One man is responsible for igniting perhaps the most contentious issue on Siesta Key. But why, exactly, is Mike Cosentino so fired up about a 230-foot piece of Beach Road?
Mike Cosentino is unwavering in his belief that Sarasota County made a grievous error by deciding last year to give up a small segment of Beach Road.
That quality was on display during April’s Siesta Key Association meeting, when the organization’s leadership pleaded with him to stop talking about his public campaign to restore public ownership of the land and make the road drivable.
He didn’t stop. He said he was going to force the resident group’s hand if it wouldn’t give him a platform willingly, that its bylaws would require it to hold a meeting to discuss an issue that many of its members wanted to know more about.
He was willing to let someone with an opposing viewpoint share the stage with him. All he wanted was an opportunity to discuss the cause that’s taken over his life.
“For 10 months, this has been my full-time job,” Cosentino said.
In some cases, his dedication can only get him so far. Despite the controversy, SKA is not objecting to the street vacation. The board was happy the county preserved pedestrian access along that segment of Beach Road. And the leaders didn’t see any advantage in discussing the topic when Cosentino was in the midst of a lawsuit against the county.
“This issue is going to be decided in the court based on the facts and the laws — not based on what Mike said, not based on a debate going on in here,” said SKA President Harold Ashby.
The Long and Winding Road
Cosentino, 53, isn’t giving up on the prospect of making his case to SKA members. Obstacles or no, he’s not giving up on much of anything, spending 70 hours on a light week on his Reopen Beach Road campaign, he said.
The campaign dates back to May 2016. That’s when the County Commission voted 4-1 to vacate its ownership of a 230-foot segment of Beach Road west of Columbus Boulevard, which had been closed to through traffic since 1993. Three property owners — who own land on either side of Beach Road, including private seaward beach lots — requested the move.
Cosentino said the property owners didn’t have the legal standing to make the request, and the county didn’t have the authority to grant it. He said the changes will lead to larger developments and a privatized beach.
The property owners have a less-exciting series of events. The road was damaged, and they didn’t want people driving in front of their homes, anyway. It had been closed for decades, and they had access to their property along Avenida Veneccia.
The vacation prevents the possibility that the road will be reopened to traffic and preserves pedestrian access. When they’ve told that to concerned residents, they’ve seen anxiety fade.
“Mike Cosenstino and his followers tell whoever it is what they want to hear,” said Billy Caflisch, son of Wiliam Caflisch, one of the property owners. “It doesn’t matter what the truth is.”
Cosentino doesn’t buy the property owners’ claims. He sees the issue in stark terms. The owners are “actively seeking the ruination of the county.” The County Commission is “corrupt.” Land use attorney Charlie Bailey, who represented the Maddens, is a “coward lying son of a b—.”
Beyond the legal dispute, he also sees a battle between what Siesta Key was and what it has become. He’s resentful of the level of development, of out-of-towners coming in and pricing locals off the island.
He remembers a time when Beach Road was open, when he would park his truck illegally along the street and carry his ailing mother to the sand. The two of them would watch the sunset.
“I have been pissed off since the day that road closed because it was my favorite spot on Siesta Key,” Cosentino said. “Now, you’re just giving it to some guy from Michigan? You gotta be kidding me.”
But Beach Road property owners have roots in the community, too. The Caflisches have owned their home since 1942, though they’ve had to convert it into visitor rentals. They say they’ve been painted as money-grubbing developers, not locals invested in improving Siesta Key.
“The structure on our property was built almost 100 years ago,” Caflisch said. “We haven’t changed anything. That’s not our intent out there.”
Even those who disagree with the vacation don’t necessarily share Cosentino’s insistence the road be restored for cars. Jay Lancer, a Siesta Key Village property owner, said the county should have secured more concessions in exchange for the vacation, such as a guarantee public access to the beach would never be restricted.
Lancer is hopeful that the property owners might still agree to some deal that would enhance pedestrian access along Beach Road. Cosentino isn’t interested in compromise, though.
“He wants it open to vehicular traffic,” Lancer said. “At this juncture, he’s not going to settle for anything else.”
“Mr. Cosentino’s pretty doggone persistent.” — Charlie Bailey
Although the Reopen Beach Road campaign is getting significant public attention, the property owners hope the county’s decision will be vindicated in court. Bailey said a recent ruling that discarded a central part of Cosentino’s argument should quiet the opposition, though he’s not certain.
“Mr. Cosentino’s pretty doggone persistent,” Bailey said.
The property owners say word-of-mouth from their side is swaying people, too.
“Folks say, ‘Boy, if this is something Mike feels that strongly about, I better support him’ — without having the benefit of the facts,” Bailey said. “When they get the facts, they think, ‘Hmm.’”
Cosentino’s fighting on another front, too. Reopen Beach Road is circulating petitions to place two charter amendments on the ballot. One would overturn the Beach Road street vacation, and another would prohibit similar decisions in the future. His attorney, Elizabeth Gomez-Mayo, says the group is close to halfway to its target of 15,000 signatures.
Cosentino said people have asked him why he cares so much. He said it’s because he’s seen something better in the past, and he wants to see it again.
It’s clear he won’t give up until he’s exhausted all his options — and maybe not even then. While others are grappling with how to best deal with Mike Cosentino, the man himself is confident in his approach, certain that he’s fighting for a righteous cause.