By Rachel Brown Hackney
In late January, the Sarasota County Commission asked staff to modify proposed changes in an ordinance that would allow owners of property threatened by acute erosion to keep sandbags in place for three years.
On April 10, Commissioner Alan Maio suggested one more tweak to the latest staff work on the modified ordinance regarding Class I Emergency Variances. It would enable people with such variances to pay an additional $100 and keep the sandbags or other measures in place for two more years.
However, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh explained that making that last-minute change was impossible in a short space of time, because of the need to rework the language in the proposed ordinance amendment as well as the accompanying resolution including the fee schedule, so they would be linked.
Re-advertisement of the public hearing was not the issue, DeMarsh pointed out.
After learning that only a small number of people would have the opportunity to take advantage of the change Maio was proposing, Chair Nancy Detert ascertained consensus for the board to vote on the changes presented that day. Then, on a motion by Commissioner Charles Hines, with a second by Maio, the board unanimously approved the new process and fee for the Emergency Class I Variance.
The amendment to the county’s Coastal Setback Code would be applicable to Siesta, Casey and Manasota keys, staff has noted.
Rachel Herman, manager of the county’s Environmental Protection Division, reminded the commissioners that the initiative before them originated at the request of the public after Hurricane Matthew caused “some acute erosion on our beaches,” especially on Manasota Key, in the summer of 2016.
Property owners applied for the Class I Emergency Variance, which can be used for sandbags to protect “imminently threatened structures”; repairs and replacement of sections of damaged roads; and debris removal, she continued. The underlying theory is that the emergency measures are temporary, buying the property owners time to come up with long-term solutions, Herman pointed out in January.
“Sandbags must contain beach-compatible sand from an off-site source,” Herman told the board on April 10.
Staff traditionally has put the Emergency Class I Variance applications on a fast track, she noted, issuing those deemed appropriate within a window of 24 to 48 hours.
As proposed in late January, the ordinance amendment would have allowed a person to apply for a variance with two annual renewals after the first year an emergency measure was in place. As part of that approach, staff would have been allowed to visit each site at least once a year to determine whether any problems had occurred, such as a situation indicating the sandbags should be removed.
However, the commissioners on Jan. 30 talked of the stress property owners had been enduring in dealing with the threat of damage; they asked Herman to streamline the process.
As a result, Herman said on April 10, the amended ordinance would allow for a person to apply for a three-year variance and pay $450. Additionally, staff would be allowed to visit the site twice over the extra two-year period to inspect the emergency measures put in place.
“This would represent $600 in savings,” Herman pointed out, compared to the current expense of $350 per year for the variance.
If the sandbags were still needed after the three years ended, she continued, the property owner could apply for a new Emergency Class I Variance.
The rationale behind the proposal, she noted, is the “dynamic nature of the shoreline and how changes do occur daily, really. With the cold fronts, we’ve seen since some pretty acute erosion” within the past few weeks, in isolated incidents.
“We also want to make sure the [sandbags] are appropriate, given the public interest,” Herman continued. For example, she said, sandbags on a beach can reflect wave action, potentially leading to more extensive erosion on adjacent properties.
Additionally, degradation of sandbags can “present an entanglement hazard to coastal and marine life,” a staff memo further explained.
How best to move forward
“You did a great follow-up” after the January discussion, Maio told Herman after she finished her presentation.
He understood, he continued, that the change from paying $350 a year over three years — which would total $1,050 — to $450 for the entire three years would represent savings of $600, as she had noted. “It begs the question, though,” he said, whether people with current one-year Emergency Class I Variances should be allowed an extension to a three-year time period by paying an extra $100. “Is that … conceivable?”
“We hadn’t thought about doing it that way,” Herman replied. “That might be something to discuss with the county attorney,” she added. “I’m not sure how it would work.”
In response, DeMarsh offered his explanation about the need for the ordinance amendment and the accompanying resolution supporting the fee to be aligned. “It wouldn’t be possible” to make the changes during the hearing, he indicated.
The only realistic option, he continued, would be to have staff make the necessary adjustments and come back with another agenda item in the future.
In response to a commission question about how many people would be eligible to make that shift from a current one-year variance to a three-year variance, Herman said, based on information from other staff members, fewer than 10, probably. One group of six adjacent property owners was granted one variance that covers their entire stretch of beach, she noted.
Detert told her colleagues she was not certain that, given the number, it would be worthwhile to ask staff to come back a third time with a proposed amendment and fee resolution.