The problems started in 2002 for Don Hughes — beginning almost immediately after a pedestrian bridge was completed that linked two Gulf Gate neighborhoods that had been separated by a small canal.
Since its construction, Hughes has had eggs thrown at his house, lawn decorations stolen and his doorbell rung in the middle of the night.
“If you have things out in the yard, they quickly disappear over the bridge,” says Hughes.
Until two months ago, Hughes, 65, and his neighbors had been victims of only minor vandalism.
But Nov. 20, someone threw a firebomb at Hughes’ home.
“I was watching TV, and I heard the metal flex on the screen door,” he said. “I go out and this flame was there. It landed on the concrete and burned out. To realize if the door was more flimsy, it could have come through. It was very frightening.”
No one was hurt and the incident only left a scorch mark on the ground, but it was the culmination of years of frustration in that part of Gulf Gate.
What neighbors say frustrates them even more is that they warned county officials that this would happen if the bridge were built.
Hughes lives at the intersection of Concord Street and Colonial Drive, which dead-ends against the canal. He’s been there since 1985.
Canal No. 10-194 had always separated Concord Street and Williamsburg Street on the other side.
But the school board wanted to give students a new path to Gulf Gate Elementary, which is a little more than a half-mile from the canal.
When neighbors heard about the proposal that called for a pedestrian bridge linking Concord Street and Williamsburg Street, they began a petition drive against it.
The neighborhood hosted in Hughes’ garage a meeting with county commissioners to explain their opposition.
“(The bridge) was one of those things that was in the machinery, and (the county) wanted to spend the money they had,” Hughes said.
Twenty-six feet long, 8 feet wide and constructed of reinforced concrete, the pedestrian bridge quickly became a hangout for kids on the Williamsburg Street side.
Two streetlights illuminate the bridge at night, but someone frequently shoots out the lights, which keeps the area cloaked in darkness.
Hughes said he doesn’t believe he’s targeted for any reason other than his house sits near the bridge and his lights are on at night. He believes the kids are looking more to bother someone than to cause a great deal of damage.
“It’s not personal,” he said. “Just the luck of the draw.”
Sheriff’s Office records show that it has responded to 11 calls in the past year, either at the pedestrian bridge or in the immediate area (see box below).
The sheriff’s Crime Prevention Unit inspected the bridge and suggested locked gates be placed on both ends, so only county personnel could access it, but Sheriff Tom Knight said the county was opposed to that plan.
“As with many well-intentioned things, there are unintended consequences,” said Commissioner Jon Thaxton, who corresponds frequently with Hughes about the bridge problems. “Unfortunately, delinquent kids are using it as — for lack of a better term — ‘escape route.’”
The next campaign for Hughes is to try to get the county to install a surveillance camera at the bridge to record any illegal activity.
Thaxton said although that was not out of the question, it was probably unlikely.
“That’s not really the county’s M.O.,” he said. “But I can appreciate for the homeowners that every night is a nightmare.”
Hughes said he just wants to enjoy his home undisturbed.
“This thing is a real pain in the posterior,” he said.
Click here to view a chart displaying phone calls to the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office.
Contact Robin Roy at [email protected]