County commissioners cite Manasota Key destruction in 2014 as the impetus for seeking delegation of authority from the state
Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson still regrets not checking her email an hour or two sooner on Feb. 22, 2014.
That was the day Manasota Key residents reported that a crew hired by owners of the property at 8215 Manasota Key Road in Englewood was “cutting and shredding huge amounts of mangroves with no visible permit,” as one put it.
As soon as she learned what was happening, she contacted county environmental staff and visited the site herself. During the County Commission’s meeting on March 4, 2014, she told her colleagues that the photos emailed to them “don’t even remotely do [the scene] justice. … You can’t even begin to grasp [the damage] until you’re on-site looking at it.”
Staff subsequently learned that the county had no means of enforcement in such a situation. Because of state law, all that authority rested with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP). But at the behest of the board, staff set about to remedy that. The result was the Oct. 10 passage of an ordinance that implements the delegation of authority over mangrove preservation and trimming from FDEP to the county.
With unanimous votes, the commission approved all the necessary steps for the new law to take effect on Nov. 1.
“Now we will have the proper code in place to deal with [any future problems similar to the 2014 Manasota Key incident],” Robinson pointed out.
Addressing members of the public, Commissioner Charles Hines said, “If you’ve been [handling mangrove trimming] right, according to state laws, you’re fine. This isn’t a changeover to a ‘gotcha.’” He added that county staff’s focus will be on education and outreach.
But for the few people who have been “trying to get around our rules,” Hines continued, “now we have a little more teeth and local control.”
Rachel Herman, the county’s environmental permitting manager, explained that the county code mirrors the state law, especially in regard to exemptions provided to private property owners. One key facet of the ordinance, though, is a provision for certification for professional mangrove trimming. Those who handle that work as part of a business, she said, will be able to take half-a-day of training and then pay a $25 fee for the first year of certification; the annual renewal fee will be $15. Professional mangrove trimmers will be responsible for signing up for a class and then registering within a year of the Nov. 1 effective date of the ordinance, she pointed out.
Two sessions will be offered in November, Herman said: Nov. 9 at Lemon Bay Park in Englewood and Nov. 17 at Phillippi Estate Park in Sarasota. Other classes will be scheduled in February 2017, she noted.
In discussing the outreach that had been undertaken as part of the effort to win the state delegation of the authority, Herman pointed out that staff had contacted 26 neighborhood associations. The Siesta Key Association (SKA) was among those that requested a presentation, she added; that was provided on Oct. 6.
Brochures about the new ordinance will be available at county parks and libraries, Herman said, and an infographic and other information is available on a county webpage, www.scgov.net/ mangroves.
Biology and trimming tips
During the Oct. 6 SKA meeting, Alyssa Vinson, an environmental specialist with Sarasota County, explained that she will be the point person for inspections and questions that arise in the wake of the board’s passage of the ordinance. She has been working in the Environmental Protection Division about nine months, she added, telling the approximately 40 people present, “I love mangroves. … They are so Florida. You don’t find them anywhere else in the United States,” and they are not much further north than Cedar Key, which is southwest of Gainesville.
The three varieties — reds, whites and blacks — “are all protected equally under law,” she explained.
In 1996, the state passed the Mangrove Trimming and Preservation Act to provide that protection, she pointed out. Since 1950, development in the state has resulted in the loss of “roughly 80% of our mangrove shorelines.”
Yet, she continued, mangroves are vital in the environment. During storms, she said, “they buffer a lot of that wind and wave energy.”
They also are critical to the health of seagrasses and corals, she explained, as those life forms depend on mangroves to capture sediment, making the water quality appropriate for sustainability of aquatic life.
Vinson told the group that county staff worked for about 18 months to obtain the state delegation of authority to implement local rules. FDEP approved the county’s application on Aug. 31.
She then asked audience members with mangroves on their property how they handle the trimming.
Dave Thomas told her he cuts back the mangroves less than a foot on the canal where his house is located, and only when the foliage reaches the structure; at that point, the mangroves provide a path for insects.
That is an example of an exempt activity under state law, and it will continue to be exempt under county law, she replied.
The minimum overall height that must be maintained for mangroves, she said, is 6 feet, and that is measured to the soil. If they are taller than 16 feet, she added, “you have to get a professional mangrove trimmer.”
In response to another comment, she explained, “Technically, dead mangrove material is still protected under the state rules.”
If mangroves are taller than 24 feet, she noted, the trimming has to be staged so no more than 25% of the foliage is removed at one time. That is the type of work that would necessitate a permit from the county, she added.
FDEP has been issuing about 12 permits per year in Sarasota County, Vinson pointed out; staff expects that figure to remain about the same.
If someone sees what appears to be a violation, she added, “You can call me; you can email me a picture.” If she cannot get to the scene quickly enough, she said, she will ask another staff member in the field to respond first.
“A picture is really helpful,” she stressed.
When one audience member asked whether she would be the one to respond to all complaints about potentially illegal trimming, Vinson affirmed that she would be handling inspections and permitting for the county. When the person suggested that some situations might prove threatening, she added, “If we need to, we can always call the Sheriff’s Office to back us up.”
Among other facets of trimming, Vinson explained that the upper leaves of mangroves are called “sun leaves”; the lower ones, “shade leaves.” If the sun leaves are trimmed so dramatically the shade leaves cannot adapt, she pointed out, the mangroves’ health will suffer.
Moreover, Vinson said, it is bad for the plants to consistently cut them in the same place every time.
Since they are essentially trees, she continued, a number of options exist. “You can ‘window’ trim them,” for example she said: Remove the interior foliage to improve the view of the shoreline. A person also may remove lower branches and maintain an upper canopy, she added.
“We do exemption reviews … to figure out what’s the best option”