Vice chair, who opposed initiative during subcommittee meeting, agrees with importance of reducing levels of nutrients entering city and county waterways
Following a May 25 presentation and public comments that took about 30 minutes, the Governing Board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) unanimously approved the addition of a Bobby Jones Golf Club water quality project to the District’s 2022 fiscal year Cooperative Funding Initiative grants list.
That means the City of Sarasota will receive $1,511,535 for construction of the 18-acre treatment wetlands system. The city’s overall cost is expected to be $3,023,070, SWFMD staff noted.
“We were very encouraged to see the governing board’s unanimous support of this project, which is critical to the environmental health of our region and our bay,” Sarasota City Manager Marlon Brown told The Sarasota News Leader in a statement. “We also appreciate the efforts by the staffs from SWFWMD, the City and our consultants, as well as the strong support of our community partners and members of the public who share the City’s commitment to water quality,” Brown added.
Although SWFWMD staff had rated the project application “High” in its rankings for the FY 2022 Cooperative Funding Initiative applications, two of the three members of the subcommittee that addressed such projects for SWFWMD’s Southern Region voted against funding the city project.
One of those members, Governing Board Vice Chair Joel Schleicher of Sarasota, had criticized the City Commission for pandemic-related financial decisions. Schleicher is one of three principals behind a website called BEST SRQ, for which he writes articles.
Following the April 8 subcommittee vote, the Governing Board agreed to reconsider the issue during its May 25 session, which was held in Tampa.
Randy Smith, chief of SWFWMD’s Natural Systems and Restoration Bureau, showed the Governing Board a graphic with the 5,800-acre contributing watershed north of the Bobby Jones Golf Club, noting that 85% of it is not in the City of Sarasota but, instead, within the unincorporated area of Sarasota County.
The proposal would remove nutrients from stormwater before that flows into Phillippi Creek and Roberts Bay, Smith added. The later water body is a tributary of Sarasota Bay, he pointed out.
“This is a regional project,” Smith emphasized, “and it’s a bit unique to have enough available land in a highly urbanized area that’s strategically located to provide these water quality benefits.”
An analysis has shown that the initiative would remove 906 pounds of nitrogen and 336 pounds of phosphorus each year from the stormwater. “These are very conservative nutrient reduction estimates,” he added.
Governing Board member Michelle Williamson, who represents Hillsborough County, questioned Smith about the percentages of those reductions, in terms of overall nutrient loading.
Although he replied that he did not have the exact figures, Smith told her that, generally, the anticipated reduction would be in the range of 40% to 50%.
The project is consistent with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Executive Order 19-12, Smith noted; that calls for the prioritization of funding for reductions in the amount of nutrients going into water bodies. (DeSantis signed the order in January 2019, when a red tide bloom that appeared in the fall of 2017 was lingering along the Southwest Florida coast.)
The City of Sarasota completed the design of the project in December 2020, Smith told the Governing Board; permitting for it is underway. The goal is to begin construction in November, according to a slide that Smith presented.
Then, announcing that he had new information that was not presented to the subcommittee in April, Smith explained, “Sarasota County has a vested interest in the successful implementation of this project.” Ultimately, he pointed out, the initiative would benefit Sarasota Bay.
“The county has coordinated very closely with the city on this project for approximately two years,” he continued. County staff members reviewed the design work as it was underway and provided comments on it, Smith added.
Further, he noted, on May 18, the County Commission voted unanimously in support of the project.
“The city will be able to leverage the county’s vast expertise in implementing large-scale stormwater projects,” Smith pointed out.
“The county will provide long-term maintenance for this project,” he also noted, as the city and county already have an interlocal agreement in place for the county to manage the city’s stormwater.
What happened on April 8?
Following Smith’s remarks, Governing Board member Michelle Williamson of Hillsborough County asked why the subcommittee voted 2-1 to oppose inclusion of the project in the 2022 list for cooperative funding.
Vice Chair Schleicher told her, “We have to look at our comfort with the cost estimates and our comfort with the timing estimates … and then we have to look at certain aspects of the project.”
Schleicher asked Smith to explain “what exactly has changed from the [earlier presentation].”
