Workshop planned in late September for county commissioners to debate staff recommendations and proposals from barrier island associations regarding shoreline hardening

At board’s urging, county administrator says ‘listening sessions’ first will be conducted with representatives of organizations on Manasota, Casey and Siesta keys

A graphic shows areas where beach renourishment has taken place in Southwest Florida, including Sarasota County. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On May 5, Sarasota County Commissioner Charles Hines renewed a suggestion he offered last year: He and his colleagues need to engage in an in-depth discussion about whether to amend county policies and regulations regarding shoreline hardening.

The impetus for his proposal has been the threat that worsening erosion on the county’s barrier islands could result in homes collapsing into the Gulf of Mexico. He and his fellow commissioners saw plenty of photos of structures needing sandbag protection on Manasota Key before the county completed a beach renourishment project on that barrier island this spring, as he pointed out on July 8. Hines also has toured the Manasota Key shoreline numerous times, he and Commissioner Alan Maio have noted.

In May, Hines asked County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to direct staff to undertake research and then issue a report on how the county’s environmental regulations match those of the state, and, especially, whether the county measures exceed state requirements.

Staff completed that report on June 2; Rachel Herman, manager of the county’s Environmental Protection Division, reviewed the findings for the board on July 8.

Hines voiced more frustration, though, after that presentation. He stressed his belief that the commission ideally needs side-by-side documents, showing staff’s positions on specific regulations and the views of the members of the barrier islands’ homeowner associations on those same regulations.

Then, Hines pointed out, he and his colleagues could debate potential changes in county policies and requirements.

A public hearing should be conducted, Hines said, during which property owners could offer their views and then the board members could make their decisions.

“I don’t like beach hardening at all,” Hines emphasized. “But right now, for somebody to do it, it’s pretty difficult, and we need to have that policy decision on this board.”

This is a home threatened by erosion on Manasota Key Beach. Image courtesy Sarasota County
This is the same home with TrapBags installed after the owner received a Class I Emergency Variance from the county. Image courtesy Sarasota County
This is the home after the beach renourishment project was completed on Manasota Key in April. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Staff has reiterated that it prefers beach renourishment over shoreline hardening, Hines continued. Yet, “We struggle every time to find funding sources for [renourishment initiatives].”

He reiterated his view that the commissioners need to debate whether to allow other options for property owners on the keys. “Then we can put [the issue] to bed for a while and people know where they stand.”

As he did in May, Commissioner Maio underscored the need to conduct such a public hearing prior to Hines’ stepping down from the board, in late November, as a result of term limits.

Lewis voiced concern that when staff pays to publish legal advertisements of upcoming public hearings, those notices provide specific details about the proposed changes. Therefore, Lewis asked, would a workshop be appropriate first instead of a public hearing? That workshop could be conducted in September, Lewis added.

Commissioner Nancy Detert asked Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department — which includes the environmental divisions — whether staff ever had conducted a workshop with representatives of all the barrier island associations — those from Manasota, Casey and Siesta keys — to discuss shoreline hardening.

“No,” Osterhoudt responded.

Matt Osterhoudt addresses the commission on Feb. 25. File photo

“That would be helpful for us,” Detert told him.

Such a session could be held, Osterhoudt explained, and then staff could advertise a public hearing on the basis of those persons’ proposed changes to the County Code.

He also pointed out that the county’s Coastal Advisory Committee (CAC) could hold a discussion on the issues after that workshop, indicating that the advisory board could fine-tune the issues for the commission’s public hearing.

(The June 2 staff report pointed out that the CAC “consists of representatives from each of the coastal municipalities” as ex officio members.)

“I’d like the interested parties, the affected parties, to have a meeting first [and] come up with their suggestions,” Detert replied. Their information, she added, “is going to be more valuable to me.”

“I would have thought that that would have occurred with our staff,” Hines said, before the shoreline hardening report was completed for the board.

“We’re not typically going to go out and debate [facets of the County Code with members of the public],” Lewis replied, unless staff has indicated “something is broken. … I’m not comfortable with staff out there arguing with people about their position on [the code] versus getting that input [from the public]” and making sure the commission receives the information, Lewis added.

Hines agreed. However, Hines continued, referring to property owners with threatened structures, “These folks deal with it every day. … At least hear it out from the other folks, face-to-face,” and provide the commissioners a report, Hines told Lewis.

