By Peter Fischetti
I looked over the shoulder of the editor reading the first story I ever wrote for a newspaper. I was real nervous but finally he put down his cigarette and looked up at me. “Fischetti,” he said, “have you ever thought of installing aluminum siding as a career?”
No, he didn’t say that, but one day he did say something that’s stuck with me for 50 years or more. “Your job is to report the news, not make it.” I’m reminded of that as I write this column, because I’m guilty of violating that rule.
Last week, I happened to read a post on social media from Sarah Hlebiczki of the Open Sands community, which runs from Back Beach to Front Beach Road. It read: “Did anyone notice the new street signs when you come into Open Sands from Back Beach Indicating no through traffic is allowed? $500 fine too. Nice! I hope this curbs the through traffic. Not sure how they will enforce it.”
Hmm. Interesting, I thought. Just east of Open Sands is Bid-a-Wee, and for a time we also had a “No Thru Traffic” sign. Ours was on Front Beach Road until it disappeared maybe a year ago. As you can see from the attached photo, two additional signs for Open Sands appear below the large sign. So I’m wondering, can an HOA control traffic on a street owned and maintained by the city, and can it charge $500 for trespassers?
The answers are No and No. But it was those questions that in a way made me a part of this issue. And that’s because it was I who sent a photo of the signs to the city, asking whether we in Bid-a-Wee could duplicate what Open Sands had done. We’re still recovering from a high-speed police chase on Argonaut St., and with the Margaritaville project about to begin, we are concerned about additional traffic through our community.
The city’s response to my questions were disappointing but not unexpected. Debbie Ward, the city’s communications director, answered, “Peter, (we) appreciate you pointing this out. These signs were illegally placed and are being removed by Public Works. Quite presumptuous of this HOA!”
Public Works Director Kelly Jenkins added, “We are having (the) Street Dept. take off bottom two signs. These were not permitted nor put up by city staff. I believe that the No Thru Traffic sign was put up about one year ago per Tony’s (Tony O”Rourke, recently fired city manager) request and we plan to leave that one alone unless directed otherwise.”
Al Shortt, our interim city manager, also chipped in. “Those right-of-ways, and the streets within, are dedicated to the public and are therefore open to the public for travel. I agree traffic is a concern throughout the city and our staff is working hard to make needed improvements along with those the Florida Department of Transportation is proposing for state roads in the city.
“The No Thru Traffic sign that was installed about a year ago is at best a ‘bluff’ and may discourage non-locals from using the street as a cut through. Our police department would have no real enforcement authority if the vehicles traveling on that street are following the law.”
This did not go over well with the Open Sands residents I spoke with. Lisa Van Avery, a resident for more than 20 years, said the traffic is so backed up she has trouble leaving her home. “Traffic was never like this before the high-rises were built. The police used to ride golf carts and bikes through the streets (to protect us).”
But it was another longtime resident, Francine Purser, who dropped a bombshell: “Open Sands hasn’t had an HOA in years.” She added, “I’m not anti-tourist, but back then we didn’t have the kind of tourists we have now. They think they’re entitled. The city is run by the good old boys who put the tourists first.”
Finally, I spoke with Kenneth Burkemper, a five-year Open Sands resident who actually bought and installed the signs warning about the fine and referring to the association. But there is no association, he admitted, “just a group of concerned citizens,” and the fine “was just meant to show some teeth.” And he said it worked. On both weekends the signs were up, traffic was down, he said.
Would the signs still be up if I hadn’t inquired about their legitimacy? No doubt philosophers will have a field day arguing that question. Personally, I feel bad for even unintentionally blowing the whistle, but in time the city would have seen them.
I end this with my last question to the city: Can we in Bid-a-Wee have a No Thru Traffic sign installed on Front Beach or Back Beach? The answer was No, with the observation, “And since you have drawn attention to this, we might have to remove the Open Sands sign.”
I’ve got a better idea, an appropriate one since we can’t seem to get anywhere with the city. Forget about “No Thru Traffic.” My sign would read “Dead End.” That’ll keep those tourists out.
Peter Fischetti is a retired journalist from Southern California, which he hopes you won’t hold against him. He lives in Panama City Beach.