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Date of Issue: May 03, 2007

Beach gang solutions offered, some to commence

A crime-fighting park design and heightened police presence are being added to the rescue effort to avoid another tragedy at Coquina Beach.

That's the solution offered and implicitly approved by Manatee County commissioners April 24 in the wake of shootings on Easter Sunday that sent three people to the hospital, two to jail and closed the Bradenton Beach park.

County commissioners approved a plan last week to create a beach re-design of the 1.3-mile-long Coquina Beach that will follow a nationally accepted format called Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design.

The new design of the parking area, as presented by Mike Sosadeeter with the county's parks and recreation department, will create five parking "pods," with upwards of 15 gates to restrict parking as various lots fill with cars.

Police presence would also increase from the current one officer on weekdays to upwards of three on busy holidays, with an eventual proposal to have up to five at the county park - with, of course, many more law enforcement officers present at peak times as determined by law enforcement officials.

"The parking plan is a step in the right direction," said Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube. "I believe we need to implement it immediately. With the upcoming [Cinco de Mayo] holiday coming up, we will have a presence on the beach."

The entire discussion came after an incident April 8, in which police say gang members opened fire between themselves shortly after 4 p.m. on the crowded beach. Three were hospitalized via helicopter transport, and two men were arrested. None of the alleged shooters or victims were from Manatee County.

Bradenton Beach Police Chief Sam Speciale has said that 19,000 people were on the beach that day, and as many as 3,000 were associated with clubs or gangs.

The Easter shootings spurred myriad meetings between county staff and Bradenton Beach officials.

Costs for the new redesign and extra law enforcement officers are still to be determined, but run into millions of dollars.

The Coquina Beach redesign for bollards and rope to redefine the parking areas, plus the bumper stops, gates and other amenities, has been estimated to cost upwards of $750,000. That's referred to as Phase 1. Also key within that phase is the end of the north-south travel path near the shore, which law enforcement calls a cruising zone for gang members.

That element of the plan also calls for additional police presence at an as-yet-undisclosed cost from May through September, when the plan is to be evaluated.

Subsequent phases for added beach security within the county would take place later and include a lifeguard/law enforcement structure at the bayside of Coquina, playground equipment, and renovation of rest rooms.

Other beaches would also be undergoing renovations, with costs ranging upwards to $5 million.

"It you're comfortable with this," said county administrator Ed Hunzeker. "We will put it all in place in writing and do the other beaches and along the causeway."

Hunzeker said the Coquina plan would be first to be implemented and assessed for effectiveness regarding the re-design, with other beaches to be evaluated and designs for Manatee Public Beach and Bayfront Park in Anna Maria to be created later.

Cindy Turner, director of the county's parks and recreation department, said her office looked at 19 other coastal communities and earmarked four that were similar to Coquina: Clearwater, Collier County, Sarasota City and Sarasota County.

Clearwater and Collier both have parking fees, she said, while Sarasota's beaches - as well as Manatee - do not. Law enforcement presence is - far more prevalent than at Manatee beaches - in all of the other coastal communities.

Also suggested were more stringent rules for beachgoers, a suggestion that didn't sit well with some county commissioners.

County attorney Robert Eschenfelder suggested a draft ordinance that would call for more background checks on those who rent the pavilions on the beach, as well as limiting people from cooking food in parking lots, playing loud music, leaving parked cars running and prohibiting dogs from being present in the lots.

"I don't like a lot of this," county commissioner Ron Getman said. "It seems we're using a sledgehammer here to kill a fly. I think we're going overboard."

Getman was in the minority on the ordinance matter, though, and commissioners agreed to have staff write an ordinance and allow it to come before them - and to allow public comment - before making a decision.

Jimmy Delgato echoed some of Getmans's comments.

"We're hearing of the symptoms of the problem," he said of the gang activity at Coquina, "but we're not stopping the problem."

And Delgato's words were repeated by Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie, who said, "We're hear today to deal with the symptom, but we also need to deal with the problem."

According to Dave Bristow, spokesman for the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, there are 15 known gangs in Manatee County, with 250-300 documented gang members and an additional 200 known "associates." publisher Mike Quinn contributed to this story.