County Commission approves amendments to Coastal Setback Code to allow shoreline hardening measures to protect homes

Leader of Manasota Key Association notes that her group began advocating for changes five years ago

An aerial view shows the beach renourishment project underway in April on Manasota Key. Image courtesy Sarasota County

After making a motion on Oct. 21 to amend the Sarasota County Coastal Setback Code, Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out, “This has not been easy.”

Commissioners long have maintained a stance against shoreline hardening, he said. However, Hines continued, “The dynamics of our shoreline have changed in the last 20 to 30 years. [That is] not going to stop.”

Thanks to the county’s Environmental Protection Division staff having worked with homeowner associations on the barrier islands in the unincorporated parts of the county, Hines said, “a good consensus” has been achieved in regard to amendments to the County Code that will help property owners protect homes threatened by storms and sea level rise.

During her Oct. 21 presentation, Rachel Herman, manager of the Environmental Protection Division, noted a few late changes recommended in the County Code since the board members last discussed the issues on Sept. 22.

Among those, she continued, were the additions of language pertaining to the “wet sandy beach” and “hardship on the land.”

That revision says that “Hardship on the land” means that “under application of the Coastal Setback Code, the property cannot be used for the purpose for which it is zoned under Chapter 124, Unified Development Code, taking into considerations such factors as the shape of the parcel, size of the parcel, location of the setback line on the parcel, location of any protected habitats on the parcel, and location of any zoning setback lines.”

(The Unified Development Code combines all the county’s land-use and zoning regulations.)

“Wet sandy beach” is defined as “the area between the mean high water line and the mean low tide line.”

Herman told the commissioners that the Manasota Key Association had approved those amendments.

In fact, as Herman noted early on in her remarks, the appeals of representatives of the Manasota Key Association (MKA) to county staff and the commissioners were the primary prompts for the public hearing conducted this week.

This is the timeline of actions this year to reach the point of the Oct. 21 public hearing on the Coastal Setback Code. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Great job working with them, getting them to this point,” Hines told Herman, referring to the MKA members.

One other change staff recommended after the agenda packet was published, Herman explained, called for a doubling of the amount of beach-compatible sand that a property owner could place on a lot “provided that no filling occurs within public easements or rights of way and other lawful drainage systems and utility facilities.”

Instead of 100 cubic yards, Herman said, staff suggested 200 cubic yards. The county code administrator can provide a written conditioned exception for a property owner, allowing the person to place the sand on a parcel, she noted.

This is the revised section of the County Code with the language about the extra sand that could be placed on a beach parcel. Image courtesy Sarasota County

‘Hardship on the land’ or on the owner?

Hines did ask County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht about the concern MKA members had expressed about the “hardship on the land” consideration in the proposed amendments to the County Code. Instead of the staff recommendation, Hines continued, they were seeking references to “hardship on the owner.”

The Office of the County Attorney recommended the focus be on the land, Elbrecht replied, taking into account features such as the location on the property of the county’s Gulf Beach Setback Line — the figurative “line in the sand” established to protect dunes and native beach habitation, which, in turn, protect landward structures from storm surge and other flooding events. Other factors, Elbrecht noted, would be the habitat on the property and the state of erosion.

This is a home that was threatened by erosion on Manasota Key Beach before the renourishment project was completed this spring. Image courtesy Sarasota County
This is the home after the beach renourishment project was completed on Manasota Key in April. Image courtesy Sarasota County

If the focus were on the person, Elbrecht added, that could lead to issues regarding the owner’s finances and emotional response to shoreline problems on the property. The position of the Office of the County Attorney, Elbrecht said, is that “the board’s ruling [on a variance petition] should be the same regardless of who owns the land.”

“Thanks for putting that in the record,” Hines responded.

Yet another issue the MKA had raised recently, Hines continued, concerned the provision in the County Code that the relocation of a home needs to be considered before the commission potentially allows the property owner to harden the shoreline. The MKA asked that the word “practical” be added, he said, so the commission would have to consider the feasibility of moving a habitable structure.

The board members know that moving a home in a coastal environment “is going to be difficult,” Hines pointed out.

“It’s a policy consideration for the board,” Herman replied. “We don’t have a strong opinion about that particular addition [of the word ‘practical’].”

Commissioner Charles Hines. File image

Hines’ final concern, based on the MKA correspondence, he said, was the section of the County Code that eliminates the potential of hardening actions if the affected home had been built after Oct. 28, 2008. Even if a house has been constructed to comply with modern building code and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) elevation standards for coastal construction, Hines said, the land beneath the home could wash out, which would lead to problems.

