Replacement wall at the Sandcastle Resort wins Sarasota City Commission approval on 3-1 vote

State environmental protection staff suggested that one section be moved out 68 feet, to prevent potential for worse property damage from storm surge

A graphic shows the plan for the new wall at the Sandcastle Resort on Lido Key. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Sarasota Vice Mayor Liz Alpert cast the deciding vote this week as the City Commission approved a special permit for a “beach protection device” — or wall — to replace an aging structure at the Sandcastle Resort at Lido Key.

The property is located at 1540 Benjamin Franklin Drive.

Alpert questioned the project team about whether other means — such as building up the dunes and increasing the vegetation —might serve the property better. Yet, she finally concurred with Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie and Commissioner Hagen Brody that the team provided sufficient evidence to show the project would meet the three criteria necessary for the city permit.

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch voted against the proposal after peppering city staff members and the project team with questions about the potential both for harm to nesting sea turtles and increasing erosion at the properties adjacent to the Sandcastle.

Commissioner Willie Shaw was absent because he was not feeling well, Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown announced.

The request before the board was for a new 665-foot-long beach protective device in the same location as the majority of the decades-old wall on the property, according to documentation provided to the commissioners in advance of the meeting. One segment of the structure, which curves further inland from the beachfront, will be moved out about 68 feet, so the wall will run in a straight line.

(From left) Mark Walsh of Lido Sand LLC, Kristy Tignor of The Tignor Group, Bruce Franklin of Land Resource Strategies and attorney John Patterson address the City Commission on Nov. 6. News Leader photo

Kristy Tignor, a coastal engineer who is vice president of The Tignor Group in Sarasota, explained that staff of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) suggested the replacement wall follow as straight a line as possible. The bends in the current wall, she added, increase the potential for storm surge wave action to scour the structures on the property, FDEP staff members told her. “We were encouraged by the DEP to make that a smooth, continuous wall structure.”

John Stephenson, a resident of the adjacent Lido Regency condominium complex, told the board members he considered the extension of that middle section of the wall to be an example of “resort creep,” because it would be pushing the property boundaries “and using absolutely as much land as [the Sandcastle complex] can.”

However, city Chief Planner Lucia Panica told the board that the wall, as proposed, is “not really extending the permitted footprint” of the Sandcastle property.

In regard to questions about the possibility that the replacement structure will cause problems for nesting sea turtles, John Patterson, a partner with the Sarasota law firm Shutts & Bowen, and Tignor both explained that the project also will have to win FDEP approval; the team already has been in contact with representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which must sign off on the project, too, before the state permit can be granted. Both of those agencies will consider sea turtle nesting in their reviews, Patterson and Tignor said.

Further, Patterson reiterated several times during the approximately two-hour-and-15-minute discussion that the new structure is not a seawall, as it will be from 125 to 173 feet inland from the Mean High Water Line (MHWL) on Lido Key Beach. The wall “is your last barrier to prevent irreparable damage to the buildings themselves” during a catastrophic storm event, he pointed out.

An aerial map shows the location of the Sandcastle and adjacent properties on South Lido Key. Image from Google Maps

In keeping with city sustainability policy, Tignor noted, the wall also is expected to be at least 110 feet from the MHWL if the sea level rises as much as anticipated in this area within the next 50 years.

Tignor pointed out that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projection for sea level rise on that beach is 1.44 feet within that timeline.

At the outset of the discussion, City Attorney Robert Fournier explained that to win approval of the city permit, the application from Lido Sand LLC, owner of the Sandcastle, had to meet three criteria:

  • The project is necessary to prevent erosion.
  • The wall has been designed properly to prevent erosion on the property where it will be erected.
  • The wall will not adversely affect adjacent and nearby properties.

Panica told the commissioners that, after review, staff believes the project does satisfy those stipulations.

Furthermore, Tim Litchet, director of the city’s Neighborhood and Development Services Department, refuted the assertion of Jono Miller, the retired director of the Environmental Studies Program at New College, that the wall violates city policy prohibiting the construction of new artificial shoreline hardening structures except in emergency situations. Litchet and Panica both pointed to the fact that the wall is a replacement structure.

“To me, they clearly have met the criteria [Fournier outlined],” Commissioner Brody told his colleagues as discussion ensued after the presentation, public comments and rebuttal in the quasi-judicial hearing. If the commission denied the permit, Brody indicated that he felt Lido Sand would have grounds for filing an appeal with the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in an effort to overturn the decision. The board vote had to be based on the evidence, Brody stressed. “To me, it’s frustrating that we’re not taking that more seriously and trying to define our role here …”

Vice Mayor Alpert took issue with Brody’s comments. “I am fully aware of what a quasi-judicial hearing is.”

