By Rachel Brown Hackney
The Sarasota County commissioners did not have information about previous discussions of staff and their predecessors regarding potential repairs to North Beach Road when they voted 4-1 last year to vacate a 357-foot segment of it, a supporter of Reopen Beach Road told about 65 people attending the Aug. 3 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting.
“The commissioners make decisions based upon the information that’s given to them by their staff,” Brian Lichterman of Vision Planning & Design said. He was one of three speakers during a presentation about Reopen Beach Road’s efforts to reverse the May 11, 2016 road segment vacation. “Sometimes that information is good and sometimes that information could be better.”
Lichterman spent 22 years as a senior planner for the county before he started his own firm, he has explained in public meetings.
Nonetheless, one of the petitioners for the road vacation cast doubt during the SKA meeting about whether any effort to protect the road segment — including construction of a seawall, as touted by Reopen Beach Road — would win the necessary state permit for construction. Dennis Madden pointed out that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) limits hardening of shorelines.
Lichterman told the approximately 65 audience members that the road vacation was necessary to create a unified lot — encompassing the land along the road — to meet the county’s zoning regulations for new development planned by the Maddens. A proffer from all three sets of the property owners/petitioners said that in exchange for the board’s approval of their request, the lots they own seaward of the road “will never be developed,” Lichterman added.
However, “a lot of information that was not included [in the agenda packet for May 11, 2016] could have helped the commissioners make a better decision,” Lichterman said.
After the county closed North Beach Road to vehicular traffic in 1993 because of repeated storm damage, Lichterman continued, “the county continued to maintain [it],” he said, “but [the county] failed to take adequate measures to protect it from storm-related damage.”
In the summer of 2009, Lichterman told the audience, a memo to the board from James K. Harriott Jr. — who later was appointed the county’s chief engineer —recommended the county reconstruct the road. Staff acknowledged the county’s obligation to keep the road open as a thoroughfare and to eliminate wasting taxpayer money for “the enormous cost of repair,” he added and then discussed the memo’s contents.
In an Aug. 21, 2009 memo, Harriott wrote, “Staff recommends that in order to regain the intended use of the road and protect it against future storm events, 825 [feet] of Beach Road from Columbus Boulevard to Avenida Messina should be reconstructed with a Soil Cement Revetment System.” Harriott noted, “Staff will return with a discussion on funding for this project …”
Harriott indicated that staff was responding to a June 9, 2009 County Commission request that staff “provide a report regarding the condition and cost to repair the road …”
As for the history of the road segment: Harriott wrote that over the previous 20 years, the road had been “severely battered by hurricanes and tropical storms, leaving [it] eroded. … What was once a two-lane roadway from Columbus Boulevard to Avenida Messina has been reduced to a one-lane road and at one point is closed to thru-traffic. County crews have attempted to fix potholes, remove crumbling asphalt and sand accumulation after the storms.” Nonetheless, he continued, the roadbed “has been compromised from multiple storm events and the protection of the underground infrastructure for both water and sewer is a concern.”
Debating the road’s future
Fast-forward to Dec. 10 2012, Lichterman told the audience: Another Harriott memo responded to a Dec. 4, 2012 County Commission discussion, which had included direction to staff “to acquire a legal and independent engineering analysis report, determine what obligations the County has as far as access, and what the County can expect from FEMA regarding repairs to North Beach Road.”
That document also noted erosion along the road resulting from “severe tropical storms (Isaac, [Debby], and Sandy) and inclement weather in recent years.”
The result, Lichterman continued, was the hiring of Taylor Engineering of Jacksonville to assess the situation on the road and offer options. One of latter — a concrete seawall — was estimated at $1,838,500. A cross-section of the road in the Taylor Engineering report depicting that option is the source of the rendering Reopen Beach Road uses on its website to show how the thoroughfare could look, Lichterman pointed out.
A new permanent structure such as a seawall could not be built without state authorization, Lichterman added. However, he noted that the Taylor Engineering report said, “Given the purpose of the project and public benefits (i.e. road protection), we believe the state would authorize the project under a consent of use.”
Taylor Engineering’s estimate of the cost of the county to maintain the road if the county did nothing to stabilize it was $5,835,525 over 50 years, Lichterman said. “We as taxpayers are still on the hook for the estimated $6 million in ongoing repairs.”
Yet, Madden disputed part of Lichterman’s assertions. The FDEP will not allow the county to make any improvements to the road, Madden said.
Moreover, if the vacated segment were reopened so the entire 825 feet of thoroughfare between Columbus Boulevard and Avenida Messina were available to motor vehicles, Madden continued, that would lead to more traffic congestion on the island.
In the 24 years since the road has been closed to traffic, Madden said, the natural environment has been able to flourish. People can walk down the vacated segment and enjoy the beach —including the sunsets — without having to worry about vehicles. “You want to come in and destroy that!”
Madden told Lichterman and Mary Anne Bowie, the recently hired executive director of Reopen Beach Road.
“It’s a very good point,” Volpe responded.