The applicable section of the County Code read, “In no event may a variance for a Shore Protection Structure be granted for a property where a variance under Section 54-724(a) has been granted after October 28, 2008, except in situations to fill a gap between existing Shore Protection Structures on the immediately adjacent properties.”

After an exchange with Assistant County Attorney David Pearce, Hines agreed with Pearce’s proposal to eliminate that paragraph altogether. Pearce said that modification of the code would achieve the goal Hines sought.

The lone public speaker

The only person who addressed the commissioners during the public hearing was Jackie Ruthman, long a leader of the MKA.

Noting the timeline Herman had shown the commissioners at the outset of Herman’s presentation, Ruthman explained, “This actually all started for us five years ago, when a few of our neighbors’ homes were severely threatened by erosion and sea rise.”

Ruthman added that the association members “consulted experts, and we quickly learned there are no quick or easy fixes.”
The MKA agrees with the county policy that puts beach renourishment at the top of the list for shoreline protection measures, she continued. However, she pointed out, thanks to the beach renourishment on part of Manasota Key that the County Commission authorized during the early part of the year, homeowners had learned about the “great deal of hardbottom” that exists in an area just north of the renourishment area.

(The consultant for the Sarasota and Charlotte county commissions — who joined forces for the project on their respective portions of Manasota Key, to lower their expenses in the hiring of the contractor — explained about federal and state policies that protect hardbottom.

(A 2016 Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) document explains that hardbottom provides “habitat critical for the recruitment/settlement, growth, and reproduction of numerous organisms. In this capacity, hardbottom habitat serves as a nursery, spawning, and foraging area for ecologically and economically valuable species.”

(“It’s too great of a resource,” Michael T. Poff, president of Coastal Engineering Consultants of Naples, said of hardbottom during a late-winter presentation to the commissioners of both counties in 2019. State and federal environmental agencies will not allow it to be covered with sand, he added.)

These are hardbottom resources located in Big Sarasota Pass, as shown in a 2014 document. The species were observed during a consultant’s research in advance of the Lido Key Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction Project. Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

During her Oct. 21 remarks to the Sarasota County Commission, Ruthman also noted the high cost of renourishment initiatives.

“I want to thank Commissioner Hines,” Ruthman added. “He has urged us to refine the language [in the County Code] so that it’s better for everybody involved.”

She then offered support for the elimination of the section involving homes constructed after Oct. 28, 2008 and for the late change staff regarding the doubling of the amount of beach-compatible sand that staff could authorize for placement on property. “Additional sand would never be bad,” Ruthman noted.

Jackie Ruthman addresses the commissioners in February. News Leader image

She did encourage the commissioners to read the recent emails they received from two Manasota Key homeowners whose parcels were not included in the renourishment area. Erosion on the barrier island “is still a real problem [for them].”

One of those homeowners, Wendy Williams, told the commissioners in an Oct. 20 email that she and her husband “strongly endorse the changes being recommended [in the County Code] …”

When she and her husband purchased their property 16 years ago, Williams continued, “[W]e had as much as 20 feet of berm in front of our home and approximately 30 feet of beachfront. It was inconceivable at that time to imagine the position that we would be in now.”

Although the berm had been gradually disappearing, Williams continued, a Dec. 24, 2019 storm moving through the Gulf of Mexico “destroyed the berm on the southwest corner of our property undercutting the foundation of the house and our back deck. This caused the foundation of our property to be exposed and the concrete deck to collapse.”

Thanks to county staff’s granting of an emergency permit, Williams wrote, she and her husband had achieved short-term relief for their situation, though the expense “was in excess of [$100,000].”

Another writer, Harry Artz, told the commissioners that erosion had undermined the foundation of his home for the fifth time. Yet, because of the “extensive hardbottom in our area,” Artz added, he and his wife were not able to benefit from the Manasota Key Beach Renourishment Project.

This is the Artz home, as shown in a photo accompanying an email to the commissioners. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Wrapping it up

After making the first of two motions necessary to implement the County Code changes, Commissioner Hines offered his “thanks to everybody.”

“I don’t think anyone on this board is advocating for shoreline hardening,” he said, but, given “the absolute extreme circumstances that we’ve seen, especially on Manasota Key,” such action needs to be an option.

In seconding the motion, Commissioner Nancy Detert added, “[In] dealing with the [Manasota Key Association] people not only on this but on other issues, [she had found them to be] a demonstration of how people should interact with their own government and make their government work for them.” Detert emphasized that the MKA representatives’ actions were far preferable to people “being boisterous and threatening.”