SRQ Magazine | December 2016
There aren’t many stretches of road where a driver can look upon the beauty of Siesta Key Beach, and island resident Mike Cosentino fears one of the best of those will soon be lost forever. A 400-foot stretch of Beach Road by Sunset Point on the north end of the key has, for years, been among his favorite pieces of pavement on the entire coast of Florida because of the horizon views into the Gulf of Mexico. “In my opinion, this part of Beach Road is the prettiest part of Siesta Key,” he says.
This despite the fact the road most days can be found covered in fine sand swept onto the road by the tides. Technically, the stretch of road has been closed for maintenance all the way back to 1993, one of those small but expensive repair jobs that never make the cut for county officials, constantly keeping roadways up to handle the increasing population on the Gulf Coast. Still, folks can be seen risking their car alignments on any given evening for the chance to drive the roadway at sunset.
But county commissioners this summer elected for a different plan for the road than repair. At the request of three property owners with plans to redevelop seaside cottages there, officials elected to vacate the roadway from use by vehicle traffic. An almost unnoticed item on the county agenda in May, the move sparked outrage among the beachcomber set, with Cosentino leading an instant movement. Launching the Reopen Beach Road initiative, Cosentino spent much of the fall gathering petitions to amend Sarasota County’s charter to prevent the loss of the road, and he has filed suit suggesting county commissioners violated their own comprehensive plan by abandoning the section of the road.
The issue of Beach Road’s future suddenly moved from an under-the-radar subject known only to those directly affected and county bureaucrats, to one of the biggest local issues in Gulf Coast politics. And that has been driving attorney Charlie Bailey insane.
Bailey, an attorney at Williams Parker, represents Siesta Key landlords Wendy and Denny Madden, whose family has owned 12 living units on the east side of Beach Road for some 40 years. The Maddens were among three property owners who started speaking with county officials after a decision was made once again in 2013 not to fund improvements to the road. At that point, those directly affected by the problems there had started looking for a different solution. The units at Sunset Point all existed well before current building codes were put in place, so no major improvements had been made to the grandfathered properties in decades. Since the county also declined opportunities to make improvements, it seemed a good time to consider a new course. On the Madden’s property, the plan looked to tear down and replace the 12 units there with six new, up-to-code condos. One of those will serve as the Florida home for the Maddens themselves, Bailey says.
With the plan came a chance to reconsider access to the site. The Maddens also own land on the next street over, Avenida Vennecia, and the properties are accessible from that road. The same can be said of the neighboring property owned by William and Sheila Caflisch. Indeed, the only property on the road relying on a driveway onto Beach Road, owned by the Sunset Point Owners Association, also has frontage on Avenida Messina to the north. Why bother keeping this section of Beach Road open at all, then? On behalf of the Maddens, Bailey took the matter up with county planners. “The thought was that this was a nice housekeeping matter,” Bailey says. The idea was for the county to vacate the road as a vehicle corridor. Any redevelopment on the three affected parcels would be accessible on the other eastern or northern sides. This also meant the only roadways people could drive to Sunset Point would not overlook the Gulf, but that didn’t seem an alarming matter before Cosentino took up the cause.
Part of that, Bailey says, is that the beach will remain publicly accessible no matter what. While the road easement is being vacated, the public access for pedestrians and bicycles remains unchanged. That’s a preferable situation for the property owners renting out Gulf-front views. Right now, everything from Vespas to pickup trucks can be spotted using Beach Road as a way to get their vehicles onto the beach (Bailey notes Cosentino has been cited and fined for doing the same thing).
Who Owns Sunset Point?
In the world of copyright law, there is a saying that no one owns the sunset. That means that if a photographer goes out and shoots a gorgeous shot of the sun dipping below the horizon, she owns her own image, but nothing stops another photographer from staking out the same vantage point and taking the same picture the following day. The matter of who owns Sunset Point, though, can be a little harder to explain. A look at property appraiser GPS maps only muddies matters. Sunset Point and the surrounding neighborhood in government records show plenty of lots crisscrossed with public easements. Beach Road, and every public road, sits in just such easements, places where the county may pave, lay utilities or put pedestrian walkways. But the platted lots between these easements don’t all house structures. Indeed, the lot across Beach Road from the Maddens, according to public property records, also belongs to the Maddens, just as the sand across from the Caflisches belongs to them as well.
But who owns the water’s edge? That remains a touchy point. An article published in the Florida Bar Journal states that the public has guaranteed access to beachfront, at least to the sands lying between the mean high and low watermarks. “However, while beachfront property owners in Florida generally have title to the dry sand beach down to the average high tide line,” writes attorney Erika Kranz, “ownership of this property does not necessarily mean that the exclusion-of-others stick is within the bundle of rights attached to this part of the property. Title to any property may be subject to explicit or implied easements, limitations based on traditional right of use, or common law prohibitions of activities considered nuisances. Beachfront land is no different.” And there is no way for the public to get between the watermarks at Sunset Point without crossing private property.
Add to the mix that there seem to be no fixed rules on what it means to close public roads to only “local traffic.” Signs posted for more than 20 years have said anyone not living on Beach Road can’t drive there, but there aren’t police officers prohibiting anyone from doing so. Unquestionably, the public owns Beach Road, even though a public easement doesn’t technically constitute ownership on behalf of Sarasota County. But whether outside cars were allowed on Beach Road after it was closed in 1993, there’s no question that after a vacation of the easement to vehicle traffic, they are not allowed to drive the road any more. Bailey says the public remains free to grab a folding chair, walk the old Beach Road segment and settle in to watch a sunset. But to Cosentino, losing the ability to drive the stretch of road is more than an inconvenience; it’s a loss to taxpayers. The value of the easement, based on property values in the immediate area, runs around $3.5 million for a 400-by-20-yard piece of land. “It’s an amazing asset,” he says. Why, then, would Sarasota County just give the land away? Government officials can’t say; Cosentino’s litigation turns the issue into a pending legal matter, and county officials by policy will not speak to an issue being taken to court. By giving up the easement, it also turns the properties opposite the beach, including the one owned by the Maddens, into upland properties with direct access to shore, a move Cosentino views as a ridiculous improvement in value for three sites ready to be redeveloped. He plans to fight the matter “to the Supreme Court” if that’s what it takes to maintain public access to the beach. Bailey, though, says the public will be far better off with the change. He voices frustration that many of the conservation voices Cosentino recruited to this cause fought for years to keep density low and the environment unhurt by development, yet a plan to cut the unit density in half on Beach Road has been met with resistance. As far as protecting the water, he notes that by having larger units and no road, it prevents any developer from ever building units any closer to the Gulf than exist today—there just won’t be any way to access units built closer to the beach.
But will the public really have easy access after that change occurs, Cosentino wonders? He would rather preserve the character of Siesta as it exists today. Looking at the support advertised at ReopenBeachRoad.com, his case has proven compelling with business leaders and members of the public. He may not have been able to get a referendum on the November ballot, but he was won public support from Siesta businesses like Waterfront 7 Realty, Walt’s Fish Mart and Old Salty Dog. “I hope county commissioners at this point,” Cosentino says, “won’t go to court and spend taxpayer money to fight something the voters feel is incorrect.”