Maio suggested that a stakeholder workshop, such as Detert had proposed, could be conducted, with the involvement of the CAC, and then the commissioners could hold a workshop prior to a public hearing. “Just don’t leave us hanging, and Commissioner Hines is gone,” Maio emphasized to Osterhoudt.

Lewis proposed scheduling time on an agenda in late September for the commissioners to talk about any changes recommended by the barrier island association members.

“I’m OK with that as long as public input is part of that process,” Chair Michael Moran responded.

Lewis finally indicated that a workshop for the board members could be scheduled on Sept. 22 or Sept. 23. That would allow staff time, he noted, for “listening sessions — for lack of a better word.”

That schedule also would enable the board members to talk with barrier island homeowners, Hines replied, as well as with Charlotte County commissioners, who have allowed hardening on their shoreline. Additionally, he and his colleagues could discuss the issues with their counterparts in counties where no hardening is allowed, Hines said.

Images in the county staff report show examples of shoreline hardening (top) compared to the natural shoreline on Casey Key. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The staff’s position

On July 8, Herman, the Environmental Protection Division manager, reviewed for the commissioners the findings of staff’s analysis — and its position — on the county’s regulations and policies regarding shoreline hardening.

For example, she noted that maintaining natural shorelines allows for recreational and public-access opportunities. The relevant slide she showed the board pointed to the fact that the county has award-winning beaches. (Siesta Key Public Beach has won various No. 1 titles over the past decade.)

The June 2 staff report explained that longstanding county policies and standards have “resulted in the unique and desirable characteristics of Sarasota County sandy beaches and dunes, which [draw] visitors and residents from around the world. Many other communities do not have similar policies in place and have experienced much greater shoreline erosion issues that are intensified by the [domino] effect of allowing shoreline hardening to a greater degree, which then results in greater impacts to adjacent properties and negative impacts to recreation, tourism, and the related economies,” the report added.

Natural shorelines also are a boon to wildlife, Herman said as she continued her presentation. For example, sea turtles can nest easily on the county’s beaches. A slide noted that Sarasota County has the highest level of such nesting activity on the west coast of Florida.

A graphic shows trends in sea turtle nesting on the county’s shoreline. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“Nobody owns our natural resources,” Commissioner Detert said at one point, “so we have to factor in what the [public] access [is] to the beach …”

The county’s Comprehensive Plan, Herman pointed out, “encourages beach nourishment as an alternative to shoreline hardening,” as that makes continued recreational access possible while providing storm protection to upland properties.

Then she explained that a property owner can work with staff to win approval of a Class I Emergency Variance, which allows for the installation of temporary sandbags or oversize TrapBags — a custom product — for up to three years, on property facing significant erosion. Staff typically approves such applications within 24 to 48 hours, Herman added.

Section 54-724(f) of the County Code calls for those variances to be approved “for emergencies caused by recent calamitous occurrences such as, but not limited to, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, or high winds where buildings, swimming pools, roads, or public facilities have been damaged or destroyed, or are directly and immediately anticipated to be threatened.”

Since 2000, Herman pointed out, only one Class I Emergency Variance application has been denied, while 39 have been approved.

This pie chart shows details about the Class I Emergency Variance requests and approvals. Image courtesy Sarasota County

A Class II Emergency Variance may be granted by the commission “to protect reasonable use” of property until the owner can apply for and obtain a regular variance for a more permanent structure, she continued. A public hearing involving such a request is put on a fast track, Herman noted. Over the past 20 years, the commission had approved eight of those variances, she said.

Turning to the issue of shoreline hardening, Herman explained that such measures lead to accelerated erosion on adjacent beach property, hinder public access and do not prevent wind and waves from affecting the shoreline.

Among the criteria the County Commission is asked to consider before approving a shoreline hardening variance, Herman explained, are whether the owner has reasonable use of the property, whether the public can continue to have lateral pedestrian access across the beach and whether the structure would result in adverse impacts on the natural coastal resources and processes.

From 1979, when the county’s Coastal Setback Code was established, through 2019, Herman said, 84 shoreline hardening variances won board approval, while 18 — 15% — were denied.

A graphic in the staff report illustrates problems that can arise after shoreline hardening. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The staff recommendation, she told the commissioners, is to maintain the existing Comprehensive Plan policies and Coastal Setback Code regulations relating to shoreline hardening. Beach nourishment, she pointed out once again, is the preferred means of protecting property on shorelines. Along with the Manasota Key project that recently was completed, she noted, two initiatives have been undertaken on the southern part of Siesta Key. No such action has been pursued on Casey Key, she added.