A blog dealing with Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Sarasota County's Coastal Challenges

The big difference between DeSoto County and Sarasota County is not that DeSoto County is roughly 13% bigger or that DeSoto is rectangular and we are not. The big difference is our Gulf Coast, with its bays, barrier beaches and tidal creeks. To the extent we lose or compromise our coastal assets, we render our county more like an inland, land-locked county.

Our coastal resources used to be free services that we paid nothing for and benefited directly from. But times have changed. Pollution and other forms of mismanagement have resulted in declining resources that, without attention, could degrade further, endangering these assets, our quality of life, and our local economy. As a result, Sarasota County has a significant number of coastal challenges that require resources and expenditures that in many cases are different from managing inland areas away from the coast.

Here's my list (with some of the dimensions for each):

Barrier Beaches: Erosion, Nourishment, Public Access
Inlets: Migration, Channels, Management (Includes New, Big, Midnight, Venice)
Rising Sea Level: Will affect over 100 miles of coastal shoreline, historic and accelerated rates need to be considered: armoring, nourishment, strategic retreat, etc.
Bay Shoreline: Mangrove loss, replacement, restoration, intertidal habitat
Tidal Creeks: Water quality, balancing public and private use
Public Bay Access: Includes boat access, trailer parking, waterfront views, and restaurants
Dredged Channels/Canals: Maintenance, depths, who pays, spoil disposal sites
Seagrasses: Restoration, coping with algae
Fisheries: Nursery Habitat, Stocking, Artificial Reefs
Shellfish: Oysters, Shrimp, Clams, Scallops
Listed Species: Manatees, Sea Turtles (see beaches) Bird Rookeries
Stormwater/non-point pollution: Timing and quality (nitrogen in particular)
Septic and Sewage Pollution: (coliform bacteria)
Red Tide & other HABs (Harmful Algal Blooms): Research and management
Hurricane Issues: Flood and storm surge effects, reshaped coastline, evacuation, repair

Right now the state and county are no doubt spending at least some money on each of these topics. And some, like beach nourishment or rejiggering stormwater, can be very expensive. The possible expenditures range from zero to whatever number of millions you want to pick. If we had an infinite supply of money we could simply tell managers and researchers to 'take a number' and the Commission could take proposals up one at a time, approve what was needed and move on to the next. If we had unlimited funds.

The risk in a time of limited funds is that we'll splurge on the items first in line and then, when we get to a needed project further down the list, we'll either be flat out of money or we'll go ahead, spring for it, and bust our budget in the process.

Put another way, some early projects would be well-funded, while others may get nothing, or at least a lot less than they would have had they been near the front of the line. In my opinion this is not a very sensible approach to managing our coastal assets.

Because we do not have an infinite supply of money to direct to our coastal challenges, I believe a less reckless, more conservative approach is called for. In the past I've argued that we can do anything we want with our coast, but not everything. Now I'm reaffirming that by stating that some hard, deliberate choice-making is needed.

I think we should set a target spending limit on coastal assets and then compare possible projects to determine the appropriate level of expenditure in each category. How (as a friend of mine used to say) 'we can get the most toast for the least bread'. The cap on expenditures combined with implicit comparisons of project value would push the commission towards optimizing scarce dollars, rather than running the risk of funding early projects too rich and later projects too lean.

My inspiration for this approach comes from our Environmentally Sensitive Lands and Neighborhood Parkland programs. Voters authorized a certain level of expenditure and the respective committees that consider proposals end up deciding more on a basis of value to the county than their first-come, first served order in line. 

Before we had an environmentally sensitive lands program with a committee, individual landowners or agents were free to pitch their projects to previous commissions - the result was an approach that did not consider if we could be spending county tax dollars in more effective ways. Now we have harnessed the power of comparison and relative value to make better decisions about how land acquisition dollars are spent.

Likewise the available tourist development dollars are determined and choices are made, year by year, to optimize their expenditure.

I don't see why coastal projects and expenditures might not benefit from a similar approach.