County staff directed to work on reducing assessments for Manasota Key homeowners as share of beach renourishment project

Estimated total payments of $140,000 over seven years prompt protests, with property owners saying county model should take into account county’s ownership of Blind Pass Beach Park and The Hermitage

A graphic shows the revised project limits for the Sarasota County beach renourishment project on Manasota Key. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Nov. 19, the manager of Sarasota County’s Environmental Protection Division told the County Commission that 23 property owners on Manasota Key had opted out of a joint beach renourishment project with Charlotte County.

The homeowners’ primary concern, based on the discussion between Rachel Herman and the commissioners, was retaining private beach rights.

On Dec. 10, the commissioners heard about the financial consequences of that fact in county staff’s planning for how to pay for the north and south segments of the project on Sarasota County’s side of Manasota Key. Single-family homeowners along the north segment could pay up to $143,355 over seven years as their share of the cost. For those along the south segment, the total payment would be even higher: $161,842 over seven years.

Before the property owners in the middle section of the original project area refused to participate, the assessments were expected to be in the range of $4,000 to $5,000 per year, for a total of approximately $20,000 over seven years.

That was based on the Municipal Service Benefit Unit (MSBU) model county staff used in determining how to cover the expense of both renourishments that have been undertaken over the past years on south Siesta Key, Herman explained on Dec. 10. The assessment is determined by the length of shoreline at each parcel, she noted.

Originally, the MSBU was to cover 20% of the cost of the southern segment of the Manasota Key initiative, she reminded the board. Without the 23 property owners who have opted out, Herman said, the MSBU will need to cover 65% of the cost of the southern portion of the project.

A graphic shows the updated assessments for Manasota Key property owners. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Yet, as numerous Manasota Key residents of Sarasota County stressed to the commissioners this week, they do not have the financial wherewithal to handle such expenses.

As Betty Gawthrop put it, “I’m a retired educator. I’m not rich.”

Finally, on a unanimous vote, the commissioners authorized staff to borrow $2,340,000 from the Pooled Commercial Paper Loan Program of the Florida Local Government Finance Commission. They would decide at a later time, they agreed, on how to adjust the MSBU for the Manasota Key property owners.

“What we’re trying to do here is help people maintain their homes,” Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out. “What I don’t want to do is hurt the ones we’re tying to help. I don’t want this to result in people having to sell their home or lose their home because of the expense of this.”

The vote came after Commissioner Alan Maio sought assurance from the Office of Financial Management that the planned borrow would be big enough.

“Today’s borrow is based on this new, larger commitment on the south part [of the renourishment project],” Mike Murphy of the Office of Financial Management told Maio.

Murphy noted that cooperation with Charlotte County on the overall initiative has made it possible for the counties to win a state grant that will cover 35% of the Sarasota County expense. However, Murphy added, “The state doesn’t give you 35% today.” That money typically comes two years after a project has been completed, he said.

Maio sought clarification that Murphy’s comments meant the board will “have the flexibility to adjust individual participation in the MSBU amounts.”

“I think that would be a policy question for the board,” Murphy replied, referring to any adjustment to the percentage of the cost of a project paid for through an MSBU.

This is a funding pie chart shown to the County Commission in August 2016 regarding the plans to pay for the South Siesta Renourishment initiative completed that spring. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“That is a policy question,” County Administrator Jonathan Lewis emphasized.

If the board members choose a different MSBU model for the Manasota Key project than it used for the two south Siesta Key renourishments, Lewis warned them, they should expect people whose property is involved in future initiatives will want that adjusted model applied to their assessments.

Additionally, Lewis pointed out, how the county ends up paying for the Manasota Key project will be “a really important factor on how we plan for fiscal year 2021 and beyond from our [budget reserve funds].”

“I don’t want anything done to impact allthe work done to get a joint project going with Charlotte County,” Maio emphasized.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to adjust this math. People are going to start opting out of this.”

As Herman of Environmental Protection made clear on Nov. 19, Maio continued, the refusal of the 23 property owners to agree to the Erosion Control Line (ECL) for the project resulted in the MSBU situation.

The ECL, she explained that day, establishes the limits between private beachfront and the state’s portion of the beach, where new sand will be placed. The 23 property owners in the middle segment of the renourishment initiative — as originally designed — were concerned about losing private beach to the state, Herman said.

A graphic shows the parcels — in red — whose owners refuse to participate in the Manasota Key Beach Renourishment Project on Sarasota County’s side of the barrier island. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Dec. 10, referring to the joint project with Charlotte County, Chair Charles Hines pointed out, “This is really the only legitimate option that we have. … Where I’m not comfortable is the funding model where it stands now,” he added, concurring with Maio and Detert.

The county not only is responsible for the road on Manasota Key, Hines continued, but it also has utility lines on the barrier island. The road, he stressed, “is public safety access for people.”

