County commissioners direct staff to simplify process for residents to install sandbags to protect homes from severe shoreline erosion

Proposed amendment to Sarasota County’s emergency variance process to be rewritten and addressed again during April 10 hearing

Different types of sandbags have been used to stabilize property on eroding shorelines, county staff says. Image courtesy Sarasota County

First, they made it clear to staff that they want the process to be easier for the public. Then the Sarasota County commissioners continued until April 10 a public hearing on an amendment to the county’s Coastal Setback Code regarding the handling of emergency measures property owners may take to protect homes in the face of severe erosion produced by storms.

The most common initiative, based on comments during a Jan. 30 hearing, has been the installation of sandbags.

Referring to residents who have pleaded with the board for help, Commissioner Alan Maio said, “These people are under stress. I feel like we’re adding some additional stress.”

Maio was talking about the county staff recommendation for two annual renewals of any Class I Emergency Variance that has been granted, which would make emergency measures valid for three years. After the three years ended, the person who received the variance could seek a new one, if necessary, the proposed amendment said.

The commissioners asked for the rewriting of the recommended language so the Coastal Setback Code would allow staff to grant three-year variances at the outset, with staff allowed to visit each site at least once a year to determine whether any problems have resulted from the emergency measure.

The board members also asked for a single payment upfront for the three-year period. Staff had proposed charging people $50 for each additional one-year renewal of the variance.

The current fee for a one-year variance is $365.

Harry Artz. News Leader photo

Harry Artz, one of five Manasota Key residents who addressed the board during the Jan. 30 public hearing, urged the commissioners, “Make the process simple; extend [the variance period] as long as the [sandbags] can live.”

Speaking on behalf of the Manasota Key Association, President Michael Clark told the board, “These large sandbags … have already proved to be very effective in protecting several homes from Hurricane Irma … Conditions can change fast on a barrier island.”

Yet, given the language of the current ordinance, Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out, residents are having to endure a process of putting in sandbags and then removing them and then asking to put them in again, while paying costs ranging up to tens of thousands of dollars for each permitting cycle. “That isn’t working. … We’ve got to compromise somewhere. We can’t let houses fall into the water.”

Dealing with critical situations

During the Jan. 30 public hearing, Rachel Herman, manager of the county’s Environmental Protection Division, explained that “acute erosion” occurred in some areas of the county during the 2016 and 2017 hurricane seasons. As a result, members of the public — especially Manasota Key residents — had requested changes to the county’s Coastal Setback Code to extend the duration of Class I Emergency Variances.

A graphic explains the purpose of a Class I Emergency Variance. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As she explained the facets of the recommended amendment, she pointed out that the proposed, streamlined three-year process would result in potential savings of $630 to someone seeking a variance.

The amendment to the Coastal Setback Code would be applicable to Siesta and Casey keys as well as Manasota Key, Herman told the board.

“I thought this commission, and I believe it was unanimous, said we did not want the one-year renewals at another expense, but a three-year renewal,” Commissioner Alan Maio responded. “Why are we moving in this direction?”

Herman replied that staff suggested the one-year renewals because “you’ve got shoreline changes in a dynamic coastal system …” Staff members feel they should undertake an evaluation each year to ensure sandbags that have been put in place are still appropriate,” she added, noting, “The public interest is of paramount concern,” as the sandbags could impede lateral pedestrian access on the beach, for example, or hinder movements of nesting sea turtles.

Further, Herman explained, sandbags “can have [the] effect of reflecting wave energy on adjacent properties, and they may have deleterious impacts to those neighbors.”

Staff also felt the annual inspections were advisable, Herman continued, because it would be easier to remove emergency measures after one year than after three years.

“I understand your rationale for making people come back every year and pay another fee,” Maio said but then asked, “There is no way to accommodate the requests that we are getting, as commissioners, for … permits to [be valid for] three years?”

A graphic explains staff’s rationale for the one-year renewal process. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Would it be possible for staff to rewrite the language of the proposed amendment to allow the revoking of the emergency measure after a shorter period if the sandbags or other action were causing a problem?, Maio continued

Emails he has received from the public, he said, have indicated costs “approaching $20,000 just to get the process started and the first [staff] approval [of a Class I Emergency Variance].” The correspondence, he explained, has discussed the necessity of hiring structural engineers and having surveys completed, along with paying for sandbags.

