On unanimous vote, County Commission approves 1,930-foot seawall on Casey Key to protect road and property threatened by storms over the years

Property owners at northern limits of undertaking object to plans

This graphic shows the Casey Key seawall project area and the affected parcels. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Although the property owners at the northern limits of the project have protested the plans, the Sarasota County commissioners unanimously have approved a Coastal Setback Variance to allow the construction of a 1,930-linear-foot seawall between the parcels located at 526 and 840 N. Casey Key Road.

Karen Erickson of Erickson Consulting Engineers in Sarasota — the engineer of record for the initiative — told the commissioners during the Dec. 12 public hearing that the affected road segment “is highly vulnerable to storm damage … and has become increasingly … at great risk of failure.”

The county staff report provided to the board members in advance of the Dec. 12 meeting pointed out, “The County has spent nearly $300,000 addressing at least 35 work orders for road repairs at this section of North Casey Key Road since 2016 due to overwash, infiltration, and undermining. Furthermore, the continued erosion of this portion of Casey Key has resulted in [an existing soil-cement step] revetment structure being near or beyond the Mean High Water Line (MHWL), leaving little open sandy beach for lateral public pedestrian access along the wet sandy beach.”

The seawall will replace that revetment.

The staff report also said, “The project area is within an area of coastline deemed ‘critically eroded’ by FDEP [Florida Department of Environmental Protection]. As of the July 2023 Critically Eroded Beach in Florida report, nearly 70% (25.8 miles) of Sarasota County’s coastline and about 64% of the state carry this designation, indicating a potential sediment deficit that is widespread.”

The latter statement refers to natural processes that traditionally have transported sand — or sediment — from north to south, keeping plenty of sand on the beaches.

The staff report further noted, “According to a fact sheet on sea level rise (SLR) in Florida published by the University of Florida Sea Grant Program, the average sea level has increased by about 8 inches over the past century and continues to increase faster. Under the ‘intermediate’ SLR scenario predicted by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, sea level rise is expected to increase another 39 inches (3.25 feet) by 2100, exacerbating coastal flooding, intensifying storm surges, and [increasing] loss of coastal habitats.”

Plans call not only for the construction of the seawall, Erickson told the commissioners, but also for a drainage system that will include treatment of stormwater before it is returned to the Gulf of Mexico. Under the current conditions, she added, the water flows off the road “directly into the Gulf.”

One slide that Erickson showed the board members noted that the affected section of North Casey Key Road “typically experiences intense wave action and overwash during tropical weather events. The County has had to repair this section of the road several times following storm events.”

Erickson explained that a storm surge of 3 feet, with waves running 3 feet high, “sends that water onto the road, and it’s causing failures and cracking within the road.”

These photos show damage to the project area as a result of Hurricane Idalia’s passage through the Gulf of Mexico in late August. Image courtesy Sarasota County

She told the commissioners that she began keeping an eye on the road since 2019, so she has observed the worsening situation. “A seawall is the preferred option.” That structure, Erickson added, “will stop the soil subsidence under the foundation of the road.”

The proposed construction, she added, will be within the footprint of the existing soil-cement step revetment.

She showed the board members a number of other slides depicting damage resulting from storms. For example, in June 2020, when approximately 4.5 inches of rain fell, water flowed under the revetment, undermining it. “There was a large void,” she said, which necessitated county repairs. That project, Erickson noted, “required considerable grout fill.”

“The road is now about 6.5 feet in elevation,” she added. The project would include the replacement of that segment between 526 and 840 N. Casey Key Road, including the removal of the voids under the pavement. “The road would be raised a foot or more and completely rebuilt,” she added.

In response to a question, she said the centerline of the replacement roadway would be at an elevation of 8 feet.

The new seawall would tie into existing revetments at the northern and southern limits of the undertaking, Erickson further noted.

Altogether, she said, 13 property owners would be affected.

Commissioner Joe Neunder talked of having visited the northern limits of the project area after Hurricane Idalia swept by the Florida coastline in late August. “That proved to be monumental in understanding the problems and the need of what is required,” he said.

When he asked Erickson for confirmation that infrastructure pipelines are exposed in one area of the project, she replied, “There are communication lines” belonging to Frontier and Comcast. Florida Power & Light Co. workers had moved that company’s lines off the roadway, she said.

This is the site plan for the Casey Key seawall. ‘GBSL’ refers to the county’s Gulf Beach Setback Line, which was established in 1979 to protect dunes and coastal habitat. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Neunder ended up making the motion to approve the necessary county variance for the initiative, and Commissioner Neil Rainford seconded it.

Noting the holes that have appeared under the road in specific areas, Neunder said, “We’re just putting Band-Aids on [the problems] right now.”
“It’s a much-needed project, unfortunately,” Rainford concurred. “I think this’ll give some long-term viability to the road.”

