Tweak to Sarasota County’s revised inlet management policy does not call for specific actions

County Commission generally sides with staff recommendation as it revises the Comprehensive Plan

Peter van Roekens. File photo
Peter van Roekens. File photo

On July 6, as the Sarasota County Commission was reviewing proposed changes to the county’s Comprehensive Plan, the leader of a nonprofit organization pointed to one significant omission in the Environmental System chapter of the 1,300-page document.

Sarasota County never completed a beach and inlet management strategy — including an assessment of the nature and extent of coastal erosion and monitoring of the effectiveness of beach restoration initiatives — in spite of the call for such an undertaking to be completed by 2015, Peter van Roekens, chair of Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2), told the board.

As a result, commissioners asked staff to consider a further revision of the new Environmental Policy 4.7.1.

Yet, after further public comments and discussion this week, the board made only one tweak to that policy before approving it unanimously. The commissioners chose not to require the assessment and monitoring. (See the related story in this issue.)

During the board’s Oct. 25 public hearing on the final draft of the Comprehensive Plan, Allen Parsons, the county’s Planning Division manager, referenced van Roekens’ July comments, noting that Environmental Policy 1.2.3 in the existing Comprehensive Plan, “calls for a very specific action to take place by 2015,” while Policy 4.7.1 “would not be as specific,” though it still is intended to achieve the same outcomes.

The new policy says, “The county shall manage its beaches and inlets in consideration of the following,” and then lists six points, including “Potential for regional coordination and cooperation” and “Management strategies for shoreline segments based on their erosion/accretion histories and trends.”

As recently as the previous day, Parsons continued, staff had met with representatives of the West Coast Inland Navigation District (WCIND) about that organization potentially fulfilling the role as the regional coordinating agency. Staff has further discussions planned, he added.

As its website explains, the WCIND “is a multi-county special taxing body, covering Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte, and Lee counties, encompassing an estimated 1.1 million people. The district plays a pivotal role in the waterway projects that promote safe navigation from the ‘Open Water’ of the Gulf of Mexico or the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) to the systems of secondary waterways and supports boating, fishing, and beach-oriented projects.”

The WCIND website features this among its banners. Image from the website
The WCIND website features this among its banners. Image from the website

Commissioner Christine Robinson told Parsons she understood the proposal regarding the district’s handling the regional coordination. “It’s a holistic approach with WCIND.”

Still, she said, the new policy says the county “shall manage its beaches and inlets …”

Then Matt Osterhoudt, interim director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, explained that the policy “doesn’t just apply to monitoring.” It would be applicable to a wide range of initiatives, he said, such as the South Siesta Key Renourishment Project completed in the spring, as well as an inlet monitoring plan.

“WCIND certainly was expressing interest in our preliminary meeting … yesterday,” Osterhoudt added. “We do think that this would work …”

Robinson pointed again to the wording, “The county shall,” saying, the policy is “not allowing us an option to do that.”

“I’m struggling with this a little bit,” she told Osterhoudt.

“I would agree,” Chair Al Maio said.

Referring to the new policy himself, Maio noted that the commissioners last week “just had a great … meeting” with the Charlotte County board. Perhaps the Sarasota County Commission should not limit the policy to jurisdictions, he continued. For example, the county has the potential to work with Mote Marine Laboratory and think tanks.

(From left) Commissioners Christine Robinson, Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo, Chair Al Maio and Commissioner Charles Hines listen to testimony on Oct. 25. Rachel Hackney photo
(From left) Commissioners Christine Robinson, Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo, Chair Al Maio and Commissioner Charles Hines listen to testimony on Oct. 25. Commissioner Carolyn Mason was absent from the chambers at the time. Rachel Hackney photo

Commissioner Charles Hines then pointed out that he sits on the WCIND board as the Sarasota County representative. If WCIND agrees to handle the management aspect of the policy, he told his colleagues, the county still would be overseeing the effort. “We’re going to do it one way or the other.” He did ask Osterhoudt for clarification, though, to ensure that his interpretation was correct.

“I think those are all valid points being brought up,” Osterhoudt replied.

Maio referred again to the current policy. (The new Comprehensive Plan will take effect 31 days from Oct. 25, Parsons explained, if none of the reviewing agencies challenges any aspect of the final changes.)

“What in [Environmental Policy] 1.2.3 isn’t reflected in the new, shorter version?” Maio asked. “At least I felt more comfortable with the old wording.”

