After members of public protest potential for damage to Myakka River shoreline, County Commission agrees to continue hearing on Diocese of Venice petition for two retaining walls

Project team members stress necessity of variance to protect Diocese’s prayer retreat property

This graphic shows the locations that were proposed for the two retaining walls. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Speaker after speaker during a Feb. 21 Sarasota County Commission public hearing stressed that the project was not needed and that it could damage one of the state’s highly popular waterways.

The applicant’s representatives countered them, providing details to make clear why they believe the initiative is needed.

Nonetheless, with two county commissioners clearly opposed to the initiative, the applicant ended up seeking a continuance of the hearing — at the recommendation of two other commissioners.

On Feb. 21, the Diocese of Venice formally was requesting a variance to install two retaining walls and realign a driveway within the 50-foot River Area Buffer of the Myakka River Protection Zone (MRPZ), as the county staff report explained it. The affected property, comprising 24.9 acres, has a shoreline approximately 2,350 feet in length on the Myakka, which is a state-designated Wild and Scenic River, as the staff report further noted.

The address of the property is 3989 S. Moon Drive in Venice.

One retaining wall was proposed to be 107 feet long, while the second would be 272 feet, the staff report added. Both would be “located landward of the top of the bank and, therefore, [would] not significantly impact the views from the river,” the staff report continued. The goal with the installation of the walls, the report said, would be to prevent future shoreline erosion along two outer bend sections of the river that affect the subject property.”

The report further explained, “The northern retaining wall is designed to protect the main access and utilities lines to the property, also known as the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Retreat Center. The configuration of the land is such that there is a narrow pinch point at the northern entry to the site bounded by water on each side. Lands to the south essentially create a peninsula. If further erosion continues and washes out the road, it will adversely affect the access and use of the property.”

This graphic shows an aerial view of the entire piece of Diocese of Venice property. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The northern retaining wall, the report continued, would be as close as 7 feet landward from the top of the river bank. “This northern area is also where the driveway alignment [would] be adjusted away from the river. The southern retaining wall … [would] vary from approximately 10.5 [feet] to greater than 50 feet landward of the top of the bank.”

However, the report pointed out, “Section 54-1047(a) of the Myakka River Protection Code (MRPC) prohibits construction and development within the 50-foot River Area Buffer or wetlands.” Further, the report said, “The Principles for Evaluating Development Proposals in Native Habitats, found within Element 1 of the [county’s] Comprehensive Plan, provides language regarding shoreline hardening along the Myakka River, as follows: ‘Prohibit shoreline hardening of the Myakka River, discourage it in its tributaries, and promote shoreline softening through vegetation projects.’ ”

This slide provides more details about the plans for the northern retaining wall. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The staff report did note, “The property was developed prior to the 2003 adoption of the Myakka River Protection Code.” The site was purchased by the Diocese of Venice on Dec. 1, 1984, the report added.

The very first speaker during the hearing, Jono Miller, a past director of the Environmental Studies Program at New College of Florida, told the commissioners that the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) had “failed to find significant erosion” at the locations where the Diocese wants to place the retaining walls.

If the board members approved the variance, Miller continued, “It should be based on a demonstrated need, and there’s not one.”

Mason Ward of Englewood, an arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), who works with MX Trees LLC, pointed out that the walls would sever roots of trees, which “is one of the biggest no-no’s when it comes to tree work.”

“Running [one of the proposed retaining walls] throughout the whole backside of [one] vegetative area is going to absolutely negatively affect the trees in question,” he stressed. Yet, he added, “People come here to Florida to see the parks.” If trees are removed for a retaining wall, Ward said, “It’s not what the vision of Florida is supposed to be.”

Becky Ayech, president of the Miakka Community Club in the eastern part of the county, told the commissioners that she was representing the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida — which covers eight counties, she noted. The 35-year-old organization, Ayech said, has “a seat on the Myakka River Management Coordinating Council, which works to ensure that the river remains wild and scenic.

Retaining walls, she continued, “certainly don’t belong on a scenic course that you would be taking.”

John Lambie, who served for years as the executive director of what was the Florida House Institute, told the commissioners, “Your staff, your former commission and many, many, many, many members of the public worked hard to get that beautiful river [designated] as wild and scenic. … This is an easy permit to deny. … It’s a solution looking for a problem.”

This slide offers details about the southern retaining wall plans. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Ayech emphasized the popularity of the river for people who like to canoe and kayak, noting that they can overwhelm Myakka River State Park at times, as they head there to launch their vessels. She also cautioned about the danger of setting a precedent by allowing the retaining walls to be installed. Using what she called the vernacular in her home, she said, “Once you open up the gate, all the sheep run out.”

Rob Patten, a past executive director of the county’s Environmental Services and Natural Resources departments, who has a consulting business in the county, pointed out, “The applicant confuses erosion as the river’s edge … There’s no established erosion.”