“I’m not being adversarial here,” Maio told Herman. “I just want to streamline the process and maybe save some of the expense [for the public].”

Herman emphasized that, under the proposed amendment, people would be able to seek extensions of the initial one-year variance by sending an email to staff, and they also would be able to pay the renewal fee online. “We turn [requests] around in 24 hours,” she added. “It was our impression that that was not onerous,” she noted, and the amendment would allow staff to undertake those inspections to ensure protection of the public interest.

Commissioner Mike Moran. File photo

“Commissioner Maio is making the very valid point here that I was thinking as you were talking,” Commissioner Michael Moran told Herman. Under normal circumstances, Moran continued, “I would be in” at the suggestion of less paperwork and reduced payments for residents. Still, he said, he understood staff’s concerns about the need for oversight of the measures undertaken after the initial approval of an emergency variance.

Moran then asked whether staff could come up with a hybrid of what it was proposing and what Maio had suggested.

“I believe if you authorize an approval [of an emergency variance] for a period of time,” Herman replied, and something happens “to put a neighboring property at jeopardy,” it would be “very difficult” for the staff to make someone remove emergency measures after a year has passed.

She had consulted with the Office of the County Attorney in drafting the amendment, she pointed out, and such a scenario was county attorneys’ concern.

“If a three-year permit is granted and circumstances change,” County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh began, and then staff “determines a termination necessary, that will be a more difficult legal position for the county to be in than if it’s a question of extension.” Still, he added, “it’s entirely up to the commission.”

In response to a question from Chair Nancy Detert, DeMarsh said that language could be added to the amendment calling for exceptions to the three-year process if an emergency measure is causing problems. “It would get litigated by applicants that didn’t like the result, possibly,” he added.

However, if the commissioners wanted the language rewritten to include conditions for termination of an emergency variance before the variance was due to expire, he would suggest they continue the hearing to enable staff to undertake that modification.

“I probably think … you could wordsmith this,” Detert replied.

“I think criteria could be established,” DeMarsh told her.

Commissioner Hines then said he was inclined to agree with Detert. “I’d rather have the hybrid,” he added, referring to Moran’s earlier comment. “You keep the checklist. … You go look at [the property]; don’t charge ’em anything,” he told Herman. “And unless there’s some harm being done, [the emergency measure] can stay for three years. Let the beach stabilize.”

Hines also told Herman that while he understood staff’s concerns, Commissioner Maio was correct in telling her earlier that what staff had proposed in the amendment was “the opposite of what we voted on. You should have started with three years [for the term of the emergency variance].”

Pleas from Manasota Key

Photos show conditions before and after Hurricane Irma’s strike in September 2017 at a property on Manasota Key. Images courtesy Sarasota County

When Manasota Key residents addressed the board during the public comments portion of the hearing, Harry Artz told the commissioners, “It’s scary,” referring to the potential for more severe storm damage to property on that barrier island. “Commissioner Hines,” he added, “you are absolutely right.”

He and other island residents had met with Herman, Artz continued, and they agreed that staff had “some good reasons for the one-year [renewals].” Nonetheless, Artz said, he felt residents should be allowed to keep sandbags in place for five to seven years, unless the county ends up pursuing a beach renourishment initiative on Manasota Key.

County staff has been exploring the potential of collaborating with Charlotte County on a beach renourishment project for the island.

Commissioner Maio later asked County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to provide the board an update at its next meeting on the staff work with Charlotte County representatives.

“I fully support that,” Hines said.

When she addressed the board, Betty Gawthrop noted that she has lived on Manasota Key for more than 20 years and is one of several property owners over the age of 90.

Betty Gawthrop. News Leader photo

“We do not want to put any burden on your staff people,” she continued, but the residents also do not want new burdens placed on them.

A renourishment project, Gawthrop added, “would be ideal, I think, if you can work something out.”

Additionally, she referenced an earlier comment by Herman: “The turtles can get over those [sandbags].” She had watched several crawl over large bags last summer to lay eggs higher up on the beach, she pointed out.

After Chair Detert closed the public hearing, Commissioner Moran made the motion to continue the consideration of the amendment to April 10, and Commissioner Hines seconded it. It passed unanimously.