Public hearing to be scheduled on amendments to Sarasota County Code to help homeowners threatened with loss of property because of shoreline erosion

Commissioner Hines asks staff to conduct more outreach first with residential associations, especially on Manasota and Casey keys

In October 2019, a county employee stands in front of a house on the eroded Manasota Key Beach. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Praising the efforts of Sarasota County’s Environmental Protection staff and the Office of the County Attorney, the County Commission has authorized a public hearing on potential changes to the County Code to allow for more flexibility in protecting private property threatened by shoreline erosion.

After another discussion of the issue on Sept. 22, Commissioner Charles Hines made the motion that won unanimous approval. He also asked that County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht ensure that the necessary public notice of the hearing be broad enough to allow for more potential tweaks of the County Code during that hearing than those staff has recommended.

Elbrecht responded that he understood Hines’ direction.

On Sept. 22, Rachel Herman, manager of the Environmental Protection Division, provided a summary of staff efforts since early July to figuratively pave the way for that hearing. She and her colleagues had conducted “listening sessions,” she said, with directors of the residential organizations on the barrier islands — the Manasota Key, North Manasota Key, Casey Key, North Casey Key and Siesta Key associations — to learn of specific requests their members had for amendments to the County Code.

However, during the Open to the Public comment period that afternoon, Jackie Ruthman, president of the Manasota Key Association (MKA), told the commissioners that while that nonprofit “applauds the efforts of county staff” for engaging with the barrier island groups, “We have not had sufficient time to fully evaluate all the staff comments” on a “white paper” that an attorney wrote for the MKA and provided to staff in the spring.

Jackie Ruthman addresses the County Commission on Nov. 19, 2019. News Leader image

“We’d like some extra time,” Ruthman added, “to consider these important issues.”

As a result of Ruthman’s remarks, Hines asked that staff talk further with representatives of the barrier island associations — especially those on Manasota and Casey keys — before the public hearing on changes to the County Code. Then, he added, the commissioners “can vote on the language that we want.”

Hines did add of the staff recommendations for the Code amendments, “They make absolute sense.”

Nonetheless, he continued, the possibility exists that, following those additional exchanges with the associations, plus board discussion during the hearing, the commissioners “could go farther than our staff recommendations …”

During her Sept. 22 presentation, Herman of Environmental Protection noted that, on April 13, the Manasota Key Association provided the commission recommendations related to shoreline hardening. Those were prepared by attorney David Levin of the Icard Merrill firm in Sarasota.

Over the past several years — prior to completion of a county beach renourishment project on Manasota Key in early spring — residents of that island had pleaded with the board members for help. Severe erosion on parts of that Key was threatening their homes, they stressed.

During its outreach to the other associations, Herman told the board on Sept. 22, staff learned that members of the Casey Key Association are working on a beach ecosystem preservation report for that barrier island. The results of that initiative, she added, are expected to be available “later this year.”

Then, in discussing county coastal policies, Herman pointed out that beach restoration/nourishment is the preferred county option. The reason, she said, is that it maintains the natural shoreline and provides both storm protection and recreational benefits to the property owners and the general public.

Among the alternatives, she noted, are use of sandbags and hardening structures, such as seawalls and bulkheads.

Staff provided reports to the commissioners on its engagement with each of the barrier island organizations, she noted.

These are recommendations from the Mansota Key Association for improving the County Code section regarding shoreline protection. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As a result of the discussions with the groups, Herman said, staff found several consistent themes. Among those were “a desire for clear acknowledgement for protecting private property rights” and greater clarity in the Code in regard to when Class I Emergency Variances could be issued, so homeowners could use sandbags and the oversize TrapBags to protect property at risk of collapse because of erosion.

Changes proposed for one section of the County Code, as shown on a slide Herman presented to the board, called for the administrative granting of a Class I Emergency Variance after consideration of whether an emergency exists. The amendment says the “Code Administrator shall utilize best professional judgement taking the following factors into consideration:

  • “a. Whether primary structures, swimming pools, septic systems, roads or public facilities have been damaged or destroyed;
  • “b. Whether primary structures, swimming pools, septic systems, roads or other public facilities are directly and immediately threatened due to proximity to the mean high water line;
  • “c. The historic erosion trends;
  • “d. The rate of change in erosion;
  • “e. Other site-specific conditions, including but not limited to the presence of beach stabilizing vegetation, the height and configuration of the eroded bluff, the distance of structures from the eroding bluff, the potential for adverse impacts to neighboring properties, the elevation and slope of the beach;
  • “f. Opportunity for alternatives, such as sand placement or dune restoration.”

The amendment would eliminate the following language included with that last clause: “caused by recent calamitous occurrences such as, but not limited to, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, or high winds where buildings, swimming pools, roads, or public facilities have been damaged or destroyed, or are directly and immediately anticipated to be threatened.”

Another change calls for clarification that any proposed shore protection structure would not adversely impede lateral public pedestrian access to the beach.

Rachel Herman listens to a question on Sept. 22. News Leader image

A further recommended modification of the Class I Emergency Variance section of the County Code calls for any proposed shoreline protection structure to be approved “when the [commission] determines that [the structure] is necessary to protect property rights.”

Herman pointed out that the commissioners already have been considering factors that staff has proposed for the revision. “This just illuminates them and iterates them more clearly.”

Reaching this point and going forward

Following Herman’s presentation, Commissioner Hines said, “It’s been very difficult to get to today.” Yet, staff and the board members, he added, have to “face the reality of what’s happening along our coastal systems.”

Hines said that in “no way” does he believe the board members — or residents — are advocating for shoreline hardening. “But if it’s an alternative in our codes, it has to be a real alternative. It may be the last means to protect your homes.”

While the commissioners would prefer beach renourishment, Hines continued, that is “very difficult and expensive.” He added that he hopes that process will become easier “in the next decade or so.”

Hines then singled out Herman and Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, for their work in response to the commission’s call to address the barrier island groups’ concerns. “This is probably two years’ worth of work,” he added, “but it was definitely needed.”

After Hines made his motion, Commissioner Nancy Detert seconded it. “Our staff are well qualified,” she said, “to deal with environmental issues.” Detert added that the commissioners look to the staff members “to protect our natural resources. … No one owns the natural resources.”

Detert also referenced Hines’ years of working on the issues, especially in meetings with Manasota Key residents. She was happy, Detert said, that the changes to the County Code would be considered before Hines steps down from the board in November because of term limits.