However, she continued, the city ordinance applicable to the situation also says the project has to comply with certain facets of the Florida Statutes. Therefore, she said, exploring options for preventing erosion of the Sandcastle property without allowing a new wall to be built “is not outside the scope of a quasi-judicial hearing in this context.”

Fournier concurred that the statute Alpert referenced did apply to this situation, but he added that he did not think it gave the board authority to go beyond consideration of the three criteria he had specified.

A graphic created by Jono Miller shows the developments on Lido Key seaward of the 1948 vegetation line. Image courtesy Jono Miller

The project will have to comply with that state statute, Patterson pointed out, or it will not receive the necessary FDEP permit. If the team does win state approval, he added, then it will have to come back to city staff for a construction permit.

Mayor Freeland Eddie finally made the motion to approve the plan for the replacement wall, and Brody seconded it.

Freeland Eddie said she felt Tignor had the qualifications to back up the testimony she had given the board, and the current wall’s deterioration could lead to damage to the Sandcastle property.

Moreover, Freeland Eddie noted, the project team will have to have state and federal approval to move forward.

“I don’t feel comfortable that the criteria has been totally met,” Alpert responded, but she said she felt Lido Sand would prevail in court if the commission denied the permit.

Freeland Eddie, Brody and Alpert all are attorneys.

The basis for the request

Bruce Franklin of Land Resource Strategies explained to the commissioners that the best determination the project team could make was that the existing wall was built in the 1950s or ’60s. “It’s not documented.” The Sandcastle itself was constructed in the 1950s, he added. In fact, he said, he had been told it is one of the oldest beachfront hotels in the state.

“The rate of failure of these walls is accelerating in our area,” Tignor pointed out. That is partially a result of the porous concrete used in them, she said; the aggregate in modern walls is stronger. Additionally, she noted, “the design standards have changed.”

The replacement wall, Tignor continued, would be a state-of-the-art structure.

Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie. News Leader photo

When Freeland Eddie asked how tall the new wall would be, Franklin told her 1.8 feet above ground level. It will be about a foot lower than the existing structure, Tignor pointed out.

No changes in the alignment of the wall in regard to the southern and northern boundaries of the property are planned, Tignor added, so the neighbors of the Sandcastle should see no impacts from the new structure.

“Is there a better way to do this?” Alpert asked, adding that she felt the structure would exacerbate the erosion problems on Lido Key Beach.

“We care very much what happens on the seaward side,” Franklin told Alpert, referring to the city’s proposed $21-million Lido Renourishment Project, which would add sand to about 1.6 miles of the beach. (See the related story in this issue.)

This wall, Franklin explained, is designed to protect the foundations of the buildings on the Sandcastle property. Pilings will go down 14 to 15 feet, with the wall on top, he noted.

“It’s best described as an insurance policy,” Patterson said. “It’s not going to have any effect on beachfront erosion.”

Patterson also explained that, under state law, Lido Sand owns the beach property to the MHWL, but the public has a right to traverse the white sandy beach.

More questions and answers

During the staff presentation, the city’s Sustainability Division manager, Stevie Freeman-Montes, voiced concerns that the wall might impede sand accretion that would lead to higher dunes in the area, and she said she was uncertain whether nesting sea turtles might encounter problems with the structure. “It prevents habitat, potentially.”

That prompted the assurances from the project team members during their rebuttal that FDEP would consider any effects on sea turtles before the state issued its permit for the project.

Of the six members of the public who addressed the board during the hearing, only Carl Shoffstall, president of the Lido Key Residents Association, voiced support for the project.

“It’s protecting the upland structures,” he said of the wall.

During his remarks, Jono Miller showed the board graphics to illustrate the fact that a number of buildings on south Lido were constructed seaward of the 1948 vegetation line on the island; the Sandcastle is among them.

A graphic included with the application for the permit shows details of the Sandcastle property and the proposed project. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“The City of Sarasota needs to be making a very slow, very deliberate U-turn in relation to development on Lido Key,” Miller said. “You have a chance today to start making that slow turn.”

As the board members discussed the issues, Freeland Eddie indicated that the construction of the new wall to protect private property is action that the city encourages.

“I think this is definitely on the spectrum of options,” Freeman-Montes responded.

Still, she had not seen evidence that the wall would survive the projected 50-year sea level rise, Freeman-Montes added.

“But you don’t know that it [will not]?” Freeland Eddie asked.

“Correct,” Freeman-Montes replied.

In response to a question from Alpert, Tignor said, “We do not feel that there is a better alternative.”