By Rachel Brown Hackney
On a 4-1 vote, the Sarasota County Commission has approved a Coastal Setback Variance that will permit the construction of a 760-foot-long seawall a maximum of 40 feet seaward of the Gulf Beach Setback Line (GBSL).
Commissioner Nancy Detert cast the “No” vote, reiterating her objection to seawalls, even though staff explained that the new structure will tie in to existing seawalls to the north and south.
The GBSL is the figurative line in the sand implemented decades ago in an effort to protect dunes and vegetation, which, in turn, will protect property landward of the GBSL in the event of major storms, staff has explained.
Five petitioners had requested the seawall, Howard Berna, manager of the county’s Environmental Permitting Division, told the commissioners. However, the owners of the homes at 2209, 2305 and 2309 Casey Key Road will be the primary beneficiaries of the structure, he said. The other petitioners own the parcels at 2207 and 2315 Casey Key Road, he noted. The area of the seawall will be almost midpoint between the Blackburn Point Road Bridge and the Albee Road Bridge, he added.
The seawall will replace a geotextile container system that the County Commission approved in the same area in 2009, Berna explained on May 7.
Representing the petitioners, Karyn Erickson, president of Erickson Consulting Engineers in Sarasota — the principal engineer for the project — and William Merrill III of the Icard Merrill law firm in Sarasota both talked of the expense the three affected property owners have had to incur since the geotextile container system was installed. The owners have had to pay a total of more than $3.5 million since 2011 — when that project was completed — because a stipulation with the 2009 county variance necessitated that a minimum of 3 feet of sand cover the structures in an effort to facilitate sea turtle nesting on the beach in front of the homes.
Erickson did point out that data kept about turtle nesting over the period of time the geotextile system has been in place — with a control area factored in — showed a 43% success rate for nests in front of the adjoining seawalls and a 39% success rate in front of the container system.
Since the system was constructed in 2011, Berna told the board, “There have been a number of successful sea turtles nesting here.” Through 2018, he said, documentation showed the total near the homes at 2209, 2305 and 2309 Casey Key Road was 192.
Sand was placed in significant quantities over the geotextile container system from 2012 through 2016, except for 2015 and 2017, Erickson pointed out. The owners also spent more than $400,000 putting in new vegetation each time they had to place more sand on the site, she continued.
“The continuous placement is costly, and it constantly takes the [coastal] system out of equilibrium,” she summed up the situation for the three primary petitioners.
Detert noted those comments as another reason for her “No” vote. “I think somebody slipped and revealed what was my suspicion anyway,” Detert said. Addressing the petitioners, she continued, “You just got tired of paying for the 3 feet of sand every year.”
However, considering the appearances of the applicants’ homes in the slides Berna had shown the board, Detert added, “I think you can continue to do that pretty comfortably without being driven out of your house.”
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) already has granted a variance for the seawall, Merrill told the commissioners; state staff was just awaiting the board’s decision before issuing the permit.
Reading from FDEP’s confirmation that it would grant the necessary state variance, Merrill said state officials agreed that the geotextile containers “no longer offer reasonable long-term protection to the upland structures from frequent storms or coastal erosion.”
Further, he noted, FDEP staff wrote that the seawall will “protect both the coastal system …”
Erickson also had pointed out that the area of the beach proposed for the seawall had lost about 10 feet of beach to erosion each of the past six years.
During his presentation, Berna, the county’s environmental permitting manager, explained that the geotextile container system creates a dune core over which waves can roll. The sand naturally comes and goes.
With the seawall, Berna continued, “We’re basically connecting the dots between two walls.” The new structure will have the same elevation — 12.5 feet — as the neighboring seawalls, he pointed out.
In 2009, he noted, the geotextile container system was viewed as a better means of protecting the shoreline without damaging the coastal system.
Easements were recorded with the 2009 variance to ensure continued lateral pedestrian access along the beach, Berna added. The easements will be modified to reflect the construction of the seawall, he said.
Merrill told the board that the proposed seawall “fills the gap between two existing seawalls.” He called it a “very uncommon occurrence” for FDEP to approve the variance the property owners had sought from that department.
Merrill also stressed that the rate of erosion on the beach is 4 to 10 feet a year. “In zero to five years, you could lose the homes,” he said, if the container system were removed and no protection put in its place.
Commissioner Alan Maio made the motion to approve the Coastal Setback Variance. “A credible case has been made [for the seawall],” he said.
Commissioner Michael Moran seconded the motion, calling the seawall a commonsense measure that would fill the gap between the neighboring seawalls.