Writer’s Notes: I live close to South Venice Beach and its related properties. And, I have a good deal of personal knowledge about the community and its history. These stories, however, are not the product of my opinions nor are they based on my objectives. I am writing for my community, first, for you, whether or not you live here, and for the sole purpose of giving information. What is made of what is read here will vary. That is a reasonable diversity of reactions. If these stories inform, educate, or add something new to the reader's understanding, then my work has succeeded. - KyleeliseTHT
*Historical documents, photographs, interviews and information, and records provided and used courtesy of Westcoast Inland Navigation District, Venice Museum & Archives, Sarasota County Government, Sarasota County Sheriff's Office, South Venice Beach Endowment Trust, and area citizens. The writer thanks all for access to these materials, information, and time. The writer also thanks participating community members for their time and candid interviews.
THE PROMISE OF A FOREVER BEACH
Photographs and video © KyleeliseTHT and T-Nathaniel Thomas unless otherwise noted
The beach was majestic on the first day of March. There was not much wind. The sand, slightly compacted, was neither gritty nor sticky, and the waves were gentle.
When the time came to watch the sunset, strangers huddled at the shoreline to marvel at the brilliant, inverted pear-shaped spectacle of what appeared to be an illuminated globe sinking into the Gulf of Mexico.
So much freedom within the gaze of the unobstructed vista. A welcome distraction from the oppressive days of Covid-19, which haunted all of 2020, and drags on, now, in 2021.
But to one’s back, the sand is chipped away. How deep into the dune the earth has been carved is a sign that one is standing lower than one should.
Just how much beach has eroded? According to a report by Environmental Science Associates (ESA), a consulting firm that evaluated this shoreline in 2019, the beach has retracted 120 to 175 feet.
In June 2020, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FLDEP) designated the short stretch of coastline “critically eroded.”
That’s not surprising. The visual evidence tracks what’s left of South Venice Beach.
Unearthed are whole skeletons of petrified trees. Survivors cling to a cliff above. If left unattended, they will vanish from the living landscape. And in relative proportion, shorebirds and other coastal dwellers will disappear, too.
The sun receded into the arc of the horizon. Beachgoers that had ferried over ascended the stairs and crossed back over the dune. They made their way to a small electric boat and were shuttled along a short trek to the boathouse across the Intracoastal, piloted by an affable captain, who’d made the journey to and fro several times that day.
There was a lot of lingering on the inland side once docked. You’d be surprised how long folks take to say “goodbye” to people they hadn’t known before the journey to and from the 1400-foot stretch of Manasota Key – a gifted jewel to a subdivision tucked in a southern, unincorporated outlier of Sarasota County, Florida.
South Venice, not to be confused with the City of Venice just north, is a little more than six-and-a-half square miles and was platted initially for cottage dwellings and mobile homes in the 1950s and ‘60s but developed into a middle-class vacation and retiree enclave that also attracts younger families but in far fewer numbers and a steadily growing professional class.
Now, an abode under $300,000 is a steal. Some homes in the neighborhood have crested one million in value.
Like everywhere with natural amenities or urban proximity, things are changing in South Venice, Florida.
The following days – March 2nd and 3rd – a work crew put up a fence that shuttered the way to the beach transport.
This neighborhood park hosts a motorboat ramp and places where one can launch a kayak or fish in the quiet of the Intracoastal, right there at mile marker 50, backed by the dune that hides the prize--South Venice Beach.
That second day of March, this writer made a post on the neighborhood Nextdoor page:
“Fencing South Venice Beach boat launch & ferry parking. Any information about the fencing going up at the South Venice ferry and boat launch access? Looks as if the entire area is being closed off with a tall chain-link fence.”
At the time of this writing, there are one-hundred-and-sixty-eight passionate weigh-ins. And there is no middle ground, just opposition or support for the shuttering of the neighborhood waterfront park that fronts its beach and has been unrestricted for decades.
The South Venice Beach Endowment Trust (SVBET) manages the boat ramp, ferry, and beach properties. The five-member body – there is one vacancy – agreed to the barrier as a safety precaution.
