Joint initiative with Charlotte County expected to get underway in January
Twenty-three private property owners on Sarasota County’s side of Manasota Key have refused to allow the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to take a step that necessary for renourishment of the beach in front of their homes, the Sarasota County Commission learned this week.
As a result, in an effort to continue a partnership it began in 2016 with the Charlotte County Commission, the Sarasota county board members voted unanimously on Nov. 19 to authorize staff to proceed with plans for a shoreline stabilization project that will encompass Sarasota County’s Blind Pass Beach Park, six privately owned parcels to the north of the park and 24 privately owned parcels to the south of the area where the 23 unwilling participants live.
“This is how bizarre and — I’m sorry — selfish this situation [is that] has occurred,” Chair Charles Hines said.
While the northern part of the initiative still will be eligible for Tourist Development Tax (TDT) revenue, the southern segment will not, Rachel Herman, manager of the county’s Environmental Protection Division, explained to the Sarasota County board on Nov. 19.
However, she said, the renourishment in that southernmost section of the project still would be eligible for state grant support.
Still, she made clear to the commissioners, the owners of the 24 southernmost parcels likely would have to shoulder almost twice as much of the expense as originally planned through a Municipal Service Benefit Unit (MSBU) assessment. Even if that ultimately is how all the project funding is covered, Herman said, county staff would have to find revenue to pay for project costs upfront. That is because the MSBU assessments are spread over a seven-year period, she noted.
The revised total for Sarasota County’s portion of the project, would be $7,638,435, Herman showed the board. The expense for the southern portion of the Sarasota County initiative would be $3,472,016, or 45.45% of the overall expense, according to another slide.
Turning to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, Hines said, “You’re going to have to do some magic here, my friend.”
Lewis already was planning to attend an upcoming meeting of the Florida Association of Counties with Hines and Detert, Hines added. He encouraged Lewis to spend part of his time during that conference trying to determine other potential revenue sources, including, perhaps, funds allocated to the state through the BP settlement following the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
During her Nov. 19 presentation, Herman stressed the short time frame in which the board needed to make a decision about how to proceed. Charlotte County opened bids for the joint project on Nov. 26, she said, and its staff planned to issue a Notice to Proceed to the contractor no later than Dec. 16, in an effort to complete the Manasota Key initiative for both counties before sea turtle nesting season begins again officially on May 1, 2020.
If the counties encounter any problems with getting a modified FDEP permit to include the six properties north of Blind Pass Beach Park — as they were not included in the design of the project encompassed by the original permit FDEP has issued — or if the contractor has to deal with delays because of bad weather, Herman said, then it would be necessary to work with wildlife agencies for enhanced monitoring after May 1, 2020. That also would increase the overall expense, Herman noted.
Under the terms of an interlocal agreement the Sarasota County Commission approved with Charlotte for the project, Sarasota County is responsible for part of the mobilization expense for the contractor.
The low bid for the whole undertaking, Herman noted, was $30,451,850.
(Early this year, the consultant who has worked with both counties on the project — Michael T. Poff of Coastal Engineering Consultants of Naples — estimated the total expense for Sarasota County and Charlotte County would be between approximately $35 million and $37.6 million, with the state picking up about 35% of that through its beach renourishment grants program.)
A number of the 12 people who addressed the Sarasota County commissioners on Nov. 19 implored them to stay on track with the project.
Two-and-a-half years ago, Stephanie Weisband said, she moved to a section of Manasota Key with less erosion because, at her previous residence, the Gulf of Mexico “was a scant 35 feet from my door.” Before the move, she seemed to spend all her time, she added, with a wheelbarrow and sandbags, trying to prevent damage to her property.
“We are in the danger zone,” Mark Stoker said. “My house is 2 feet from having my foundation underwashed.”
“We have been flooded out several times,” Gay Walker told the board.
The road is going to wash out, she added. “We need this. … The sand washes away, but it never comes back.”
Reaching this point
At the outset of her Nov. 19 remarks, Herman explained that problems had arisen during an Oct. 9 public workshop conducted on the Manasota Key project. Almost all the property owners in the section of Manasota Key to the immediate south of Blind Pass Beach Park objected to the establishment of what is called the Erosion Control Line. That process, she said, is led by FDEP. The Erosion Control Line (ECL) establishes the limits between private beachfront and the state’s portion of the beach, where new sand will be placed.
