Residents fight to keep sailboat tradition afloat

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About a dozen vessels at Beach Access 8 are scheduled to be removed by Sarasota County officials

By John Morton

About a dozen sailboats sitting on county-owned land at Beach Access 8 – some of which are even known to be available for public use — are scheduled to be removed starting May 1 by Sarasota County officials.

But local efforts to stop the procedure is picking up speed.

An online petition with the web address of change.org/p/save-the-catamarans-on-access-8 had 851 signatures as of April 15.

Siesta snowbird Melissa Brush is one of the people who signed.

“The use of the boats just seems like authentic, classic fun. Something you would expect in a tight-knit community. It’s refreshing,” said Brush, who has owned two properties on the Key for 13 years. “We enjoy watching sailors take their boats out.”

Also, at the April 12 county commission meeting, four residents spoke during public comment in opposition of removal of the boats. They argued that the boats have been part of the beach’s landscape and nostalgia for more than 30 years and are a popular backdrop for family portraits. Local artists Lloyd Dobson and the late Shawn McLoughlin have painted the iconic boats, which also appear in promotional materials that showcase Siesta Key.

Pictures of the boats are also tagged on social media, drawing people to the beach, said resident Nathan Bruneau, the creator of the petition.

Kim Pitts, another resident who addressed the board, suggested that the county create a special beach-craft designation for the boats at Access 8, like what has been done with a similar situation in Key West and Naples, she said.

“They truly contribute to the community,” Pitts said. “And they serve as a popular gathering spot.”

County takes action

However, the county considers them not only a case of unauthorized use of county property but in some cases a hazard. Warning notices were first erected near the boats in December, notifying boat owners of the pending removal process.

Here’s what county staff recently reported to commissioners:

“The catamarans located on public property at Siesta Beach Access 8 have been identified as encroaching on county property and are being handled per county policy associated with encroachments and/or abandoned property.

“Since December of 2021, county staff have documented and monitored vessel location, and have been working in tandem with adjacent landowners on removal efforts.

“County staff have also worked diligently to communicate with as many vessel owners as they could identify and have completed additional outreach via Facebook video, etc. to contact vessel owners prior to county removal. The encroaching vessels are in varying conditions and pose challenges to natural beach areas, dune restoration, sea turtle nesting season, and public beach access.

“The vessels have been inventoried with a notice placed adjacent to each, and the county plans to proceed with removal on May 1. It’s expected to take a few weeks to remove all vessels currently encroaching on Sarasota County public property.”

Whether all the boats are on county land, or that some are on private land, is somewhat unclear.

Siesta Key resident James Burns, who created a Facebook page called Siesta Key Sailing Club for local sailors to share information, said that property to the right of the Beach Access 8 walking trail is generally considered county land, while everything to the left, especially where the trail bends to the left, is generally considered private land.

He kept a catamaran there with permission from a homeowner for years, he said, going back as far as 1980. He recently moved it closer to his home near Shell Road and Beach Access 4.

A walk of the trail in early April indicated boats were lined up on both sides.

“People are moving the boats all over the place right now. They’re scurrying like rats,” Burns said of boatowners.

A solution on the horizon?

While Burns wants to see the boats remain there, he blames several of their owners for creating the current situation.

“Some of them are abandoned and in disrepair,” Burns said, noting that four or five are in dangerously poor condition and create a liability. He said they should indeed be removed.

He added, “Some of them are not tied down. In a hurricane they’d flip, if not worse. People have taken advantage of the situation. There’s been too much apathy. They think, because back in the day no one seemed to care, it is reason to keep things the same.

“I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of boats come and go, and it’s true the county never said anything for a long time. It’s no wonder the county got involved.”

Burns was among the sailors who tried to monitor the situation on their own in hopes of avoiding county interaction.

“I’ve had to cut-up more than 100 boats through the years,” he said. “People would leave them for years and they’d literally disintegrate under the sun. And the more populated the island has become, the crazier things have gotten there (at Beach Access 8). It became a free-for-all.” 

The solution?

For starters, Burns is convinced that many beachfront owners are open to having a boat stored on their land if done so in a proper manner.

“People haven’t had the decency to just knock on a door and ask. Sometimes that’s all it takes,” he said. “There are plenty of property owners who are willing if you tie it down properly and take care of it.”

Also, he feels the county should be willing to create an opportunity to allow for boats to exist in a permitted spot, as long as standards are established and required to be met by responsible boat owners.

“Whether it’s Beach Access 8, or maybe Beach Access 7, there’s room to do this,” Burns said. “I would love to have them remain part of the beach, part of the community. They’re beautiful. And sailing is such a great thing to be able to share with our neighbors.”

The April 26 commission meeting was the last opportunity for public input on the matter, and Bruneau was encouraging residents to address the board in hopes of a solution.

If the county stays with its plan to begin removal, nearby beachfront homeowner Mike Cosentino – a known activist regarding beach matters – thinks it will be an overreach.

“The decision appears to conflict with Florida’s 1972 landmark Supreme Court decision regarding ‘customary use’ of our beaches but is consistent with the county’s bullying and trampling of the voters’ wishes and rights,” said Cosentino, who is running for one of the county commission seats.

John Morton
Author: John Morton

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