SVBET Trustee John Bridinger, both a resident and rental property owner, who supported installing a fence in February but with some reservations, believed the Trustees would decide the type of structure to be put up at a general meeting on March 17.
“Well, I was kind of against (the fence). I didn’t think it was really necessary. But, you know, I get it. There was a drug house across the road,” he said.
“A couple of Trust members said they found (drug) needles all the time in the field, but we never saw any pictures or anything or any proof of whatever. But, apparently, it was pretty bad. But no pictures; no proof,” Mr. Bridinger added.
A drug house across the street. Needles. The spoken urgency was brewing for months.
“Unfortunately, there were several incidents of vandalism and worse,” wrote SVBET Trustee Cheryl L. Cooper on one of the Nextdoor posts this writer created, adding, “The fence was erected for security and preservation of the property, and the safety of those legally using the facilities.”
Data compiled by the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office shows the following law enforcement engagement at 4800 Lemon Bay Drive, the site of the South Venice Ferry and Boat Ramp property, from May 5, 2020, through May 1, 2021
Eight “suspicious” activities, including incidents, vehicles, and persons
There were a total of 140 incidents of law enforcement engagement on Lemon Bay Drive during this period, including animal control calls and desk calls like the one from this writer’s home to report an overturned mailbox (with road marks).
Ms. Cooper, an attorney licensed to practice in New Jersey and owns property in South Venice, declined two requests for interviews. Nonetheless, she responds to now three posts this writer contributed to Nextdoor.
According to Mr. Bridinger, two Trustees – he doesn’t name them – went door-to-door “… and got all the people, who were ranting and raving about the drug house to come into the (Trust) meeting and say that the fence would help.”
Mr. Bridinger refers to the February 17 meeting of the SVBET, which was held two days after more unsettling news.
Allegedly, the sexual abuse of an adult person we will not name in this story happened at the boat ramp and ferry mainland property.
An assault at the property made attending to the security an urgent matter. The Trust convened at an executive meeting to sort out how to make the area safe, according to Mr. Bridinger.
Ms. Cooper added a timeline to one of the Nextdoor posts.
“.. Let’s get the FACTS straight, she wrote. “The fence was approved 3-1. The check for the project was signed by a different trustee .. not me or chuck. Again .. documents don’t lie .. people do.”
Mr. Bridinger disputes the nuances of Ms. Cooper’s account. He said that (Charles) Chuck Bauman, one of the four SVBET Trustees, used one of several checks that Mr. Bridinger left in the care of the SVBET administrator, Ms. Karen Lewis, for ongoing expenses that do not require a vote. He said no one informed until weeks later that Mr. Bauman used a check he signed to pay the fencing company.
Here’s what Mr. Bridinger had to say about the matter fourteen days before Ms. Cooper posted her version of what happened.
“Since I live a few doors down from the Civic Association, I sign, I don’t know, maybe ten checks, twelve checks for Karen (Lewis) just so she has them for miscellaneous whenever she needs them. And, this Trustee member took it upon himself to go in the next day, grab one of the checks that I signed, and paid full in cash to the first person that would build the fence, I think.”
Ms. Lewis is a part-time administrative employee of SVBET.
Mr. Bridinger said he “had no idea” that Mr. Bauman used a check with his signature to purchase the fence. He “thought” that Mr. Bauman paid for it “out of his pocket” and would ask the Trust for reimbursement, he added.
When does Mr. Bridinger say he learned that Mr. Bauman presumably used a check with his signature to pay for the fence? “I’d say about three weeks after the fence was up,” he said. However, he acknowledged that he voted in favor of it at the February 17 meeting.
The fence company confirmed that Mr. Bauman ordered and paid for the fence well before March 17.
The “possible molestation,” Mr. Bridinger said, is what led to his voting in favor of fencing the community property.
It is reasonable to say that there is a good deal of displeasure in South Venice over the fence, both the aesthetics of the tall chain link and its adornment with signs along the wall, which is as wide as the waterfront expanse that once was.