Osterhoudt showed the board side-by-side comparisons of the current Policy 1.2.3 and the revised version, 4.7.1. The existing one focuses on creating a program, Osterhoudt explained, while the new version does not prescribe specific methods. “It still achieves the same objectives. As we look to manage all of our coastal communities, there’s going to be the opportunity for synergy.”

He added that the new policy “still captures the intent and spirit [of Policy 1.2.3]. … It just provides us more flexibility in how we go about doing it.”

“You make a good case,” Maio responded.

Matt Osterhoudt (left) speaks with Jono Miller before the hearing begins on Oct. 25. Rachel Hackney photo
Matt Osterhoudt (left) speaks with Jono Miller before the hearing begins on Oct. 25. Rachel Hackney photo

Opposing views, again

During the public comments portion of the Oct. 25 hearing, van Roekens again questioned the reason for replacing Policy 1.2.3 with the new language, “which has no measurable objectives or delivery dates.”

When the county Planning Commission members worked on the revised Comprehensive Plan, he continued, they spoke of the need for “clear statements.” Referring to Osterhoudt’s comments, van Roekens added that the new Policy 4.7.1 “is both more flexible and also less clear” in saying how the management of beaches and inlets will be handled. “There’s no way to tell if implementation has occurred or if the desired result has happened.”

He told the board that he understands how WCIND functions as a regional body, “but I think this [management] has to be a county responsibility. … To simply know there is a problem is very different from knowing how to fix it. … We should monitor the results and not the monitoring process.”

Jono Miller, the retired director of New College of Florida’s Environmental Studies Program — and an SOSS2 board member — concurred with van Roekens. If the county commissioners kept the original version of the policy, Miller said, “you have specific things that you or your successors can see whether they’re being done or not.”

Over the years, Miller continued, the county has lost one-fifth of its sandy beaches. They have “been replaced by rock,” he added. “We really need what was originally proposed [in Policy 1.2.3]. We need a plan and a monitoring system.” Miller reiterated his earlier point: “You guys need specific actions. This is critical stuff.”

A tweak

Staff showed the board the current (left) and proposed versions of the policy. Image courtesy Sarasota County
Staff showed the board the current (left) and proposed versions of the policy. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As they reached the end of the nearly four-and-a-half-hour-long public hearing, the commissioners again turned to the language of the current and proposed policies van Roekens and Miller had addressed.

Having worked with staff during the lunch break, Osterhoudt proposed two potential adjustments to the wording in the new policy. The first line could be changed to read one of two ways, he said, and then the first bullet point about management would be eliminated:

  • “Manage beaches and inlets in consideration of the following:”
  • “The county shall manage its beaches and inlets with potential regional coordination and cooperation with other jurisdictions or agencies in consideration of the following:”

“I like the second change,” Robinson said. “It’s explicit, what you’re allowed to do.”

“I agree,” Maio replied.

On a motion by Commissioner Hines, seconded by Robinson, the board unanimously approved the change.

In response to a question from The Sarasota News Leader, van Roekens — on behalf of SOSS2 — provided the following statement:

A boat makes its way through Big Pass. File photo
A boat makes its way through Big Pass. File photo

“The Environmental Policy 1.2.3 which had 12 measurable objectives and a delivery date has been replaced by a policy that has 6 statements that have no objective measurement criteria and no timeframe for implementation. This is in spite of the fact that the [Comprehensive] Plan policies are to identify specific courses of action, which need measures/benchmarks/dates to track progress.

“Now we have a proposal from the [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)] that will alter our inlet and affect our beaches,” he continued, referring to the $19-million joint proposal of the USACE and the City of Sarasota to dredge about 1.2 million cubic yards of sand from Big Sarasota Pass to renourish South Lido Key Beach.

That project has not undergone an Environmental Impact Study, van Roekens pointed out, though the County Commission in August requested one. County spokesman Jason Bartolone told the News Leader this week that the county still has not had a response from the USACE about its request for the Environmental Impact Statement.

Moreover, van Roekens noted, the project “is not based on the sort of data that could have been collected over the past many years. Instead, we are told to put our faith in models that have been shown to be either inappropriate or highly inaccurate.” He added, “The original [Save Our Siesta Sand organization] called for a study of the Siesta Key Closed Littoral Cell before any dredging disturbed it. Our previous Comp Plan called for the same thing but it was not done.

“Without measurable results and delivery dates in our Environmental Policies we are concerned that we will still not have the data in the next 10 years to make rational decisions about our beaches and inlets,” he wrote.

SOSS2 has been raising money for a potential court challenge if the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) issues a permit to the USACE and the City of Sarasota to undertake the Lido Renourishment Project. An FDEP decision on the permit is expected by Dec. 27.