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

Monday, May 20, 2013

Sarasota City's Ego Trumps Its Eco in Seagrass Dredging Issue

I suppose something could happen and I may come to regret endorsing Susan Chapman, but the evening of Monday May 20th she was a voice of reason seated at the sunken dais with four City Commissioners more concerned with asserting their imperious sovereign dominion over a matter their staff conceded they were ill-prepared to administer. Thank you, Commissioner Chapman.

The matter at hand involves a waterfront property with a massive mansion in the IBSSA neighborhood. The home is separated from deep water by extensive shoals covered with healthy seagrass. Now, when I was in diapers back in 1951 there was dredged channel to this lot. But there hasn't been a channel there in decades and the bay has healed - a tribute to natural restorative powers that should be respected. 

This video depicts a walk across the ostensible "channel" the applicants want to re-dredge for the first time in many decades. The walk through shallow water is characterized by healthy seagrass. The City's efforts to assert dominance over the County on this matter appears to be endangering the bay, partly because the City lacks environmental staff that can interpret the nuances of such proposals.

Sarasota County denied a previous request to dredge through this seagrass 5-0, in part because the County requires that in order for a channel dredging project to be approved there has to be an existing functional channel in need of dredging - a criterion many of us consider common-sensical: If there is no channel, you can't claim to be maintaining a channel. The video above demonstrates there is no extant channel. But the City attorney favors a "simpler and more straightforward approach" -- dispensing with such details. 

According to his line of argument, if an archaeological consultant team can prove the Calusa once scooped out some bay bottom (or upland?) then it would appear a 2013 applicant has a fair shot of getting a permit to ream it out again- no matter what has transpired or whether the channel was ever maintained in the interim. Representatives for the applicant stated the channel had first been dredged in 1926 and felt no shame in arguing Great Gatsby approaches to the bay should prevail in the 21st century.

IBSSA resident and spokesperson Don Farr provided compelling testimony on behalf of IBSSA, arguing that the City was ill-equipped to evaluate such requests and that it made sense to utilize the expertise of the County. He was responding the the City attorney's argument that it was best to keep it simple because the City would have trouble dealing with the technical issues.

The County also prohibits dredging through seagrasses, a distinction the City apparently didn't feel needed to be included.

Hired advocate and former DEP Southwest District Chief Deborah Getzoff argued that the city should "allow existing features to be maintained" despite the fact that there are no existing features. Well, in truth, the existing feature is a naturally restored healthy seagrass meadow with six pilings.

Much was made of the fact that the State and Feds had already approved permits, but those far-off approvals reflected ignorance of what was being proposed. One example is that the seagrass planting mitigation that the applicants proposed (and which had been rubber-stamped) was located on sandy shoals too shallow to support seagrass.

But most of the commissioners were less interested in environmental impacts than asserting the City's exclusive jurisdiction over dredging. Actually, not jurisdiction over dredging so much as establishing that the City, and not the Count,y will make decisions regarding the City's portion of Sarasota Bay. They wondered why City staff had issued some permits but deferred to the County on the channel dredging.

Indeed, one of the stranger aspects of the proceedings was the fact that it took place without the relevant City staff being present. It is still not clear why the City attorney would launch into a pre-arranged presentation without making sure staff would be there to explain their understanding of the issue. In their absence, some Commissioners started engaged in some staff-bashing that probably would have been mitigated had the staff in question been there to explain their actions.

Commissioner Caragiulo sought to confirm that the City did have environmental expertise on staff, but was told they did not. He pursued the matter, asking if Alison Albee wasn't environmental staff, but was told Environmental Specialist was her job category (essentially her rank) and not her area of expertise, which is sustainability. 

Commissioner Shaw and Chapman were interested in getting to the bottom of some of the environmental issues, but once Commissioner's Chapman motion to let the County handle the matter died for lack of a second, Commissioner Caragiulo made a motion (seconded by Commissioner Atwell) that seemed to place upholding the City's jurisdiction above bay health, although it included some language (I'm not sure everyone knew exactly what the motion was) aimed at clarifying exactly what staff had done and possibly what a better policy might be. 

Stay tuned folks, this is going to get interesting.

The legal question apparently hinges on the question of whether the City and County approaches are in conflict. If they are, the City gets to apply its "simple" (but non-sensical) rule. Commissioner (and attorney) Chapman argued they need not be in conflict. These could, for instance, be nested compatible requirements -- the City requiring that maintenance dredging require a previous channel having been dredged and the County wording clarifying that, in addition to having been dredged, there needs to be an existing functional channel. An example of conflicting policies would be one that forbade maintenance dredging and one that allowed it, but both entities allow maintenance dredging.

Frankly it was embarrassing to hear City officials arguing for a path of deliberate ignorance when local expertise was available.

Having taken City-County turf wars underwater to luxuriant seagrasses, one can only hope cooler, common-sense heads prevail and we can avoid seeing the bay needlessly degraded because the City needs to be riding its high horse instead of collaborating with the County to protect Sarasota Bay.