Although the county staff had been partnering with the city staff all along in the planning for the initiative, Smith responded, “We did not provide that level of detail to the subcommittee [in April].”
“We were told afterwards that the county was a big supporter of this,” Schleicher told Williamson, referring to the April meeting. “There was nobody from the county [who spoke at the subcommittee session].”
“As of today,” Schleicher continued, “it’s more of a regional solution as opposed to just a city solution.” He added that he believed the subcommittee “made the proper decision” in April. However, he said, given the new information on May 25, “I think [the project] should be approved as opposed to not being approved.”
He still had concerns, he added, that the treated water would flow into Phillippi Creek “and then it gets polluted again. That hasn’t been addressed.”
(In an April 28 letter, following a meeting Schleicher had with Mayor Hagen Brody and City Manager Brown, Brody wrote Schleicher, “According to Sarasota County since 2001, their Phillippi Creek Septic System Replacement Program has invested over $114 [million] to replace substandard and failing septic systems with central sewers. As a result approximately 10,000 septic tanks within Phillippi Creek’s watershed area have been replaced. That effort is ongoing.”)
“To take the nutrients out makes a lot of sense,” Schleicher said of the Bobby Jones initiative during the Governing Board discussion.
“I would support the project,” he added, based on the new information about the county’s involvement.
Following questions, Rebecca Smith, who represents Hillsborough and Pinellas counties on the Governing Board, made a motion to include the City of Sarasota project in the Cooperative Funding Initiative list for 2022, and she won a second.
However, Governing Board member Seth Weightman of Pasco County pointed out that several speakers were awaiting the opportunity to provide public comments about the initiative.
Abundant support from the public
Among the speakers, Jon Thaxton, senior vice president of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation in Venice, and a former Sarasota County commissioner, told the board members, “Threats in the bay, such as nutrients like nitrogen … are on the increase, and seagrass is on the decrease. The overall result in Roberts Bay is a declining water quality.”
Nutrient-rich stormwater runoff has been identified, he said, as the principal cause of pollution in the Phillippi Creek watershed.
He noted that the Foundation has released a Community Playbook for Healthy Waterways — with SWFWMD cooperation, he added. The Playbook offers “43 key activities” to improve water quality. Thaxton called the Bobby Jones project “a brilliant example of one such restoration activity.”
Lou Costa, president of the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations in Sarasota, told the Governing Board members, “Eliminating red tide is a top priority.” (Scientists have identified both nitrogen and phosphorus as primary food for the red tide algae,Karenia brevis.) Thus, Costa added, the 31 CCNA neighborhood groups support the city’s request for the SWFWMD grant.
Kafi Benz, president of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA), also offered her organization’s full support.
Moreover, Christine Johnson, president of the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, based in Osprey, talked of her organization’s negotiations with city leaders in an effort to place a conservation easement over the Bobby Jones Golf Club property. (That easement, the Foundation explains on its website, “will ensure the property is never developed, reduced in size or degraded.” In February 2020, the city commissioners agreed to a scenario with 27 holes of golf and 130 acres for nature-based recreation, including walking trails, with the created wetlands and pine uplands.)
“We anticipate helping with capital costs to improve this land even more,” Johnson added.
Finally, Norman Dumaine of Sarasota, who noted that he lives “in one of the communities/neighborhoods that surrounds Bobby Jones,” talked of residents’ desire for increased wildlife habitat, protection of trees and enhanced recreational opportunities on the golf club property.
“Nearly 2,500 residents in this area will be able to walk or bike within 10 minutes to this new parkland,” he pointed out.
Of those residents, he continued, 34% “living nearby have an income of less than $35,000”; half are under the age of 20; the other half, 65 and older.
This is an area of the city, he emphasized, with “very limited access to recreational facilities.”
Altogether, eight people voiced support for the project. Additionally, Sarasota Mayor Brody, Vice Mayor Erik Arroyo and City Manager Brown were in the audience, along with Spencer Anderson, director of the Sarasota County Public Works Department.
At the conclusion of the public comments, Governing Board member Smith restated her motion, making it clear that the city project funding would be for 2022. “What a beautiful and rich conversation we’ve had,” she said.
Governing Board member Ashley Bell Barnett of Polk County seconded the motion, and it passed with no further discussion.