Casey Key property owner wins unanimous County Commission approval for steps to save his house until he can get a more permanent measure in place

Detert points to fact that board and county staff previously OK’d numerous variances to try to deal with erosion at the site

A graphic shows the house at 2007 Casey Key Road outlined in green. The yellow line represents Casey Key Road, while the red line represents the Gulf Beach Setback Line. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Over the years, the owner of the property located at 2007 Casey Key Road has made multiple attempts to protect the home on the site by installing sandbags — and, later, oversize “TrapBags.”

Yet, storm after storm sweeping past Casey Key has led to failures of all those efforts, the owner’s representative and a county staff member told the County Commission during a March 9 public hearing.

As a result, William Merrill III, the owner’s attorney, pointed out, erosion has eaten away an area beneath the house that is about 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 board members a photo of the structure.

The entire area under the foundation is affected, he added.

Given the extent of the damage, and the portent that it will increase, Merrill said the owner — Neal Westendorf, principal of Beach Villas LLC — had decided to seek a Coastal Setback Class II Emergency Variance for the installation of another 14 underpinnings, construction of 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); placement of 150 cubic yards of beach-compatible sand; and construction of a temporary wooden retaining wall to keep the sand fill in place during the erection of the vinyl seawall.

The GBSL is the figurative “line in the sand” beyond which the board members have not approved any new residential construction in recent years. The GBSL protects dunes and beach vegetation, which, in turn, protect landward structures from storm surge and other flooding events.

This slide shows the helical pilings that previously were approved to try to stabilize the house. Image from Icard Merrill

The original single-family home at 2007 Casey Key Road was built in 1948, well before the GBSL was established in 1979, county Environmental Specialist Staci Tippins explained to the commissioners during her March 9 presentation. The house stands completely seaward of the GBSL.

And it is the only home on a 1-mile stretch of Casey Key that “is about to go into the drink,” Merrill stressed.

If the board members approved the Class II variance, both Merrill and Tippins said, then Westendorf would have three years to try to win approval of a permanent seawall to protect the property.

As part of Westendorf’s quest to win the variance, Merrill continued, Westendorf agreed to put up a $65,000 bond — about $118% of the $55,000 estimate — to cover the removal of the temporary seawall if he ultimately cannot get the permanent structure approved within the next three years.

During the public hearing, neighbors to the south of the site urged the commissioners to wait on a holistic solution for handling the erosion on that part of the barrier island, as the Casey Key Association has undertaken a study of the issue.

However, Merrill countered, those residents’ homes are not in immediate danger, so they could wait the potential three to four years for that holistic solution. In the meantime, Merrill added of Westendorf, “He’s the only one not getting the protection that he needs.”

“If this house goes,” Merrill added, “there’s no further use for this property.”

This slide shows the house before and after Tropical Storm Cristobal passed through the Gulf of Mexico last year. The bags in front of the structure are TrapBags. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“I am not going to vote for a house falling in the water,” Chair Alan Maio said at the conclusion of the public hearing. “I think this is the worst case we’ve seen yet [regarding erosion damage to a residential structure] …”

In making the motion to approve the Class II Emergency Variance, Commissioner Michael Moran noted the comments about the Casey Key Association’s work. However, he continued, his goal was to protect Westendorf’s property.

“This is a case where it truly is an emergency,” Commissioner Ron Cutsinger added in seconding the motion. “But, overall,” we need a holistic solution here.”

Over the three years that county regulations would allow the temporary measures to remain in place, Cutsinger added, it is possible that such a long-term response could be achieved.

This graphic shows the effects Hurricane Michael had on the house in 2018. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Although Commissioner Nancy Detert supported the motion, she pointed to the neighbors’ comments, as well. “I wish we had a consistent policy about these things,” she said, so everyone would be aware of what they could and could not do to protect their property on the county’s barrier islands.

Yet, she also referenced the commission’s approval, granted in late 2018, for a seawall or rock revetment system to protect Casey Key Road and a county potable water line in the same general area as the home at 2007 Casey Key Road.

This graphic chows plans for the temporary seawall and offers details about its height. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Nonetheless, she continued, she would like to see staff invite representatives of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to visit Casey Key “and maybe give us some strategies that are more consistent.”

Along with the proffer of the bond, Tippins told the commissioners, Westendorf had agreed to provide “a lateral pedestrian easement …” He plans to build wooden stairs on either side of the seawall, she added.

Later, Merrill explained that a deck would be placed over the seawall, between those stairs.

The vote to approve the variance was unanimous.

Setting the stage

A staff memo provided to the board members in advance of the March 9 meeting explained that Westendorf purchased the property at 2007 Casey Key Road on Aug. 23, 2012 “for less than half the previous sale price in 2008. The subject site has a history of multiple Class I and Class II Emergency Variances,” plus other measures designed to protect it, the memo said.

Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office records show that Westendorf paid $1.2 million for the parcel. In May 2008, the previous owner paid $3.2 million, the records note.