“Posted.” “Private Property.” “Warning” posters in multiples.
The enactment of an opening and closing schedule with uneven privileges among boat ramp key holders and those who’d frequented the park’, like the kayak launch, fishing spots, and the paid ferry riders, stirred up more opposition.
But for some neighbors nearby, who’d felt threatened by what seemed like an escalating crime problem, a fence is a welcomed deterrent. Unfortunately, while many people freely objected and some were relieved, few were comfortable going on record.
On this, too, Ms. Cooper weighed in.
“The community has no say in the decisions of the SVBET.. however... there were multiple meetings where the people who live across from the ferry and park actually ASKED multiple times for the fence to be erected. ..”
Some knew that the fence was coming. But not everyone knew what kind. As was Mr. Bridinger, some were surprised that the Trustees would set in place a six-foot-high, chain-link fence well before the next general meeting.
Mr. Bauman distributed a seven-point document titled “Rumors and Falsehoods” at the start of the March 17 meeting.
The first item undermines Mr. Bridinger’s understanding about revisiting the fence issue:
1. There would be input about the fence choices and a few days later (Charles) Chuck Bauman signed a contract for $2000 over the bid price without board approval”
1. “Truth” as stated on the document claims that the fence purchase was made after a 3-1 “majority vote which took place at the February meeting witnessed by all who attended that evening, and it was recorded.”
SVBET Trustee (Charles) Chuck Bauman did not respond to two requests to interview for this story.
The South Venice resident is an attorney licensed in the State of Michigan. He also heads Bauman and Bauman, a 501c (3) charitable organization for “animal protection and welfare.”
At that March Trust meeting, Mr. Bauman ticked off a list of problems, including escalating crime, aggravated assault, molestation, criminal mischief, then defended the fence installation, saying it was necessary “because there’s a lot of illicit behavior (at the ferry site).”
Seven days earlier, a fight at the boat ramp, resulting in broken bones, according to Mr. Bauman, was yet another reason to close the property.
Adding another layer to the problems at the site, Mr. Bauman said that chain-link fence materials had risen at a hurried rate, four times in price.
The escalating cost is why Mr. Bauman admittedly took it upon himself and hired a next-town-over fencing company to expedite the job before the Trustees met again to work out the particulars, he said at March’s Trust meeting.
The office manager at Englewood Fencing confirmed Mr. Bauman’s claim. “Yes, since last year, fencing materials at our cost have gone through the roof like forty- to fifty- percent markup, “she said. “I’m not sure what that means on the customer’s end.”
Additionally, she explained that the turn-around time to lock down the price of materials has shrunk to three to five days. “That’s unheard of,” she added.
And there was one more thing, Mr. Bauman has cautioned.
“Keep in mind that the reason for the fence – the primary reason – is to prevent things from happening and to reduce our liability,” Mr. Bauman said in response to rousing inquiries during the March 17th meeting. “Remember, we’ve got that responsibility to try and mitigate our liability. And, so, if we keep perpetrators, for a lack of a better word, out, they can’t commit crimes….”
During the same meeting, in justifying the fence, Mr. Bauman referenced the alleged molestation and identified the alleged victim by name.
We will not repeat the name of the person(s) that reported the alleged crime to the Sheriff’s department. However, what was determined by law enforcement officials will be.
The alleged assailant, possibly plural, won’t be mentioned since their description and person changed wildly to the extent that the first could not possibly be the other.
On February 18, 2021, Mr. Bauman spoke with Officer Vincent Ovchar of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Department. We acquired the information reported here through a request for public records.
According to the report, Mr. Bauman told Officer Ovchar that, as a Trustee of the South Venice Beach Endowment Trust, he had reviewed and could provide surveillance video of the area where the alleged molestation was said to have taken place.
The video provided by Mr. Bauman documents the timeline of an interaction between the alleged victim and two other people.
Most of the interaction between the three took place inside a car parked on the ferry property. According to the report, the video shows the alleged victim entering then exiting the vehicle five minutes later.