Patten added that even the Myakka River’s 100-year flood event in South County, after Hurricane Ian struck Southwest Florida in September 2022, did not cause the shoreline to recede in the locations planned for the retaining walls.

Patten and Miller both suggested that better proposals could be developed to provide the protection that the Diocese is seeking for its property.

Begging to differ

When Chair Michael Moran called for comments from the applicant, attorney Joseph DiVito, of the DiVito & Higham firm in St. Petersburg, first noted what he called “misinformation and misunderstanding” about the variance petition.

“We have had some erosion,” he explained. The road that leads to the retreat “was not built within 3 or 4 feet of the bank. It was built about 15 feet away from the bank …”

Then he explained, “We began this process seeking to stabilize the bank and the roadway …” One hard right turn on the road is particularly dangerous, DiVito stressed, especially to elderly people who leave the retreat at night.

Noting that a youth camp shares the entrance to the Diocese’s property, he added, “We don’t have 50 feet in either direction between the bank” and a canal. (The county staff report noted, “The site … is bound on the east with approximately 1,500 feet of frontage along a manmade canal that was created by dredging that occurred after 1948 and before 1974, per available historic aerials.”)

“We want the natural beauty,” DiVito further emphasized. “This is a spirituality and retreat center,” he said, and it is open to the public.

This is a view from the Myakka River of the area proposed for the southern retaining wall. Image courtesy Sarasota County

At one time, he continued, the Diocese received a permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to deal with the problems at the site. Yet, that process ended up being challenged in court, he said, so the Diocese turned its focus to trying to stabilize the roadway.

 “Every time we came up with an idea,” he added, “it was not acceptable.”

The goal, DiVito pointed out, is to minimize the intrusion on the river. “We’re not a developer that takes our profit and leaves. If there’s an issue,” DiVito said, “we’re going to address it with you and Jono [Miller] and his team of folks.”

Professional engineer Michael Delate of Q. Grady Minor & Associates of Bonita Springs, who accompanied DiVito to the podium, then explained, “The river is undercutting the bank … and, yes, it’s the mass of vegetation and roots that’s holding the [bank] together.” However, he added, over time, the fear is that “that is going to eventually slough into the river,” and even more erosion will occur.

DiVito also pointed out, “We believe [the retaining wall installation is] the leastintrusive [measure] to achieve a balance to protect the roadway … and still preserve the beauty of the river.”

The commissioners also invited Father Mark Yavarone, who is the leader of the prayer retreat, to offer comments on his observations of the situation.

Explaining, “I am a religious order priest who staffs the retreat center,” Yavarone said he had been there since 2018.

Near the location where the southern retaining wall has been proposed, he continued, the center had two prayer decks, with “a beautiful view of the Myakka River.” One of those decks, which had been in place since 2016, had to be removed, he said, because it no longer was safe for people to use it, given its increasingly close proximity to the river.

It would not be long, he indicated, before the second prayer deck would have to be moved. “We have a 60-inch bank mower,” Yavarone told the commissioners. The mower used to make two passes between the second prayer deck and the river, he added. Since 2016, he said, he believed at least 10 feet of erosion had occurred in that area.

‘A complex issue’

This is one of the banners on the homepage of the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Retreat and Spirituality Center.

Following the remarks of the applicant’s team, Commissioner Neil Rainford, who represents most of Venice, told his colleagues, “This is certainly a complex issue. … Being the District 3 commissioner,” he continued, “and hearing from constituents, the Diocese has been a great neighbor …”

However, Rainford added, people who paddle down the river do not want to spot seawalls. He, too, voiced concern about the precedent that would be set if the board members approved the variance.

Commissioner Mark Smith added, “I just don’t think this is the right solution … Cutting the roots of [trees] that are actually holding the bank there now seems kind of counterintuitive.” Planting more trees would be a better option, he indicated.

Moreover, Smith noted of the Myakka, “It’s a scenic river; it needs to be preserved.”

Acknowledging those comments, Commissioner Joe Neunder — who has pointed out that he is a Roman Catholic — said, “I’m very familiar with that property.” He was not certain, he added, that people on the river would be able to see the retaining walls.

Neunder then expressed a desire to learn whether the applicant “might be interested in taking a pause on this …”

He emphasized that the property serves “our community at large.”

County Attorney Joshua Moye advised the board members that they could approve or deny the variance. However, if the applicant asked for a continuance, the commissioners could consider granting that.

Commissioner Ron Cutsinger said he would like to see the Diocese continue to be able to access its property and let the center keep serving members of the community. Moreover, Cutsinger added, “I think all of us here would like to see that road protected.”
Chair Moran ended up calling for a 10-minute break. Afterward, attorney DiVito again addressed the board from the podium.

“We heard from a lot of people,” DiVito said. “I think we have a little more work to do, and we would like to ask for a continuance.”

Cutsinger made the motion for the continuance, and Neunder seconded it. The motion passed 5-0.