By Rachel Brown Hackney
A little more than a year ago, as chair of the Sarasota County Commission, Charles Hines suggested that it was time for a discussion about the potential amendment of the Sarasota County Code to allow for shoreline hardening.
Although he proposed a workshop on the issue, that never materialized.
During the regular commission meeting on May 5, Hines again broached the subject, following comments Commissioner Nancy Detert made about a “white paper” that the Manasota Key Association had paid an attorney to draft, which the association then sent to the commissioners in early April.
Detert suggested the appointment of a new county advisory board that could meet quarterly to deal with issues related to the county’s barrier islands. She proposed one or two representatives each of the Siesta Key, Manasota Key and Casey Key associations — “all volunteers” — plus a county staff member, with the advisory group members taking time to review all the county policies and regulations regarding steps property owners can take on the barrier islands to protect their investments.
The staff member, she pointed out, could inform the island representatives about what county and state regulations allow. “People think up great ideas and then find out that’s an illegal great idea,” she continued, so having the staff assistance would eliminate proposals that would not be feasible.
Hines, however, called for a staff report on how the County Code’s environmental regulations match those of the state, along with information about the rules that go beyond state requirements. He specifically called for identifying “areas where there’s too much gray area in terms of staff interpretation” of county policies.
For example, Hines noted, staff says that when the shoreline in front of a home has eroded to the point that only 25 feet of beach separates that residence from the Gulf of Mexico, then the situation is dire enough for emergency measures to be allowed. That 25-foot rule is not in the code, he stressed.
“The elephant in the room here is shoreline hardening,” Hines pointed out. “Thirty years ago, previous [commissioners] didn’t want to have shoreline hardening for very good reasons — very good reasons,” he continued. Yet, 30 years later, he said, “Houses are getting ready to fall into the water.”
Past commission discussions have noted that seawalls, for example, cause erosion of beach on either side of the protected property.
As erosion has become more severe on Casey and Manasota keys, especially, Hines pointed out, homeowners are uncertain about what the commission will and will not approve. “[That] makes it very difficult and uncertain for people to come forward and spend a lot of money, not knowing if they could do something to protect their homes.”
Their expenses could range from tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars, Hines emphasized, just to reach the point of appearing before the board.
The commissioners need to decide whether to amend the County Code to allow shoreline hardening, Hines stressed.
After staff completes the board report and the commission has reviewed it, Hines continued, then a public hearing could be scheduled during which staff of the county’s Environmental Protection and Permitting divisions, as well as representatives of barrier island homeowner groups, could advocate to the commissioners for policies and regulations to be amended or removed.
Detert responded that she felt a commission workshop should be held first, “for informational purposes.” Then the board members could provide direction to staff about how to proceed, including the scheduling of a public hearing. Detert added that she felt the hearing could be planned in September or October, as she anticipates “a lot of public comment,” which is not what county staff wants to deal with as the COVID-19 public health emergency continues.
Commissioner Alan Maio then talked of all he has learned from Hines about coastal permitting issues, as Hines was elected to the board in 2012, two years before Maio. In fact, Maio said, after he took his seat on the board in November 2014, Hines noted that the decisions the commissioners have to make on petitions related to the county’s Coastal Setback Code, which deal with construction on the shoreline, are the toughest. Maio added that he did not believe the comment until he began dealing with them during his commission tenure. “They’re enormously complex and tough, and, in most instances, [they involve] the most valuable asset anyone owns” — a home.
Maio suggested to County Administrator Lewis that he “come up with the most streamlined way” to get the staff board report to the commission “as quickly as possible.”
He wanted to ensure that, before Hines steps down from the District 5 seat in November because of term limits, that Hines has had the opportunity to participate fully in all the pertinent discussions and public hearings.
Maio added that it might take up to three public hearings before the board members could agree on any changes to the County Code.
“This is not a new issue,” Lewis responded, adding that staff would undertake the board assignment calling for preparation of a report. “I think we can turn it around faster than 30 days.” Then, Lewis said, the commissioners could decide about conducting a public hearing.
Detert agreed with Maio about the importance of Hines’ involvement in any hearings.
Still, Detert told her colleagues that she did not want to weaken the County Code to the point where it would be easy for people who have homes seaward of the county’s Gulf Beach Setback Line (GBSL) to undertake new construction.
The GBSL is the figurative “line in the sand” that was established in 1979 to protect dunes and coastal vegetation, which, in turn, protect inland property from storm surges and other flooding events.
“I like a [GBSL] that means something,” Detert said.