A Siesta Key resident’s decision to sue the county over the vacation of a waterfront road has prompted debate over public beach access, but this is not the first time the subject has been hoisted into the spotlight.
The suit contests the county’s decision to vacate its claim to a portion of Beach Road, turning a portion of public right of way into private property. As residents have learned of the decision — and Cosentino’s opposition — a growing number are expressing concern.
Two Beach Road residents, Chelley Serrano and William Caflisch Jr., were among those present at the unofficial meeting. They defended the county’s May 11 decision to permanently restrict thru traffic on a road that has been “temporarily” vacated since 1993, pointing out that public access to the beach via the land would be maintained per an agreement with property owners.
After Serrano and Caflisch Jr. left, the small group of residents meandered around the pier, asking questions and expressing frustrations as the sun set.
For longtime residents of Siesta Key, in particular, beach road closures and public access aren’t a new issue. Cosentino believes the Beach Road vacation is a last stand of sorts — a chance to avoid ceding public access to beachfront streets as the county has in the past.
One woman, away from the group, looked at her friend and said in an exasperated tone, “It’s like Shell Road all over again.”
Wendel Kent moved to his home on Shell Road in 1960.
At the time, there was a 150-foot-wide beach in his front yard. A lagoon created by two parallel sand bars provided his sons with a safe place to play with the other children from the neighborhood.
The beach has since eroded, and one of the sand bars has washed away, but the house has remained largely the same in the 56 years he has lived there. The changes in the environment have impacted Kent’s home in some ways, though. Today, visitors walk through the entrance Kent still refers to as the “back door” — because the road the house used to face no longer exists.
Shell Road used to form a C-shaped loop, connecting with Higel Avenue on either end. Like Beach Road, it ran parallel to the gulf and offered the public a drive-by view of the water.
The north leg of the road still exists, but the 3/4-mile middle portion is now gone. Walking from Kent’s “front door” to the gulf, you wouldn’t even know a road had ever been there.
That’s because in 1972, residents used barricades to unilaterally close the road to thru traffic, a decision the county voted to uphold later in the same year. The residents argued the road was never a public road to begin with, despite how the street had been used. According to property owners, the road was included with the land when the lots were platted in the early 1900s.
The road remained closed to thru traffic until late 1979, when Sarasota County attempted to claim ownership of the road, then in poor maintenance, and construct a nature trail for public use.
Shell Road residents filed a lawsuit contesting the county’s claim. They argued Shell Road was not subject to county seizure, because the road had never received county maintenance.
Lou Piotrowski bought her home on Shell Road in 1979. She remembers large Australian pines that had grown on and around the road and a pool being built over the land where the road sat. To residents, these features contributed to the idea that Shell Road, despite the name, wasn’t really a street.
“You wouldn’t think ‘Oh, what a nice old road,’” Piotrowksi said. “You would look at it and think ‘Oh, a beach with some shelly parts.’”
On June 20, 1981, Judge Gilbert Smith sided with the residents of Shell Road. In his ruling, Smith wrote that county employees repeatedly told residents that the road was private, and that the county would not put traffic signs on the road or repair it as a result.
Sarasota County appealed the decision, but ultimately the county’s claim to the land was formally denied because of the lack of maintenance. Public access to Shell Road was officially off-limits.
Kent maintains the “road” was not a road at all, but a private driveway included with the lots in their original plats.
“I don’t like the word ‘won,’ because we already had it.” Kent said. “We didn’t win it. It was part of what we bought.”
Lines in the Sand
Over the decades, as private land, the road has gradually washed away. The issue at hand has not, with Beach Road becoming the latest public beach access issue.
Some residents have connected the Shell Road and Beach Road disputes, because both deal with the public’s ability to drive on waterfront roadways and access beaches. They see Shell Road as the first domino to fall in the fight for beach access, which ultimately led to the county giveaway of Beach Road.
Former County Commissioner Nora Patterson remembers the Shell Road controversy and later had to navigate conflict over the public’s ability to access the beach during her 16 years on the commission.
In 2006, Shell Road residents responded to a trespassing problem by placing signs on the sand perpendicular to the shore, declaring it private property.
The Florida Constitution mandates that wet sand be preserved as public property. Though she was sympathetic to the residents’ trespassing issues, Patterson suggested that homeowners move the signs from the sand to the vegetation parallel to the shore to avoid any legal problems.
Despite resident concerns — and lingering consternation over Shell Road’s closure — she believes Beach Road is its own issue. Though she is one of the Siesta Key residents upset with the loss of public access to Shell Road, she said the decision-makers in that case are long gone and the facts currently in play are different.
“The only connection is this is a platted road, and that was a platted road,” Patterson said.
Shell Road was first closed by residents without county authorization; on Beach Road, Sarasota County itself decided in 1993 to temporarily vacate the land in question. In May, the county sided with Beach Road residents who requested the permanent vacation.
In the Beach Road lawsuit, property owners are not claiming the vacated land was always their private property. Public access will also be maintained: According to an agreement with Sarasota County, 60 feet of now sand-covered roadway is to be preserved as a pedestrian walkway even after the street is vacated.
Environmental lawyer Thomas Ankersen, the director of the University of Florida Conservation Clinic, is reluctant to draw significant parallels between the two cases because of the differing circumstances.
“What happened in one does not necessarily dictate what would happen in another,” Ankersen said.
Still, Cosentino believes the Shell Road case set a dangerous precedent for waterfront streets. For him, there is a defining characteristic in both cases: the idea that the public could lose access to a road because of a previous lack of maintenance, even if the public interest in the street hasn’t waned.
Beach Road residents say they intend to keep the beach and the road exactly the way they are, but many of the Key’s residents gathered around the old pier last month don’t wait to keep the road they way it is. They want to restore it to what it once was, a publicly accessible road along Siesta beach.
As conflict continues regarding the future of Beach Road, Ankersen believes the dispute over the public right to access beaches is not likely to dissipate even after this case is settled.
“Public beach access is a precious resource,” Ankersen said. “And it is only going to become more precious as the dry sand beach continues to be squeezed between the tide and line of construction.”
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