Call it a ‘debriefing’ about the Fourth

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By Rachel Brown Hackney

          Illegal parking, illegal fireworks, traffic congestion, fights over spaces at the public beach and lots of trash: It was pretty much a typical July Fourth holiday on Siesta Key, Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office staff, residents and Sarasota County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR) staff said during the July Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting.

          Sgt. Jason Mruczek reported that the beach parking lot was full at 8:15 a.m. on the holiday. “Saturday and Sunday were pretty steady,” just slightly busier than a normal weekend, he noted, but “not as crazy as Memorial Day weekend was.”

          As they did last year, Mruczek explained, deputies closed the beach lot when it was full and then re-opened it only when enough people had left to enable more visitors to find spaces.

          “We did write a lot of tickets,” Mruczek said, referring to people parking illegally on county rights of way. At Siesta Estates, he continued, deputies wrote about 40 tickets.

          Siesta Estates is across Midnight Pass Road from St. Boniface Episcopal Church.

          In response to a question, Mruczek said he was unaware of the Sheriff’s Office having any vehicles towed, but he had no details about private property situations.

          Yet another “kink in the works,” so to speak, was an accident on the Stickney Point Road bridge around 9:30 a.m. on July 4, audience members said.

          Mruczek told the approximately 35 people present that because the Florida Highway Patrol investigated the incident, he had no details about what had happened.

          SKA Vice President Catherine Luckner also took the opportunity to applaud the Sheriff’s Office for the quick work to put out a grass fire near the beach caused by illegal fireworks.

          “[The response] was very well done,” she added.

          “It was a bit chaotic at the time,” Lt. Donny Kennard replied, noting, “There are probably about 500 videos [of it] on YouTube.”

          Mruczek reported that lifeguards and a couple of deputies grabbed fire extinguishers to fight the flames before the Fire Department crew arrived. Still, he said, because a number of people had left the beach parking lot, the firefighters were able to get to the scene quickly.

As for the trash …

          During the SKA meeting, Cindy Turner, manager of Siesta Public Beach, talked of all the county staff and volunteer efforts that went into preparation before and after the holiday weekend to try to keep the beach as clean as possible.

          Planning had been going on for weeks, she said — what she referred to as “the performance before the curtain goes up.”

          The county’s Keep Sarasota County Beautiful staff provided 4,000 yellow bags, which county employees and volunteers distributed to beachgoers, she pointed out. The goal was to be able to count how many of those bags people actually disposed of themselves. Although Turner cautioned that the count was not precise, staff estimated that the public used 1,000. “We feel pretty good about the number,” she added, but the total actually might have been a bit higher, as county staff was unable to check the receptacles at the beach accesses before a contractor emptied them in the mornings.

          As county employees drove along the beach on ATVs and walked through the crowds, Turner continued, they offered bags to people, to supplement the distribution volunteers handled at the beach accesses. “The majority of people [on the beach] were very receptive,” she said.

          People had asked her whether she felt the endeavor was a success. “To us, it’s a success,” she pointed out. Yet, staff was still disturbed on the morning of July 5. “It’s disgusting, disheartening, it’s troubling” to see so much debris left on the beach, Turner added.

          Nonetheless, she continued, staff who worked on the beach last year after the Fourth assured her, “‘This is nothing; this is half of what we had last year.’”

          After Mote Marine volunteers checked for turtle nests, she said, it was about 6:10 when county employees received the “All clear” to tackle the trash.

          Turner lauded the many volunteers who came out to help, including those signed up for the Liberty Litter Cleanup sponsored by Keep Sarasota County Beautiful. The owners of the Beach Club, The Cottage and The Hub Baja Grill in Siesta Village also had organized volunteers to help, she noted.

          “Somebody said, ‘How do you stop that trash?’” Turner continued. “I don’t know that you can.”

          The lifeguards counted more than 50,000 people on the public beach — just in the area between the lifeguard stands — from Saturday, July 1 through July 4, she pointed out.

          One factor that contributes to the trash left on the beach, she noted, is the consumption of alcohol. “I saw a lot of intoxicated young people.”

          In fact, she said, she tried to shame some of them into collecting their trash by stooping to pick up beer bottles and offering yellow trash bags to the young people next to the bottles.

          Turner stated to the SKA audience that county staff referred to one area of the beach as “Tent City.” “It was tent to tent to tent to tent of young people,” Turner explained.

          As the thunderstorm began — and the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce fireworks show came to a fast end — people “took off running,” Turner pointed out. During the cleanup, she continued, “We found a lot of cellphones.” (That comment drew gasps from some SKA audience members.)  Additionally, “a lot of beach chairs” with all sorts of college logos were in the same area the next morning, she added. “I’m picky about litter,” Turner said. Nonetheless, she confessed, “I’m not sure I would have carried my aluminum chair in that lightning.”

A better ‘butt’ situation

          The issue of cigarette butt litter also arose again during the meeting. Siesta businessman Michael Holderness brought it up, describing one recent day when rain and the resulting stormwater, combined with the high tide, ended up washing a lot of butts into the storm drains.

          About two days later, he said, he saw “literally thousands of [butts] on the beach,” and they appeared to be from the Village.

          Would it be possible, he asked Sgt. Jason Mruczek and Lt. Donny Kennard of the Sheriff’s Office, to erect signs in the Village, warning people they could be fined $250, for example, for littering cigarette butts.

          Enforcement is not the key, Kennard replied. Appealing to people from an emotional level on that type of issue works best, he said. Therefore, Kennard recommended an educational campaign to encourage people to throw their cigarette butts in the garbage containers in the Village.

          Shawn Yeager, who manages the beaches and water accesses as a staff member of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, reminded the audience about the $5,000 grant Keep Sarasota County Beautiful received earlier this year that enabled staff to install 39 cigarette butt receptacles at the Siesta and Turtle public beaches, as well as at the beach accesses.

          Cindy Turner, the Siesta Beach manager, added that Keep America Beautiful research has shown that for every receptacle in use, the county should see a 9% decrease in the number of butts people litter. “We’re emptying those weekly,” she added of the receptacles.

          In August, Turner continued, county staff will undertake another count of butts on the beach to determine how much of an impact the grant initiative has had by that time.

          Keep Sarasota County Beautiful would like to work with the Siesta Chamber, the SKA and other groups to try to find more grant opportunities, including funding to help with a program in the Village, Turner continued.

          Three or four areas in the Village should be the focal points for such an initiative, Holderness replied.

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