This is another aerial view of the property, which is outlined in purple. Image courtesy Property Appraiser William Furst

Environmental Specialist Tippins told the commissioners on March 9 that the property located at 2007 Casey Key Road is about halfway between Blackburn Point Road and Albee Road. It is “along a critically eroded shoreline …”

The staff memo also pointed out that, in years past, the County Commission had denied two petitions for Coastal Setback Variances for shoreline “armoring structures.”

The first of those was presented to the board on Jan. 9, 2013, according to a chart in the staff memo. It sought a seawall, a stormwater drainage system and permanent retention of foundation underpinnings. The commissioners denied all but the retention of the underpinnings.

Then, the chart said, on Feb. 19, 2014, the commissioners again denied a petition for a seawall.

These are details of Coastal Setback Variance petitions regarding seawall plans that have been sought for the property. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The most recent protective measure that county Environmental Permitting staff approved, as allowed by county regulations, was a Class I Emergency Variance for the replacement of a damaged TrapBag system. That came on Oct. 16, 2020; however, the staff chart said, the installation never took place. The memo explained that FDEP did not approve the TrapBag application because Westendorf already had applied to the state for the vinyl sheet pile seawall, which resulted in “a duplication of coastal armoring permit requests.”

Tippins also told the commissioners that staff regularly visits the area in the vicinity of 2007 Casey Key in the aftermath of storm events, knowing the property’s history of erosion.

On Nov. 12, 2020, the staff memo said, staff checked the site after Tropical Storm Eta passed through the Gulf of Mexico. Staff “documented the presence of debris from the previously damaged TrapBag system, extensive bluff recession causing failure of a portion of the paver driveway, and undermining of the residential structure,” the memo pointed out.

During her remarks, Tippins also discussed county regulations regarding Class II Emergency Variances. Such variances may be granted only for temporary shoreline protection purposes, she pointed out. As defined in the county’s Coastal Setback Code, the March 9 staff memo explained, those are “‘activities repairing, reinforcing, or replacing an existing structure, or constructing a temporary structure, or engaging in similar protective activities of a short-term nature in order to: (a) Prevent an immediately anticipated collapse of a building, public road, bridge, safety or utility structure, or structure of significant historical value; or (b) Reduce the rate of erosion of property during a storm in order to safeguard an existing structure; or (c) Relieve immediate or immediately anticipated severe flooding conditions to an existing habitable structure.’”

The memo added that the commission “shall grant only the minimum variance necessary to protect reasonable use of the property until the Petitioner applies for and obtains a regular variance and shall not grant emergency variances for new permanent structures that did not exist before the emergency arose [emphasis added].”

This slide explains criteria for the granting of a Class II Emergency Variance. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Commissioner Detert pointed to the numerous attempts made to save the house, as storm damage continued over the years. While the commissioners do not want to see any home fall into the Gulf, she added, “Eventually, you have to say Mother Nature doesn’t like you or something like that.”

Then, referring to the two proffers Tippins had noted, Detert asked whether it was Tippins’ opinion that the Class II variance, with the bond and lateral access stipulations, would be “the fairest way to give [the owners] their last chance?”

“These two stipulations … give staff some assurance that the [vinyl seawall] can be removed,” Tippins responded, if Westendorf cannot secure a Coastal Setback Variance for a permanent seawall.

During his presentation, attorney Merrill showed the board members a slide depicting seawalls already in place or approved to be constructed to the north of his client’s property. They comprise 2,712 linear feet, he added. The rock revetment or seawall the county hopes to construct — also to the north of 2007 Casey Key Road — would be 545 linear feet, he added, with two other seawalls or rock revetments just south of it, adding up to another 194 feet.

This graphic that William Merrill showed the commissioners illustrates the other seawalls that have been built and approved in the area of 2007 Casey Key Road. Image from Icard Merrill

In response to a question from Detert, Merrill said that the three years the temporary seawall would be in place would give his client sufficient time to apply for a permanent seawall. “This is really a situation where you either lose the house in the short-term or you have a temporary wall,” Merrill added.

The opposing views

Following the presentations, three other Casey Key residents addressed the commissioners.

Heather Cox, who said she lives “about four doors down” from the Westendorf property, told the board members, “I have exceptional empathy for Neal …” However, she continued, she was concerned about the gaps that would be present between the existing and planned seawalls and the “damage that could be wreaked to the north and south.”

Casey Key residents, she added, want to work with the state and the county “to find a solution that makes sense for the entire community.”

These graphics show more details of the plans covered in the Class II Emergency Variance for 2007 Casey Key Road. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Tim McGill, who lives just to the north of the 2007 Casey Key Road property, voiced similar concerns about the gaps. No one knows what the short-term or long-term implications will be, he added.

Moreover, McGill said, he and his wife are concerned about how the lateral pedestrian access proffer would affect them, as they had learned about that just during the hearing.

Finally, Steve Kesler, who owns the three parcels to the immediate south of the site, told the board that Westendorf “never lived in this house” at 2007 Casey Key Road. Instead, Kesler added, “It’s his investment property. … I helped talk him into buying the thing. None of us saw the erosion coming on like it has since then.”

In his rebuttal, attorney Merrill told the commissioners, “Neal is 100% supportive of what the Casey Key Association is studying …” Nonetheless, Merrill added, Westendorf is “the only one not getting the protection that he needs” in that area of Casey Key.