South Siesta project involving mangrove habitat wins County Commission approval on 4-1 vote

Commissioner Smith cites county Comprehensive Plan policy and past owners’ actions that led to area’s degradation

This graphic shows the existing conditions on the landowners’ property on south Siesta Key. Image courtesy Sarasota County

With Commissioner Mark Smith in the minority, the Sarasota County Commission last week approved a project at 1245 Sea Plume Way on south Siesta Key that includes the construction of about 307 linear feet of a vinyl seawall/retaining wall landward of the Mean High Water Line and using approximately 150 cubic yards of fill in about 2,024 square feet of mangrove habitat.

As the county staff report explained, approximately 1,833 square feet of area north of a walkway to the owners’ dock “will be enhanced with hydrologic improvements and mangrove plantings …”

Formally, the owners of the parcel — and an adjacent one at 6841 Peacock Road — are the Geoffrey Raker Trust and the Jill C. Raker Trust, which purchased the property on Nov. 14, 2019.

John McKenna of Florida Permitting in Palmetto, who served as the environmental consultant for the project, used graphics during the commission’s regular meeting on Sept. 27 to explain that an approximately 0.7-acre portion of the Sea Plume Way site “historically … was a mangrove system.” However, he added, previous owners of the property cleared that area — in the 1990s, he believes. Since then, McKenna continued, that portion of the parcel “has shown little regrowth.”

The southern part of the site has “a sand pit with some dried-up algal mats,” while the northern end has two or three “very low-quality black mangroves” and seedlings.

“The [mangrove] system itself is isolated from [Little Sarasota Bay],” he explained. An old rock retaining wall exists adjacent to the boat basin on the bay, he added. The plans call for removing the existing walkway and filling in about 0.4 acres, so the owners can “gain some usable yard area” and perhaps construct a pool, he told the commissioners.

This graphic shows details of the planned initiative. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Over the past two years, McKenna continued, he talked multiple times with Howard Berna, manager of the county’s Environmental Permitting Division, to try to design the project to minimize the impacts on the existing mangroves on the shoreline. The proposal before the board that day would include the planning of 20 new mangroves and the construction of an 8-inch hydration pipe to restore a connection to Little Sarasota Bay, to provide tidal flushing to benefit the present and proposed new mangroves.

The new mangroves “will be monitored and maintained over the next three to five years,” McKenna noted.

As he has a background in marine biology, McKenna added, “I myself try to avoid projects where we’re removing mangroves. It’s a personal choice.”

In this case, he said, “It is our opinion that we would actually be enhancing the function of this area …”

Chair Ron Cutsinger asked whether McKenna had considered using a swale instead of the pipe. Acknowledging, “I’m not an engineer,” Cutsinger nonetheless indicated familiarity with such pipes, indicating they have been proven to be problematic from a maintenance standpoint.

“We did consider a couple of different options,” McKenna responded. As a result of his collaboration with Berna, he added, he believes the pipe “is the best solution we could find.” An open swale in that area, McKenna noted, likely would create more erosion and have a greater negative impact on the existing mangroves.

Berna of Environmental Permitting confirmed that during his remarks to the board. Nonetheless, Berna said, “There is a degree of uncertainty about how effective that pipe will be.”

“I just can’t imagine this [pipe] isn’t going to get clogged up and be a problem for maintenance,” Cutsinger told McKenna.

Warning of a ‘dangerous precedent’

Following McKenna at the podium, Berna showed the commissioners a series of slides, so they could see the proposed project area. A shell berm that previous owners created south of the walkway to the boat dock “impacted the hydration of this mangrove swamp area.”

He added, “What you see is not a lot of mangroves today.” Small clusters exist, Berna noted, but “the lack of tidal flushing” has led to the degradation of that portion of the parcel.

These county staff photos show the area of the property where the mitigation is planned. The shell berm is visible in both photos. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Further, Berna showed the board members two slides referencing policies — including several in the county’s Comprehensive Plan —regarding protections for mangroves.

Among those is Environmental Policy 1.3.9, which says, “County shall protect mangroves to the fullest extent allowed by county and State law.” Yet other policies called for previously cleared mangrove swamps to be restored.

No member of the public had signed up to speak on the proposal, Cutsinger noted, and Berna reported that he had not received any correspondence on it since the agenda packet was published the previous week.

After closing the hearing, Commissioner Smith told his colleagues, “I do believe that this project is inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan. … I also think … that we’re rewarding bad behavior.” He was referring to the removal of mangroves years ago so prior owners of the site could construct the shell berm. That work, Smith pointed out, “dried up the uplands.”

He added that he believes that if the commissioners were to approve the project, that would set “a dangerous precedent,” encouraging other landowners to propose similar plans to expand their yards for pools.

“Commissioner Smith, I get it,” Commissioner Mike Moran responded. However, Moran continued, the board members do have “the power and authority and discretion” to approve such initiatives as the one proposed.

This slide shows the area, outlined in blue, where the project will take place. The shell berm is visible just behind the shoreline mangroves in the second, close-up graphic. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Moran said he believes the proposed mitigation will be sufficient, and he cited “common sense” as a factor supporting that viewpoint, given the plans to try to restore the connection to the bay. “It’ll probably be beautiful when it’s done,” he added of the work.

Moran made the motion to approve the project.

In seconding the motion, Commissioner Neil Rainford added, “I think it’s definitely a unique parcel.” He noted the appearance of a “very low volume of [mangrove] habitat” at present.

Nonetheless, Rainford concurred with Cutsinger in worrying about the effectiveness of the hydration pipe.

Cutsinger told Smith that the Comprehensive Plan policies discouraging the filling in of mangrove habitats was also one of his concerns. However, Cutsinger continued, “Whatever was done here was done many years ago,” so he saw no reason to punish the current owners.

When Cutsinger called for the vote, the motion passed 4-1.