Residents argue that staff promised them that 20% would be the maximum
Although Manasota Key residents voiced their objections to the percentage, the Sarasota County Commission voted unanimously on July 8 to approve annual assessments of property owners on that barrier island over seven years, to help pay for the beach renourishment project that concluded in April.
On a motion by Commissioner Nancy Detert, seconded by Commissioner Christian Ziegler, the board settled on the boundary of a Municipal Services Benefit Unit (MSBU) and assessments that will cover 21.78% of the remaining expense of the county project, including monitoring of the renourished area over the next nine years.
The total cost of the renourishment has been put at $9,530,033, Rachel Herman, manager of the county’s Environmental Protection Division, showed the board in a slide on July 8. That includes the anticipated monitoring expense of $1,250,000, as well as interest on a loan the county used to cover the initiative. The MSBU assessments will repay that loan, plus the interest, Herman has explained to the commission.
On June 3, the last time before this week that Herman appeared before the board on the MSBU issue, she estimated that the assessments would range from $620 to $25,030 per year, with the latter figure pertaining only to one parcel on the Gulf of Mexico. That property has a 400-foot-wide shoreline, thanks to the renourishment effort.
The updated figures she provided the commission this week showed a range from $600 to $25,010 per year.
During the board’s Open to the Public session at the beginning of the July 8 meeting, three Manasota Key residents stressed that staff had promised them months ago that they would not be liable for more than 20% of the overall costs.
By count of The Sarasota News Leader, eight emails from other residents of the barrier island were added to the record for the discussion, expressing that concern or others related to the divvying up of the project expense.
Addressing the commissioners in person, Janet McIntyre, secretary of the Manasota Key Association, said that the residents of the barrier island “relied in good faith on the continued representations of a 20% MSBU … Not 65%; not 24%, not 21.78%, but 20%, as was repeatedly represented by county staff when the project was first presented.”
The association, she continued, “has consistently asked three things of the county”: for it to pay its “fair share” of the overall expense of the renourishment; for it to look at the undertaking as one project with one MSBU; and for the county to make sure that “all who benefit pay.”
Staff had presented the residents different spreadsheets over time, McIntyre added. “It’s not our job to try to interpret these numbers,” she stressed. “We implore you to honor the 20% MSBU, so we can return our trust and confidence in local government and with our members.”
Don Denison told the commissioners, “You may recall me, the old guy who has been coming to the same beach on Manasota Key for 72 years.” With family members, he has explained, he owns property on both the Sarasota and Charlotte sides of the county line.
“We demand full disclosure on costs” for the renourishment project, he said, adding that, since it has been completed, the total no longer should reflect extra money built in for contingencies.
“We were told numerous times our part of the project would be 20%,” Denison added. “There’s a lot of discontent on the Key. You don’t hear all of it. In fact, you don’t hear most of it.”
Just before the vote, Commissioner Alan Maio said of the Manasota Key residents, “They’re probably not going to be extremely happy with this, but I think this board worked hard … to get the number down …”
Revisions over time
During her presentation, Herman reminded the commissioners that, during a Dec. 10, 2019 discussion, they considered a 65% MSBU allocation.
If that had been implemented, based on slides Herman showed them that day, the annual assessment for a property owner who ended up with a 100-foot-wide beach would have been as high as $15,414 a year; for those with 150-foot-wide shorelines, the expense could have been as much as $23,120 a year.
In subsequent efforts to reduce the assessments, she continued on July 8, the board agreed to cover all of the county’s share of the expense for the mobilization of the contractor to renourish the beach. (The commission collaborated with the Charlotte County Commission on the project, which reduced Sarasota County’s mobilization cost.)
Further, Herman noted, the board members decided to take care of 47% of the remaining local costs, based on the length of the shoreline of county property — including Blind Pass Beach Park — on Manasota Key.
Additionally, the commissioners on June 3 agreed to include in the MSBU more parcels north of the project area, as new sand placed on the beach already had migrated to the shoreline in front of their homes, filling in eroded segments.
The commissioners also decided to assess 24 property owners in what they and staff ended up calling the “Gap” section of the Key. Those property owners had opted out of the renourishment initiative, saying they already had wide beachfronts. (Originally, Herman cited the number of Gap properties as 23.)
(During that June 3 discussion, Commissioner Charles Hines also noted that those residents wanted to maintain as much private shoreline as possible; participating in the project would have led to more public access across their part of the Manasota Key Beach.)
Maio also told the Manasota Key residents present for the July 8 meeting that if the county can save any money during the monitoring period, that will be passed along to them. “We’re just not going to put it in a hidden pocket somewhere.”
Herman pointed out that, after all the county’s expenses for the first South Siesta Key Beach Renourishment Project were paid out of MSBU assessments, money was left over. That was allocated to the second South Siesta initiative, she added, which was completed in 2016. The funds enabled staff to reduce the MSBU assessments for that project, Herman indicated.
In making the motion to approve the MSBU, Commissioner Detert pointed out, “I think at 21.78%, that’s as close as we can get to the 20% that the homeowners think we promised them,” adding that she understood “it’s still a big number.”
“The heartburn on this,” Commissioner Charles Hines acknowledged, is that “people believe we promised 20%. The lesson learned on this,” he added, is “we’re not experts in this. … We just need to talk in ranges.”
“So I apologize to the folks on Manasota Key who felt that percentage was a guarantee,” Hines said. “In the future, we can talk about our best estimate …”
“Commissioner Hines, I’m so glad you brought that up,” Chair Michael Moran responded, noting that he had had the same thoughts. “I think staff was trying to be intellectually honest with this,” Moran added. “So was our board …”
Added value for the Gap owners
As for the Gap issue: Hines took an opportunity before the vote to reiterate other points he had made during the June 3 discussion.
Robert Lincoln, a Sarasota attorney representing the Gap property owners, pointed out during public comments that morning that his clients continued to object to being included in the MSBU.
In a July 3 email to the commissioners, Lincoln referenced staff reports and the document issued by the consultant staff hired to handle the analysis and documentation for the legal justification for the MSBU. Those reports, Lincoln wrote, “assume that ‘gap’ properties are and will receive sand from the project. There is no factual or scientific basis for this assertion … [T]hese properties were historically accreting without the project.”
Lincoln added in the email, “The County has produced NO evidence the gap properties will receive additional protection from storm damage or any other direct benefit (leaving aside the recreational benefit claims) from placing sand in front of their properties. Nothing in the background or other studies cited in the [consultant’s] Report support the bare assertion that protecting the ‘sand’ properties will increase property/market values of the gap properties.”
However, Hines said during the July 8 discussion, he continued to believe “there is increased value in this entire area” because of the renourishment. “If you’re going to buy a house on Manasota Key,” he added, “you’re gong to walk out on the beach.” If the prospective buyer sees a house outside the project area that “is getting ready to fall in the water,” he said, that affects the buyer’s decision-making.
This is the first initiative on Manasota Key, Hines stressed. It shows that “Sarasota County is committed to protect Gulf-front properties.”
A real estate agent trying to sell a house on the key can talk about the county’s initiative, Hines added, which means the county will continue to protect the beach.
He also referenced a photo Herman provided the board in June, which showed a house with oversize sand bags — TrapBags — that county Environmental Permitting staff had allowed the owner to install to try to protect the structure from continued erosion. Herman showed the board another photo, making clear how wide the beach was in front of that house after the project was completed.
“To me,” Hines emphasized, the renourishment effort “has incredible value” for the Gap owners, too.