By Rachel Brown Hackney
Late September workshop planned for county commissioners to debate staff recommendations and proposals from barrier island associations regarding shoreline hardening
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.
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.”
Staff has reiterated that it prefers beach renourishment to 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 Alan 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 Siesta, Manasota, and Casey keys — to discuss shoreline hardening.
“No,” Osterhoudt responded.
“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.
“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.”
However, Hines countered, 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.
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.
The 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.
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.
Along with the recently completed project on Manasota Key, she noted, two renourishment initiatives have been completed on south Siesta Key.
Shoreline hardening measures lead to accelerated erosion on adjacent beach property, hinder public access and do not prevent wind and waves from affecting a beach, Herman said.
The staff recommendation, she told the commissioners, is to maintain the existing Comprehensive Plan policies and Coastal Setback Code regulations relating to shoreline hardening.