the phone, and no board meeting was held subsequent to the May 5 meeting to afford them an opportunity to take a vote.
The letter asked the County Commission to give Siesta residents, the public as a whole and county staff “more time to research out and understand the far reaching effects of allowing this project to go forward at this time.”
Along with Volpe, the directors who signed it were Second Vice President Catherine Luckner, Secretary Joyce Kouba, Helen Clifford, Dan Lundy, Robert Miller and Harold Ashby.