County Commission unanimously approves Coastal Setback Variance, with home on Gulf of Mexico threatened by erosion
On March 9, 2021, the Sarasota County Commission voted unanimously to approve what the attorney for a Casey Key property owner maintained were temporary measures to protect the home standing at 2007 Casey Key Road from tumbling into the Gulf of Mexico.
Neal Westendorf, principal of Beach Villas LLC, had made multiple attempts to protect the house by installing first sandbags and then, later, oversize “TrapBags,” attorney William Merrill III of the Sarasota firm Icard Merrill explained during that public hearing.
Yet, Merrill pointed out, erosion had eaten away an area beneath the house that was approximately 14 to 16 feet wide. Twelve helical underpinnings that a prior commission approved “are basically what’s holding this house up,” Merrill said as he showed the commissioners a photo of the home.
That day, Merrill continued, Westendorf was seeking a Coastal Setback Class II Emergency Variance to install another 14 underpinnings, as well as to construct a 156-foot-long temporary, vinyl sheet pile seawall that would be a maximum of 63.5 feet seaward of the county’s Gulf Beach Setback Line (GBSL). Westendorf also wanted to place 150 cubic yards of beach-compatible sand on the property and build a temporary wooden retaining wall to keep the sand in place during the erection of the vinyl seawall, Merrill added.
The GBSL, which became part of the county’s coastal protection measures in 1979, was designed to preserve dunes and other beach habitat, which, in turn, protect property landward of the shoreline.
If the commissioners approved the measures Westendorf was requesting, both Merrill and Staci Tippins, a county environmental specialist, told the commissioners that day, then Westendorf would have three years to try to win approval of a permanent seawall to protect the 2007 Casey Key Road site.
Before the board vote, Commissioners Alan Maio, Michael Moran and Ron Cutsinger all talked of the importance of protecting the property. Nonetheless, Cutsinger added, “We need a holistic solution here.” Cutsinger indicated that he believed it was possible for Westendorf to achieve a long-term response to the situation if the commission approved the temporary measures.
Nonetheless, on Nov. 15, the board members ended up voting unanimously to approve a Coastal Setback Variance so Westendorf could keep the temporary seawall and foundation underpinnings in place permanently.
The public hearing was conducted as a Presentation Upon Request, but no commissioner sought any remarks on behalf of Westendorf or from county Environmental Permitting staff. No member of the public had signed up to address the board, either.
Therefore, without comments, Commissioner Moran made the motion to approve the variance, and Commissioner Cutsinger seconded the motion.
The staff memo in the packet for the Nov. 15 regular meeting explained that the property located at 2007 Casey Key Road comprises 11,850 square feet on the Gulf of Mexico, and about 79% of the site is located seaward of the GBSL.
In fact, the memo pointed out, “The residence is located entirely seaward of the GBSL and is the only residential structure existing seaward of Casey Key Road along this [1- mile] stretch of the Key.”
The memo further noted that, on Oct. 12, 2021, the commissioners approved a second Class II Emergency Variance for the site, to allow the installation of “structural urethane foam beneath the existing foundation.”
In May 2021, the county staff report explained, Westendorf’s “construction and structural engineering team determined that it was not possible to compact the sand beneath the residence” — the process that attorney Merrill had discussed in March 2021 — to provide the 2,500 pounds per square foot “bearing capacity required for safe occupancy of the structure.”
Westendorf’s team subsequently figured out that using “structural urethane foam to fill the gap beneath the residence’s floor slabs was the most feasible option for providing the necessary bearing capacities.”
Nonetheless, the county staff report pointed out, because the seawall at its highest point is only 8.6 feet above ground level, the structure likely “will be overtopped during high-frequency storm events,” meaning those “storms with an annual probability of more than 2%,” the report said.
“Though urethane materials are somewhat resistant” to breaking down when exposed to seawater, the report added, “[I]t is unclear how the structural urethane foam will perform during a storm event that involves the forces of surge and wave activity.”
Coastal habitat, nesting sea turtles and a proposed county seawall
The staff report did address the potential effects of the permanent measures on native shoreline habitats. It explained, “Given the proximity of the residential structure to the MHWL [Mean High Water Line], a vegetated dune system has not existed at the subject site since the early 2000s due to the erosive impacts of repeated tropical storms.”
The report also noted that Casey Key’s beaches become home to thousands of sea turtle nests each summer, and, “[d]espite the narrow beach conditions that existed before the construction of [Westendorf’s vinyl sheet pile and concrete seawall], there had been 14 nests successfully laid seaward of the subject site over the last five nesting seasons.”
Nonetheless, the report continued, “The narrow strip of beach remaining seaward of the seawall is likely overwashed daily and is no longer considered suitable nesting habitat. Any nests laid between the wall and the MHWL are likely to be washed out by a storm or inundated and rendered inviable.”
The report also pointed out that, based on information staff had obtained from the MHWL surveys that staff of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) routinely performs, the section of Casey Key Beach where the house stands lost about 105 feet of shoreline between 1987 and 2015 “at an average annual rate of about 3.75 feet per year.” In its June 2022 report on critically eroded beaches in the state, the staff report added, FDEP designated that area of Casey Key as “critically eroded shoreline.”
FDEP defines such a section of beach “ ‘as a segment of the shoreline where natural processes or human activity have caused or contributed to erosion and recession of the beach or dune system to such a degree that upland development, recreational interests, wildlife habitat, or important cultural resources are threatened or lost,’ ” the report said.
Further, the report explained that the county’s Capital Projects Department has been seeking a Coastal Setback Variance for a sheet pile seawall that originally was planned to span about 575 feet, from 2120 Casey Key Road on the northern end to 2104 Casey Key Road on the southern terminus. Later plans called for the seawall to stretch more than 1,000 linear feet, from 2120 Casey Key Road to 2007 Casey Key Road, the report noted.
“The design and permitting of this … project remain in progress,” the report continued. “[I]t has not been determined if [2007 Casey Key Road parcel] will be included in the County’s project and, if so, how it may connect to the proposed seawall.”