Based on the evidence and interviews with all the parties involved, after a nearly month-long investigation, Officer Ovchar determined that he “… was not able to develop probable cause through this investigation and an arrest would not be made.”
Officer Ovchar concludes his report on the investigation with, “Based on this investigation thus far, I will not be able to determine probable cause exists to show a crime has occurred. (The alleged victim’s) statements have been inconsistent and there is no physical evidence or witnesses to the event. The case has been updated to a suspicious incident and I have advised records Marsy’s Law no longer applies. As such, I request this case be exceptionally cleared." (March 4, 2021)
Mr. Bauman also referenced a “brutal attack” at the meeting. The one police record for the date in question lists a [“Disturbance”* the writer made an error since the above reference happened in April - a "Simple assault" is reported February 2021] at the ferry property.
The total cost of the fence at the time of payment on February 20, 2021, was $11,436.
With the fence installed and shuttered from a half-hour after sunset until 8 am, only the boat ramp key holders will have unrestricted use of the ferry park and its amenities.
The more expensive ferry pass subscription holders are now afforded fewer hours in the day. The same is true for Kayakers, those who fish bayside or in the Intracoastal, or walk the trail and enjoy the waterfront.
There was some mention of looking for ways to make access more even among the paid users of the property at the March meeting. But nothing was settled. The discussion did not address community members that use the park but haven’t subscribed to the ferry or boat ramp services.
Even though three Trustees voted for the fence back in February, Mr. Bridinger and fellow Trustee Sandy McHenry expected the details of what kind, what design, and how high and close to the road would be hammered out the March 17, 2021 meeting.
As mentioned earlier, SVBET had already installed the fence before then.
Back in January 2020, Ms. McHenry asked for a community survey to gauge the temperature for fencing off its park and what remedy to squelch the rampant crime at the South Venice Ferry would yield the most support.
“…the fence did not magically appear,” Ms. Cooper wrote. “This has been discussed repeatedly in 2020 on agendas ... and finally approved in 2021. If this was actually journalism all that would have been brought to light.”
Ms. Cooper is correct that the fence did not “magically appear.”.
Talk of closing the property had evolved into a plan looking for a reason well before the Trust had one.
In September 2020, the following item appeared on the agenda as “old news”:
” b. Estimate for gates at ferry property/boat ramp.”
In December 2020, again, the fence business appeared as “old news.”
“e. Fence/Gate Security – (Cheryl L.) Cooper.”
Mr. Bridinger is not happy with the fence. But the question of whether the barricade remains is settled, he said. But, maybe, the approach could have been different, he added.
“There’s a lot of Brazilian Pepper,” he said. “Cut out all the Brazilian Pepper if we’re going to put up a fence. Do it right. I would definitely go with a four-foot over six-foot. I’d have a nice gate in the front that looks appealing instead of a prison,” he added. “That was my main thing. If we were going to do it, get it right the first time.”
The six-foot chain-link fence that stands, now, had to be setback twenty feet off the property line, according to a County employee.
A chain-link fence is a particular zoning case, said Donna Ladue from the Sarasota County Zoning department. “We don’t allow chain-link fences in front yards. They have to be set back twenty feet,” Ms. Ladue explained.
“Any size chain-link fence has to be twenty feet back from the property line,” she clarified.
The setback rules for vinyl, wood, and other fencing stock are significantly more favorable for property owners.
Mr. Bridinger said that the Trust rejected the shorter fence because people could climb over.
If not being able to climb it was the central argument, the fence is doing its job. However, at the far right from the boat ramp, where it nears a tall congested stand of Brazilian Peppers on the property, there is an opening wide enough to pass through without any effort of twisting, turning, or climbing.
Ms. Cooper wrote that the company that set it will remedy the problem at its cost.
As for any public input on the fence, Ms. Cooper posted her inclination Wednesday on Nextdoor.
“... The subject is closed and it will not be revisited. The trustees have a duty and obligation to protect the property which was being repeatedly damaged and the people who use it. There were multiple assaults and vandalism. If the community cared so much they would have viewed the agendas which contained this topic for almost all of last year and this year.”