Those property owners were concerned about losing private beach to the state, she pointed out.
To the north of Blind Pass Beach Park — in a section where the Sarasota County board members had talked of extending the renourishment area even further — three property owners objected, Herman noted. They all have rock revetments in front of their parcels, she said, to try to prevent erosion.
(One Manasota Key resident present for the discussion, Charles Miller, explained later that those property owners already had worked with an engineer to refurbish the revetments; therefore, they did not want to incur that expense plus the MSBU assessments tied to beach renourishment.)
Because the 23 private property owners objected to the ECL, Herman continued, FDEP staff had indicated it would not establish the ECL in front of those homes.
When Commissioner Christian Ziegler asked whether the commissioners had any recourse to change FDEP staff’s decision, Assistant County Attorney David Pearce explained that the commissioners would have to petition for a rule-making process, but he was doubtful that that could be pursued on a timeline compatible with the Charlotte County’s project schedule.
In response to further questioning by Ziegler, Pearce said that, typically, a hearing officer makes a recommendation on an ECL situation to the FDEP secretary, and then the latter “signs off on it.”
Pearce added that if a person were to challenge the establishment of an ECL, then that issue would be heard by a judge with the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH), with the FDEP secretary issuing the final determination, based on the judge’s recommendation.
Before an ECL can be recorded, Pearce continued, the governor and the Cabinet must approve it.
“Is it fair to say that the aggressive pushback by homeowners is what really pushed the hearing officer to say, ‘No’ [about the ECL]?” Commissioner Alan Maio asked.
“Yes,” Herman replied. The hearing officer, she added, had told county staff “this amount of objection is not typical.”
When Maio sought clarification that the objectors were focused on a desire to keep the public from walking on what they considered their beach, Herman told him that that was part of the reason for the opposition.
The easement issue
A related cause for concern, Herman explained to the board members, has been the ongoing effort of staff to obtain temporary construction easements for the placement of the new sand on private property.
She showed the commissioners a slide depicting parcels whose owners had refused to grant such easements; those where easements had been granted; those where easements had been granted and then revoked; and those parcels with owners from whom staff had been unable to obtain a response.
Then she explained that it is possible for the contractor to work around the lines of property owners who decline to provide the easements. She showed the commissioners examples of such situations — one in the Palm Beach area; the other, in Fort Myers.
Herman also noted that people could provide the easements right up until the time the contractor was ready to move beyond their property line.
“Have you shown these residents these photos?” Commissioner Ziegler asked.
“This is the first time,” she replied, that she had been able to make the situation known, in a public setting, to the property owners on Manasota Key.
“Frankly, those pictures you showed are just ridiculous,” Hines said. The property owners who have not signed the easement agreements need to see them, he added.
Herman did point out that during the last South Siesta Key Renourishment Project, people who had not granted temporary construction easements sought out county employees monitoring that initiative as it was underway, so the owners could sign the easement forms. Eventually, she said, all of those property owners who had not done so before the project began did so before it was too late.
Then, referencing a comment Herman had made earlier, Commissioner Maio asked, “If we skip these folks … it could exacerbate and quicken the erosion?”
Herman responded that perhaps the erosion rate would not quicken, but “more sand in the system is a good thing.” Given the existence of gaps where the beach has not been renourished, she said, the overall project likely would not perform as well. She used the term “reduced functionality.”
“The answer [to Maio’s question] is ‘Yes,’” Hines said.
Objections on an environmental basis
Based on comments by some of the 12 speakers who addressed the board on Nov. 19, environmental concerns also were a reason for their objection to participating in the project.
Patricia Cummings, who lives in the 8000 block of Manasota Key Road, said she has lived on the barrier island for 14 years.
The key has a natural beach, she pointed out. The beach erodes and accretes in cycles. “[It] nourishes itself.”
She objects to the renourishment initiative for a number of reasons, she continued, including concern about “loss of littoral water rights,” including unobstructed views of the Gulf of Mexico.
Among her other concerns, she said, is a “loss of privacy [and] serenity.”
Joel Mahr of the 6600 block of Manasota Key Road told the commissioners he has lived on the island for 36 years. “I walk that beach every morning and every night. … We don’t need sand there.”
The beach is wider than it was in 1993, when the so-called “No-Name Storm” caused significant erosion, Mahr continued. “I implore you: Don’t try to force something down our throats that’s not necessary.”