Referencing comments Herman and public speakers had made, Hines added that he wanted more information about why the county was not paying for its share of the project in conjunction with the amount of shoreline it owns at Blind Pass Beach Park.

Herman had noted that neither the park nor the shoreline of The Hermitage Artist Retreat was factored into the divvying up of expenses.

Furthermore, Hines said, because Charlotte County’s project will encompass beach renourishment in front of one of its parks, people will be able to walk from that park to Blind Pass Beach Park on the Sarasota County side of Manasota Key. Even with the 23 property owners having opted out of the Sarasota County initiative, he continued, “There still is public sand … that [people] can walk on.”

An aerial map shows the location of The Hermitage Artist Retreat. Image from Google Maps

The so-called “wet beach” is considered public property under Florida law, he noted.

Therefore, Hines said, he wanted staff to take another look at the potential use of county Tourist Development Tax (TDT) revenue for the southern portion of the Manasota Key project.

On Nov. 19, Herman explained staff’s view that TDT funds could not be used to cover any portion of the expense for the southern segment, because of its separation from Blind Pass Beach Park, following the exclusion of the 23 property owners.

In response to comments made by Commissioner Detert, Hines also pointed out that the Charlotte County funding model was based on the fact that condominium complexes and commercial structures stand on most of the Charlotte County project shoreline. On the Sarasota County side, he said, those affected are owners of single-family homes.

A refresher and the new realities

During the outset of her Dec. 10 presentation, Herman of Environmental Protection explained that — based on the commission’s Nov. 19 direction — the north segment of the project will encompass the area from 6630 Manasota Key Road to 6840 Manasota Key Road, which includes six parcels north of Blind Pass Beach Park.

The southern segment, she continued, will run from one lot north of 6310 Manasota Key Road to 6010 Manasota Key Road and then south into Charlotte County.

On Nov. 26, she pointed out, the Charlotte County Commission awarded the construction contract and approved the revised interlocal agreement with Sarasota County, reflecting the changes in the initiative discussed on Nov. 19.

A pre-construction session is scheduled on Dec. 12 with the contractor, Herman noted. Charlotte County staff hopes to issue the Notice to Proceed to the contractor no later than Dec. 16, she added. Then, if all goes as planned, she said, construction will commence in Charlotte County in January 2020.

These are the revised costs for the Manasota Key project. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The total cost of the Sarasota County portion of the undertaking has been put at $10,063,884, Herman said. The expense for the revised north segment is $5,228,565; for the south portion, $4,835,319.

Property owners on Manasota Key would be assessed for their share of the Sarasota County cost regardless of whether they have bayside parcels or property on the Gulf of Mexico, she explained.

People who hold easements to the Gulf would be assessed at a rate of half the Gulf-frontage amount, she added.

Plenty of public protests

The very first speaker to address the commission on Dec. 10 was Charles Miller, owner of one of the six houses to the north of Blind Pass Beach Park. Miller has appeared before the board numerous times, urging the commissioners to provide help to the homeowners.

This graphic shows the parcels, in green, and Blind Pass Beach Park, where the northern part of the beach renourishment initiative will proceed on Manasota Key. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Dec. 10, however, he, too, brought up the revised expense. “I am sure that you would agree that it is totally unrealistic” for the owners of those six houses to shoulder so much of the cost, Miller said, County staff should have factored in a county apportionment of payment linked to the park and The Hermitage, he added. “We are asking the county to pay its fair share.”

Don Denison, who — with his brother — owns the first parcel north of the Charlotte County line, told the commissioners he first bought a lot on the Charlotte County side of Manasota Key in 1985.

Having two contiguous parcels, he continued, on either side of the county line, gives him a unique perspective. For the renourishment of his 100 feet of Charlotte County shoreline, Denison continued, he has been assessed $11,893.12. For his Sarasota County property, he added, he will be assessed approximately $140,000, “roughly 12 times that [Charlotte County] cost.”

Jackie Ruthman addresses the County Commission on Nov. 19. News Leader image

Denison pointed out that the contractor will be extending a pipeline only about 100 feet north of the Charlotte County line to renourish his beachfront on the Sarasota County side.

Yet, one argument county staff had made for the difference in the expenses, he said, was the issue of public access. “I’m sure most people who walk on the beach don’t know when they’re going from Sarasota County into Charlotte County …”

Jackie Ruthman, president of the Manasota Key Association, talked of being contacted by the organization’s treasurer “within minutes” of her emailing members a Dec. 3 memo from county staff with the revised MSBU projections.

Her treasurer figured a mistake had been made, she added. “When we looked at the math, we got different numbers.”

Then Ruthman pointed out that of the approximately 4,000 feet of beach the north segment of the project will encompass, approximately 3,200 is owned by the county, including The Hermitage.

Yet, the six homeowners to the north of the park are being asked to pay 20% of the entire expense of that part of the initiative, she added. “We just absolutely cannot support the assumption that the county staff made with the model that they used,” she said. “We’re not Siesta Key.”