By Rachel Brown Hackney
Is it time for the Sarasota County Commission to amend the County Code to remove the decades-old policies against shoreline hardening?
That is the question Chair Charles Hines asked on April 9 as he proposed a workshop on the issue.
His suggestion came the same day the board members listened to tales of hardship from Manasota Key Beach property owners fighting erosion that has grown more severe in recent years. Almost a dozen people talked of efforts to save their homes — and protect nesting sea turtles. A couple focused on the difficulties of contending with county regulations regarding even the use of sandbags in emergency situations, plus the expense.
On April 9, Hines passed his colleagues photos to illustrate his concerns. “See what’s occurring, especially on Manasota Key and Casey Key.”
On March 12, the commission approved the third Coastal Setback Class II Emergency Variance in less than a year for Casey Key property owners with shoreline structures close to collapsing.
About 20 or 30 years ago, Hines continued on April 9, “there was a strong environmental movement within Sarasota County Government. … The No. 1 thing was protecting turtles, protecting public access to beaches. That made all the sense in the world.”
At that time, he pointed out, “We didn’t have homes getting ready to fall into the Gulf. That’s where we are today.”
“Our coastal dynamics have changed,” Hines said.
A question of comfort level
As evidenced by the numerous emails the board members have received, Hines said, “It’s not just hurricanes [causing shoreline erosion].” Because of more routine storms that batter the coast, he added, “We’re almost seeing [problems] every other month.”
“We have taken a strong position,” he said of past county commissions, which discourages the hardening of the shoreline. “I don’t know in recent years if we’ve approved a seawall on a beach [when a seawall] wasn’t already there.”
Hines is the longest serving of the current board members, having been elected to his first term in 2012. Term limits will force him to step down from the commission in 2020.
“I’m not advocating boulders and seawalls,” he told his colleagues. “But this board … should be discussing policy in a way to potentially change it. I believe we need to do that … Are we still against any shoreline hardening?”
If the decision is made to allow some hardening, he continued, under what circumstances would variances be appropriate?
Referencing comments by some of the Manasota Key property owners, Hines stressed that sandbags and other measures are allowed only on a temporary basis.
He talked of picturing himself as a homeowner, sitting on a back porch facing the Gulf of Mexico and seeing the beach gradually disappear, “10 feet at a time.”
What happens when the Gulf is only 25 feet away from that porch, he continued, noting that he was only about 25 feet from a person seated near the front of the Commission Chambers in Venice. “Does that make you comfortable?”
If the beach is 50 feet away from someone’s home, he pointed out, the next storm could wash away all the sand. “That’s 50 feet gone, and now we have a house falling in [the water].”
Some of the commissioners on the board now, he said, may still be in those seats “when … homes fall into the water.”
Hines also noted that the area is experiencing more king tides “than I can ever remember as a kid. … If you believe in sea level rise, then a few inches makes a big difference …”
No long-term coastal management options exist, he pointed out. Beach nourishment, he added, is the only means of dealing with erosion short of hardening the shoreline. “I’ve asked for other options for six-and-a-half years, from anywhere in the world, other than boulders and seawalls, and no one has [brought any forward].”
He asked his colleagues to read the county’s Coastal Setback Code and apply its regulations to the scenarios they have heard described during meetings. Then he asked them whether they would be willing to have a workshop on the county’s policies.
Along with reading the code, Hines suggested his fellow commissioners talk with Casey Key and Manasota Key residents.
“I like what you’re doing here,” Commissioner Nancy Detert responded to the workshop proposal, adding that she supported the idea.
Detert continued, “I would like to hear from environmentalists and beach experts,” noting that she has seen shoreline hardening measures exacerbate erosion on the parcels on either side of the structures.
“I’d like for us to look at our whole policy,” Detert said, including allowing people to pursue construction seaward of the Gulf Beach Setback Line (GBSL). That line is a facet of the Coastal Setback Code, which was implemented in 1979. Staff has explained that the figurative GBSL exists to protect dunes and coastal vegetation, which, in turn, protect inland structures from storm surge.
Hines concurred with Detert about the need to hear from experts regarding how seawalls and other structures can create new problems.
“The biggest demonstration project for that [type of situation],” Detert replied, “is the [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’] fiasco with the Venice Jetties.” Erosion is worse on both sides of those structures, she noted.
“I think it’s a good exercise, a good conversation to have,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler told Hines, referring to the workshop proposal.
Referring to the fact that he is the newest board member, Ziegler said he would like to learn more about the coastal issues “and what options are really out there.”
“We’ve got some folks that are really hurting,” Hines told his colleagues. “We need to have this discussion.”