A Siesta Key resident is taking legal action against Sarasota County for vacating an untravelled portion of roadway near the beach.
Less than a century ago, properties along the northern-most portion of Beach road weren’t considered beach-front homes. They were a block away, separated from the Gulf by a row of residential lots.
But today, it’s hard to distinguish Beach Road from the beach itself.
Thru traffic has not been allowed on the road since 1993. More than two decades later, the asphalt juts out, half covered in sand.
Three sets of Beach Road property owners — Christy Ramsey, Wendy Madden and William and Sheila Caflisch — petitioned the county to allow for the permanent vacation of the road.
The county granted the variance in May, making official the vacation of a 370 foot portion of Beach Road in front of the three properties in question. Now, Siesta Key resident Michael Cosentino argues that decision was an unlawful vacation of a public road, and he’s filed a legal complaint against the county contesting the change.
Cosentino’s complaint alleges the county violated a portion of its comprehensive plan, which states “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.”
The property owners’ attorney, Charlie Bailey, argues Beach Road does not offer access to the Gulf because it runs parallel to the beach. The Gulf access points sit at the westernmost ends of Columbus Boulevard and Avenida Messina, located on either end of the portion of Beach Road in question.
Yet, Cosentino believes the closure of the road to the public is unlawful. He says the county was motivated to grant the variance in order to decrease the county’s maintenance costs.
“There is a mountain of reasons for them not to do what they did,” Cosentino said.
He cites another portion of the county’s comprehensive plan, which directs officials to prioritize properties that will expand public beaches and increase public access points. He would like to see the road, now washed out and partially covered by sand, rebuilt and opened back up to public traffic.
William Caflisch Jr. and Chelly Serrano’s parents were among the property owners who filed for the vacation in May. Their Beach Road home has been in the family for nearly 75 years. Serrano and Caflisch grew up there, and their parents met on the beach in front of the house.
“Our goal is to keep it exactly the same as it is.” Serrano said. “By this agreement with the county, where the road existed will still be public right of way as it always has been and nothing changes with the beach or with construction anywhere further (seaward) than where buildings are now.”
The agreement between the property owners and the county also created a 60-foot pedestrian easement between the beach and residential portions of the property. An easement is a binding agreement labelling a particular piece of land for a particular use— in this case, a pedestrian right-of-way.
The goal is to ensure the 60-foot pedestrian easement can never be developed or used for anything other than a pedestrian walkway.
Cosentino isn’t convinced.
He also takes issue with a variance the county granted Wendy and Dennis Madden to replace their 12 rental condominium units with a new six-unit, four-story building, the first new development near Siesta Key Village since 2008.
The existing structure was built before the creation of the Gulf Beach Setback Line. The line was created in 1978 and acts a barrier against future development that may cause beach erosion. The new plans call for a building that will sit further from the water, but still past the setback line. The development would decrease the building’s density to comply with current zoning requirements.
The vacation and the setback line variance are separate issues, but Cosentino believes the variance hinges on the vacation of Beach Road. The Maddens own five lots, three of which are separated from the other two by the road. According to Bailey, the five lots combined have a total allowed density of seven residential units.
Cosentino believes the vacation of the road is an attempt to develop the five lots as one contiguous parcel and increase the development’s density by transferring the development rights of the beach lots to the two upland lots.
Yet, Bailey said by transferring the development potential of the three seaward lots to the two upland lots, the Maddens are forever extinguishing the possibility of a new development any closer to the beach than the houses that already exist.
Bailey said the Maddens want to improve their building and keep all development further inland.
"They intend to live here," Bailey said "They want it to be nice. They love Siesta Key."
A group of around 20 concerned residents met for an unofficial meeting Monday evening on an old pier, located mere feet from the controversial road. Serrano and Caflisch Jr. walked down from their home and discussed the situation with those in attendance. The siblings insisted they want the road and the beach to remain exactly the same, but some, like Cosentino, are not satisfied with the road as is.
For those opposed to the street vacation, this stretch of roadway is one of the last vestiges of old Siesta Key, and they don’t just want to see it preserved. They want to see it restored.
Though the Beach Road property owners are now involved in the controversy, Cosentino holds Sarasota County responsible for the road's vacation.
“I don't blame the people one iota for trying to maximize the value of their land,” Cosentino said. “I absolutely hold the county responsible for misinterpreting these petitions.”
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