Reopen Beach Road gave a presentation at the Siesta Key Association meeting in August, in an effort to get more signatures on their petitions to amend the county charter.
When the Siesta Key Association invited Reopen Beach Road to present its case on Aug. 4, the presentation started civilly.
Mary Anne Bowie, Reopen Beach Road’s newly appointed executive director, gave the presentation with Brian Lichterman, a former senior planner with Sarasota County.
The duo went over the history of the dispute: the county vacated its stake in a 370-foot stretch of Beach Road on Siesta Key in May 2016. That deal gave ownership to three property owners who already had land there, who in turn granted the county a perpetual easement to preserve pedestrian beach access.
In turn, Siesta Key resident Mike Cosentino started a campaign against the county’s move. He tried to sue the county on the grounds that it violated the comprehensive plan, but a judge dismissed the case. He founded Reopen Beach Road, and now the group is seeking signatures on petitions to get two charter amendments onto the next ballot.
The first would prevent the county from selling parks and preserves, or land bordering a beach or waterway. The second would reverse the Beach Road vacation. Reopen Beach Road was hoping to get signatures on its petition at the SKA meeting, to get the charter amendments on the November 2018 ballot.
“The reason it’s important for me to talk to the SKA is because there’s two different stories going around,” Bowie said. “There’s a story going around that is being told by the people who benefited from the street vacation, the individual property owners. Then there’s a story going around — the Reopen Beach Road story — which is the story that’s directed in the interest of the public.”
Opponents would like to see the road open to the public traffic again, complete with seating areas. Bowie was speaking out against what she calls the “creeping privatization that’s destroying public beach access.”
However, before the presentation was completed, one of the property owners on the disputed portion of Beach Road stood up and posed a question.
“[Are you] positive you want a road right where the turtle nests are?” he asked, standing at the front of the room.
The presentation devolved after that in different sides standing up and making points over chatter from the crowd, with several arguments happening on the fringes of the room.
Some asked if Bowie would address the added traffic and congestion making the road public would bring to the Key, and claimed the road has “nurtured itself back to nature.” Eventually, a number of those in attendance walked out, and the meeting ended shortly after that.
Hearing a presentation by Reopen Beach Road was something 62% of surveyed SKA members were in favor of, according to a survey conducted in June. Although members wanted the presentation for more information, 60% were also in favor of SKA as an organization remaining neutral in the dispute.
Each of the petitions has about 7,000 signatures, according to Bowie, meaning the group is more than halfway to getting the necessary number. Typically, petitions take about 36 months to get the required signatures, but Reopen Beach Road hopes to be finished in less than 18.
Bowie said she could not estimate how many people signed the petition after hearing the presentation at the SKA meeting.