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Siesta Key Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012 9 years ago

Observed: Views of alcohol on beach remain in sharp contrast

by: Rachel Brown Hackney Managing Editor

It was inevitable that the death of Donna Chen would spark an effort to ban alcohol on Siesta Public Beach. What remains to be seen is how strong public support will be for that initiative.

After Chen was killed, witnesses reported having seen the 22-year-old driver in the incident drinking excessively at the beach with friends hours earlier. It’s been well documented that Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office deputies talked on three occasions with the driver and the man who ended up being his passenger in the incident. Deputies did not arrest them, the Sheriff’s Office has made clear, because the young men did not commit any infraction at the beach.

And that was the real problem, Chen family members say. If alcohol consumption at the beach were illegal, the deputies could have arrested Blake Talman long before he sat behind the wheel of a car and headed down Midnight Pass Road, where Chen was running with her dog.

Yet, there is no assurance that if alcoholic beverages become illegal on Siesta Public Beach, people will stop drinking — and driving while they are drunk.

It is illegal for anyone to drive with a blood-alcohol level of 0.8 or higher, but practically every week, I find at least one report of someone drinking excessively at a Village nightclub and driving away, only to be stopped by a deputy.

During meetings over the past two weeks, Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson alerted members of the Siesta Key Association and the Siesta Key Village Association that the issue of alcohol on the beach would be coming before the County Commission at some point.

The SKA and SKVA are diverse groups, of course. The former represents residents, while the latter represents businesses. Comments voiced in response to Patterson’s remarks reflected that.

While Sgt. Scott Osborne, leader of the Sheriff’s Office’s Community Policing Station on the Key, was making his report to the SKA, resident Katherine Zimmerman asked him whether discussion had ensued about more control of alcohol on the island, “because people drinking and driving here seems to be a national pastime.”

Osborne replied that any change regarding alcohol on the beach would be up to the County Commission. He said that, typically, the more people on the beach, the more alcohol. However, Osborne was quick to point out that 99% of the people who drink on the beach do so responsibly.

Needless to say, Patterson’s comments at the SKVA meeting raised alarm bells, because restaurants and two convenience stores in the Village sell alcohol. It’s probably safe to say that more than a few people, especially during season, buy mixed drinks, beer or wine and head down to the beach to consume them. I’m sure at least a few of the restaurateurs present for that meeting were thinking about how making alcohol illegal on the beach could have a repercussion on sales.

Patterson also pointed out that the county allows the concession at Siesta Public Beach to sell beer and wine — and the county, in a manner of speaking, counts on those sales in its contract with the concessionaire, because the concessionaire has to pay a percentage of its income to the county in exchange for the right to operate at the beach.

Quite a bit of discussion ensued at SKA meetings a few years ago when the County Commission began considering the idea of allowing those alcohol sales at the beach. Former SKA board member Nancy Wilson noted in a recent letter to the editor that she, as a family nurse practitioner, was vehemently opposed to the idea, because she know only too well that the average person does not take into consideration how quickly he can become drunk by consuming alcohol in the heat.

Still, Patterson pointed out during the Feb. 7 SKVA meeting, if alcohol were banned on the beach, it would be practically impossible for deputies to enforce the prohibition. She is absolutely right that the Sheriff’s Office does not have enough manpower to check every cooler. Moreover, if deputies had to allocate extra time to ferreting out alcohol brought onto the beach illegally, they would not have sufficient time to handle other problems.

With the Chen family preparing to press its case against alcohol on the beach, the County Commission undoubtedly will have a comprehensive discussion of the issue. Every county resident who wants to express an opinion should take the time now to write a letter or email to the commissioners, or give them a call.

Look upon this opportunity as if it were an election: Let the county commissioners know what you think, instead of remaining silent and grumbling afterward about the decision the board makes.

After all, the more comments the commissioners receive from the public, the better prepared they will be to take action that truly reflects the majority’s view.

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