Opposition to the plans

The commissioners did emphasize to county staff to work with George and Mary Hicks, who own the property at 840 N. Casey Key Road, to try to address their concerns. The Hickses asked the commissioners not to include their parcel in the plans for the seawall.

As Mary D. Hicks put it in a statement she read during the Dec. 12 hearing, “The conditions at 840 N. Casey Key are substantively different from the conditions for the majority of the project [area] …”

“The road [in front of their property] has not experienced overwash or damage from storms,” she continued.

Hicks and her husband added in a Dec. 7 email to the commissioners and staff members involved with the proposal, “We are writing to make the case that an alternative to the seawall at our site would be more ecologically defensible, less costly, and more compliant with the criteria for variance approval.”

A rock revetment exists on their beach frontage, Mary Hicks said during her Dec. 12 testimony. It would have to be removed to allow for the construction of the seawall.

The Hickses’ statement also pointed out, “The road at 840 turns landward, creating a dune between the road and the beach. The proposed project requires the removal of 175 feet of mature, native vegetation and trees on the dune as well as removal of substantial buffer plantings and trees on the east side of the road. All invasive, non-native species were eliminated 16 years ago and replaced with large native specimens. The native plantings have not only thrived but also served their intended purpose of fortifying the beach and dune areas as their root systems have matured.”

This is a photo of the beach in front of the property at 840 N. Casey Key Road in March 2021. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Further, the Dec. 7 email said, “Estimates of the value of the plants and trees that will be removed on the dune are at minimum $200,000. Estimates of the value of the buffering plants, shrubs and trees lost on the landward side of the rod are likely to be equivalent. Removal of this landscaping and the protection it provides will reduce the value of the property and will constitute a taking by the county.”

As the DeWitt law firm in Tampa explains, “The Fifth Amendment [of the U.S. Constitution] provides that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.’

“The above provision is known as the ‘takings clause.’ This clause gives the Federal government the power of eminent domain, i.e., the power to take private property for public use. It also requires private property owners to be justly compensated for such takings.
“The provisions of the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment apply to the states through the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution,” the law firm adds.

In response to a question from Commissioner Mark Smith about the Hickses’ statement, Erickson, the engineer of record, explained, “Most of the vegetation that was planted [on the Hickses’ property] is gone. Moreover, Erickson said, the erosion from the high-frequency storms” that have struck that part of Casey Key in recent years has led to the failure of the rock revetment in front of the Hickses’ parcel.

Erickson added that she herself had seen a hole almost 12 feet by 15 feet wide and 3 feet deep under the road at that location.

Sand moves in and out of that area “very quickly,” she pointed out.

The “scarp line” — a low, steep slope — that wave action had carved out of the barrier island was within 5 feet of the road two years ago at that northern limit of the project, Erickson said. “Protecting the road without completely rebuilding a shore protection project at that site would not serve the roadway in this area.”

Erickson also explained, “The seawall is a low maintenance, higher level of protection” than a new rock revetment would be, and a complete rebuild of the revetment “would take a significant frontage” from the Hicks’ parcel, leaving only about 25 feet of beach width.

The Hickses have about 175 feet of beach frontage, Erickson noted, referencing the county staff report and the Hickses’ own statement.

These photos show damage to the soil-cement step revetment and how it appeared after repairs. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In response to another question from Smith, Erickson pointed out that the stones used in the Hickses’ revetment weigh about 250 to 500 pounds each. To construct a new rock revetment that would serve the necessary purpose, she added, stones weighing from 1 to 3 tons would be needed.

When Chair Ron Cutsinger asked for clarification that the Hickses have complained that the county will have to take a section of their property through eminent domain to build the seawall, Erickson replied that staff will have to acquire an easement from the couple. That situation is under review, she added.

Then Spencer Anderson, director of the county’s Public Works Department — which joined the county’s Capital Projects Department in requesting the Coastal Setback Variance — appeared at the podium in the Commission Chambers in Venice to explain that staff’s intent is to have all of the necessary easements in place before the seawall initiative begins. Thus, negotiations with the Hickses will be necessary, he indicated.

The terms of the variance would allow for a slight modification, depending on how the negotiations went, Anderson said.

Commissioner Smith told Anderson that he was hoping some negotiations would be taking place with the Hickses instead of staff’s having to pursue a court case.

“That’s completely our plan, is to work with the Hickses,” Anderson responded, “to figure out the most appropriate way to carry out this project.”

Commissioner Neunder noted, “I’m a big property rights individual,” so he joined Smith in encouraging Anderson to pursue those negotiations, “while trying to get this much-needed project in my district.”