Board considers tweaks to Coastal Setback Code

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County Commission chair welcomes private sector recommendations and staff suggestions

By Rachel Brown Hackney

Given the increasing number of requests for help to protect private property on rapidly eroding Sarasota County shorelines, the County Commission is seeking ideas from the public about modifications to the county’s Coastal Setback Code.

Chair Charles Hines raised the issue this spring, suggesting that it might be time for the board to consider policy changes that would make shoreline hardening easier.

On May 22, Howard Berna, manager of the Environmental Permitting Division, pointed out that since 2000, staff has appeared before the commission 38 times to discuss requests for Class I Emergency Variances, which are 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.”

Twenty-four of those Class I Emergency Variances have been sought by property owners since 2012, Berna said.

The number of applications for Class II Emergency Variances also has been increasing, he noted. Those deal with temporary shoreline measures designed to protect reasonable use of property until the applicant can pursue a permanent solution, Berna reminded the board. Only six have been brought to the commission since the Coastal Setback Code was adopted in 1979, Berna said; four have been addressed since 2018.

“That is absolute evidence that we’re having an increase in these [erosion] problems,” Hines stressed.

After the staff presentation and then discussion on May 22, Hines suggested that property owners — especially on Manasota and Casey keys, where concerns about erosion undermining beach structures have been growing in recent years — work with engineers and other professionals to pose ideas to the board.

Commissioner Alan Maio added that staff members in the county’s Environmental Protection and Environmental Permitting divisions, who handle the requests for emergency variances, also feel free to suggest modifications to the Coastal Setback Code. Staff members may be hesitant to do so, he pointed out, as they might be fearful of intruding on the commission’s prerogative to make policy. However, Maio stressed, “If we didn’t like [a proposal from staff], we would just vote it down.”

“I think our staff … clearly feels empowered,” Hines responded. If they have ideas about tweaking the language in county policies, he continued, they can bring those to the board.

Commissioner Michael Moran also called for staff to “give us unfiltered information” from residents affected by shoreline erosion, as well as others in the community who are interested in the issue.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis said staff would provide the board members any comments that come in on the topic and then plan on an update in the fall. After that second presentation, Lewis said, staff would ask whether the commissioners then would like to offer specific direction about policy changes.

“Thank you,” Hines responded. “That’s perfect.”

At the outset of the May 22 staff presentation, Rachel Herman, manager of the Environmental Protection Division, pointed out that the County Commission adopted the Coastal Setback Code in 1979. “It is a prohibitory ordinance,” she noted, in contrast to many other county regulations.

Specifically, she explained, it prohibits construction, excavation and alteration seaward of the Gulf Beach Setback Line (GBSL) and the Barrier Island Twenty-Year Hazard Line. However, it does allow for exemptions, she said, such as the placement of sandbags on the beach and dune walkovers.

The GBSL, Berna explained, “is effectively assisting homeowners to stay out of harm’s way in the coastal high-hazard area.”

Herman reviewed relevant environmental policies in the county’s Comprehensive Plan, including Policy 4.1.2, which says, in part, “Hardening of Gulf beaches or passes shall be prohibited unless such hardening has been found to be in the public interest.” Even then, she continued, a hardening project that is permitted “shall not impact lateral public pedestrian access, and shall minimize adverse impacts to coastal processes and resources, neighboring properties, and the values and functions of beaches and dune systems …”

Beach nourishment, Herman pointed out, is promoted instead of shoreline hardening.

Berna talked about the policy that encourages dune restoration projects. Those entail the placement of beach-compatible sand and the planting of native dune vegetation. “Those plants themselves are a very good first line of defense when they become established,” he noted. The plants drop very long roots — called “taproots” — that help hold the sand in place, he added. Still, Berna acknowledged, that measure is “not a foolproof method by any means.”

A sense of urgency

Following the presentation, Hines told his colleagues that each might have his or her own ideas about how to tweak the Coastal Setback Code. Nonetheless, he continued, “It doesn’t work very well for us to do that up here.”

He added that he has asked members of the Manasota Key, North Manasota Key and Casey Key associations “to bring us a white paper or memo or something from engineers, professionals that do [shoreline protection work] all the time, and say that ‘This is our recommendation.’ That hasn’t happened yet.”

Commissioner Maio emphasized the need for “competent professional testimony … so we know what to ask for [from staff in terms of tweaking the Coastal Setback Code].”

Commissioner Nancy Detert responded with her often-stated aversion to seawalls, because of the demonstration of worsened erosion on either side of the structures.

She prefers the code’s encouragement for the creation of dunes and native vegetation, she said.

Hines referenced language in the Coastal Setback Code that encourages beach renourishment projects instead of shoreline hardening. Yet, he said, “People have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring in beach sand only to see it wash out in a year or two. … Our options are difficult when the policy has been to deny hardening.”

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