Manasota Key residents receiving help for beach erosion problems while Sarasota County staff researches solutions for the long term

Property owners plead for fast permitting to deal with damage wreaked by Tropical Storm Colin

Betty Gawthrop. News Leader photo
Betty Gawthrop. News Leader photo

Seven people dealing with structural damage at their Manasota Key homes as a result of Tropical Storm Colin’s chewing up their beach asked the Sarasota County Commission for help — and fast — on June 21.

Among them was Betty Gawthrop, who said she has lived on the key for more than 22 years. “There was a broad beach when I moved there,” she pointed out during the public comments portion of the board’s morning session.

But erosion wrought by Tropical Storm Colin a couple of weeks ago not only uprooted a 60-foot tree that fell on her roof and deck, she said, “now the water has been up under my house. … Please do something to help us to save our houses.”

In response to the speakers’ pleas, as well as emails and phone calls the board members have received about the situation on the barrier island, Commissioner Christine Robinson won unanimous support from her colleagues to have staff research how best to provide long-term assistance to South County residents living on the shoreline.

Her motion formally called for County Administrator Tom Harmer to have staff assess the erosion on Manasota Key, North Manasota Key, South Venice Beach and Caspersen Beach. After that has been completed, her motion calls for staff to consider whether to conduct an informational public workshop plus a survey of property owners regarding their interest in paying assessments for renourishment of those beaches. Her motion further included the stipulation that staff take “any other step deemed appropriate for evaluation and solutions.”

She asked that staff continue the efforts through the County Commission’s summer break, which will start in the latter half of July and extend until mid-August, if that is necessary to achieve the goals.

“I think we can proceed with [all of those initiatives] through the break,” Harmer replied.

In the meantime, county staff was planning to meet on June 22 with Manasota Key property owners to assist them with emergency permitting procedures to address their damage, Matt Osterhoudt, senior manager in the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, told the board.

Harmer noted that he had asked staff to approach each of the speakers for follow-up that morning.

For example, Osterhoudt explained, sandbags can be used as a temporary measure up to one year. “And that’s what most of [the residents who addressed the board] seem to be interested in,” Osterhoudt added. The County Commission can vote to allow the bags to remain in place longer, he said.

An aerial view shows Manasota Key. Image from Google maps
An aerial view shows Manasota Key. Image from Google maps

Staff has administrative flexibility to issue such permits “within a very short period of time,” he pointed out — typically 24 to 48 hours.

Moreover, Osterhoudt continued, staff may be able to help residents complete joint applications for permits as a time-saving measure.

Still, he told the board, “Not every property is the same.” One may have a damaged deck, for example, while in Gawthrop’s case, erosion has threatened her home.

Some residents may need Class 2 emergency variances for initiatives that go beyond sandbags, Osterhoudt pointed out, to maintain the structural integrity of buildings. The County Commission would have to approve those variances, he added, but if staff feels any are appropriate, he will make sure to bring those matters before the board for quick consideration.

Prior to the recently completed South Siesta Renourishment Project, Chair Al Maio pointed out, numerous residents on that stretch of beach contacted him with concerns about erosion’s effects on their property. Referring to staff members’ responses in those cases, he continued, “their attitude and approach with the condo owners made our county proud.” He felt sure, he added, that staff would be equally supportive of the Manasota Key residents.

“This is good,” Commissioner Charles Hines told Osterhoudt. “What I’m hearing from you is that our staff recognizes the urgency that these people are feeling.”

Matt Osterhoudt. File photo
Matt Osterhoudt. File photo

Hines said he hoped the board members would hear back from the property owners, indicating that staff had enabled them to move forward quickly in taking the necessary steps to deal with their problems.

Osterhoudt also pointed out that, to prevent confusion about what county staff will be doing on Manasota Key, he and one of the property owners have agreed to be “funnel points” for information.

When Robinson asked whether Osterhoudt would provide updates to the commissioners regarding the outreach on Manasota Key, he replied that such reports would be sent “at strategic points.”

The long-term issues

When Robinson brought up the issue about South County beach erosion on June 21, she explained that she was not on the board about 10 years ago when discussion ensued about renourishing Manasota Key. At that time, she continued — to the best of her recollection — not enough support existed for an assessment of property owners to help cover the expense; some on the Gulf of Mexico side of the island were not experiencing problems that others were.

Furthermore, she said, some residents did not like the idea of creating a wider beach, because they did not want people traversing the shore in front of their homes, even though state law makes it clear that the “wet sand” portion of a beach is public property.

The situation has changed, she pointed out, with folks on Manasota Key having asked the commissioners via email for assistance. That was why she wanted to see staff survey current property owners on the key to determine their feelings about renourishment. She also wanted to make sure the process was not put on hold during the commission’s summer break, she added.

Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo
Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo

The sooner staff can undertake a full assessment of the situation, Robinson pointed out, the sooner the necessary steps can be taken to deal with it.

Hines and Chair Maio both voiced support for Robinson’s proposal.

Robinson also explained why she wanted to seek a separate board vote on the long-term approach. Given her recent conversations with property owners, she continued, she had realized that “these people are getting confused” about potential long-term solutions compared to aid the county can provide fairly quickly. “I’ve had people talk to me about rock revetments … That’s why I don’t want to muddy the water right now.”

After Robinson made her motion, Hines seconded it. “You could include all of our beachfront issues here, including Casey and Siesta keys,” he added of the erosion assessments and public outreach to determine residents’ views of the circumstances in specific areas.

Hines then pointed out that, as he saw it, comparing the situations on Caspersen and South Venice beaches to those on Manasota and North Manasota Keys is a matter of “homes versus no homes.” He added that people in the city of Venice had been asking him about erosion on Caspersen. However, he said, Caspersen is “really a park. No one lives there.”

Robinson replied that if he talked to North Manasota Key residents, he would learn that “Caspersen Beach is of key importance to them” because of the north-to-south downdrift of sand. “If you renourish North Manasota Key and you don’t renourish Caspersen Beach, their sand will be gone in a heartbeat.”

An aerial view shows Caspersen Beach and south Venice. Image from Google maps
An aerial view shows Caspersen Beach and south Venice. Image from Google maps

Robinson added that North Manasota Key homeowners had voiced their concerns to her a couple of years ago about Caspersen Beach, which sparked the evaluation of that beach at that time. Although she is not a coastal engineer, she added, they had made the situation clear to her.

“OK,” Hines replied.

In response to a question from Robinson, Harmer said he would contact Charlotte County representatives to determine whether the opportunity exits for collaboration with them on erosion issues on the South County beaches.