By Rachel Brown Hackney
After making a motion to amend the Sarasota County Coastal Setback Code, Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out on Oct. 21, “This has not been easy.”
Commissioners long have maintained a stance against shoreline hardening, he said. However, Hines continued, “The dynamics of our shoreline have changed in the last 20 to 30 years. [That is] not going to stop.”
Thanks to the county’s Environmental Protection Division staff having worked with homeowner associations on the barrier islands in the unincorporated parts of the county, Hines said, “a good consensus” has been achieved in regard to amendments to the County Code that will help property owners protect homes threatened by storms and sea level rise.
Nonetheless, Rachel Herman, manager of the county’s Environmental Protection Division, has pointed out to the commission that the Siesta Key Association took a different view of the proposed changes than the other organizations did.
In an Aug. 10 letter to the Environmental Protection staff, SKA President Catherine Luckner wrote that the nonprofit “continues to support advance methods to preempt likelihood of shoreline collapse and damages [to] a primary dwelling. This includes enforcement of the Gulf Beach Setback Line (GBSL) and special variances when necessary [to protect] a building beyond the Coastal Construction Line (CCL).” The latter line is a state measure implemented to protect shoreline habitat.
Luckner further explained that the SKA could not endorse shoreline hardening “as a permanent solution. … Based upon more than 35 years of nationwide research, observations of shoreline and coastal waters, there is little to support this as a first intervention. It’s well documented shoreline hardening is generally not wise; that an assessment must be site specific to prevent harm to others.”
Commissioner Nancy Detert has talked on several occasions about the fact that erosion of property is common on either side of a seawall, for example.
As Herman of Environmental Protection pointed out on Oct. 21, beach renourishment remains the county’s preferred method of stabilizing shorelines, even with the code changes.
During her presentation, Herman noted a few late modifications recommended since the board members last discussed the issues in September.
Among those, she continued, were the additions of language pertaining to the “hardship on the land.”
That revision says that “hardship on the land” means that “under application of the Coastal Setback Code, the property cannot be used for the purpose for which it is zoned under Chapter 124, Unified Development Code, taking into considerations such factors as the shape of the parcel, size of the parcel, location of the setback line on the parcel, location of any protected habitats on the parcel, and location of any zoning setback lines.”
(The Unified Development Code combines all the county’s land-use and zoning regulations.)
“Wet sandy beach” is defined as “the area between the mean high water line and the mean low tide line.”
One other late change staff recommended, Herman explained, called for a doubling of the amount of beach-compatible sand that a property owner could place on a lot “provided that no filling occurs within public easements or rights of way and other lawful drainage systems and utility facilities.”
Instead of 100 cubic yards, Herman said, staff suggested 200 cubic yards. The county code administrator can provide a written conditioned exception for a property owner, allowing the person to place the sand on a parcel, she noted.
‘Hardship on the land’ or on the owner?
Hines did ask County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht about the concern that Manasota Key Association members had expressed about the “hardship on the land” consideration in the proposed amendments to the County Code. Instead of the staff recommendation, Hines continued, they sought references to “hardship on the owner.”
The Office of the County Attorney recommended the focus be on the land, Elbrecht replied, considering features such as the location on the property seaward of the county’s Gulf Beach Setback Line — the figurative “line in the sand” established to protect dunes and native beach habitation, which, in turn, protect landward structures from storm surge and other flooding events. Additional factors, Elbrecht noted, would be the habitat on the property and the state of erosion.
If the focus were on the person, Elbrecht added, that could lead to issues regarding the owner’s finances and emotional response to shoreline problems on the property. The position of the Office of the County Attorney, Elbrecht said, is that “the board’s ruling [on a variance petition] should be the same regardless of who owns the land.”
“Thanks for putting that in the record,” Hines responded.
Yet another issue the Manasota Key Association (MKA) had raised, Hines continued, concerned the provision in the County Code that the relocation of a home needs to be considered before the commission potentially allows the property owner to harden the shoreline. The MKA asked that the word “practical” be added, he said, so the commission would have to consider the feasibility of moving a habitable structure.
The board members know that moving a home in a coastal environment “is going to be difficult,” Hines pointed out.
“It’s a policy consideration for the board,” Herman replied. “We don’t have a strong opinion about that particular addition [of the word ‘practical’].”
Hines’ final concern, based on correspondence the board had received, was the section of the County Code that eliminates the potential of hardening actions if the affected home was built after Oct. 28, 2008. Even if a house has been constructed to comply with modern building code and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) elevation standards for coastal construction, Hines said, the land beneath the home could wash out, leading to problems.
After an exchange with Assistant County Attorney David Pearce, Hines agreed with Pearce’s proposal to eliminate the relevant paragraph altogether. Pearce said that modification of the code would achieve the goal Hines sought.