Leading the way

City of Sarasota a leader in preparing for sea level rise

By Dale White, dale.white@heraldtribune.com

Published Sep 20, 2017

A look at the city of Sarasota’s assets most at risk from potential sea level rise reads in part like a list of some of its most scenic locations.

That’s no coincidence.

Most are on or near the waterfront. St. Armands Circle, Lido Key, the Ringling Causeway, Ted Sperling Park and other locales emerged as priorities after a review of nearly 220 assets within the city limits by Stevie Freeman-Montes, the city’s sustainability manager, and the staff of every city department that maintains infrastructure.

With their efforts, Sarasota joined the earliest local governments in Florida to specifically identify which of its publicly owned facilities are most at risk.

In Sarasota, at least seven priority sectors emerged, ranging from roads to public buildings to stormwater pipelines.

The city is undertaking “a slow, pragmatic, science-based, strategic approach” to planning for sea level rise predictions, said city spokeswoman Jan Thornburg. In doing so, the gulf-front and bayfront municipality is following the advice of other Florida communities that have taken a leadership role in setting the standard for preparing for potential changes to their coasts.

During a lecture at New College of Florida earlier this year, James Murley, chief resilience officer for Miami-Dade County, advised counties and municipalities in the Sarasota-Manatee region to immediately start taking into account the possible impacts when they invest in infrastructure such as roads, utilities and public buildings.

And they should do so on a coordinated, regional basis, Murley said. “Water doesn’t care where a political boundary is.”

Freeman-Montes is doing just that.

Her interim vulnerability report, presented to the public on Aug. 29, also includes Sarasota County and state assets within the city — such as highways overseen by the Florida Department of Transportation and county-owned buildings such as fire stations.

Stevie Freeman-Montes, sustainability manager for the city of Sarasota, and Sherri Swanson, an environmental scientist with HDR Inc., discuss preparations for an Aug. 29 public meeting about what roads, parks and other public facilities could be vulnerable to sea level rise. (Herald-Tribune staff photo / Dale White)

She frequently meets with officials from the county and its three other municipalities — Venice, North Port and Longboat Key — about coordinating long-range efforts.

Murley also advised that the typical five-year time frame for capital improvement plans should be extended to 20 to 40 years instead.

Written over decades

Manatee County and its six municipalities, all of which are either on the Gulf or the Manatee River, have yet to engage in extensive talks about the possible ramifications of climate change — though the topic is on the county’s radar.

Manatee recently became the first county to earn platinum status from the Florida Green Building Coalition for its ongoing efforts to increase energy efficiency at its public facilities — which, in turn, not only saves taxpayer money but reduces the local government’s reliance on electricity that may come from greenhouse gas-producing power plants on the grid.

In his last budget message to the Manatee County Commission, Administrator Ed Hunzeker advised that, in future conversations about new government buildings, roads or parks, the county “must plan and budget for the long range impacts of sea level rise.”

“That will impact major decisions on where you build and plan for the future,” said Hunzeker, who retires in January 2019 and will leave most of that planning and building to his successor.

Sarasota County’s sustainability manager, Lee Hayes Byron, is already analyzing the vulnerability of that county’s infrastructure and other public assets to rising waters. She intends to examine the “low scenario and high scenario” and make recommendations based “on the infrastructure’s lifetime and which of those scenarios make sense.”

Although the county is not facing a firm deadline on that vulnerability assessment, “I hope to have something by the end of the year,” Byron said.

She agrees with Freeman-Montes that a measured, methodical approach is required rather than a jump to hasty conclusions.

“We have the benefit of time to think about it and build support in the community and be thoughtful about our approach,” Byron said.

Longboat Key Town Manager David Bullock. (Herald-Tribune staff photo / Dan Wagner)

Longboat Key Town Manager David Bullock is among those in frequent conversations with Byron and Freeman-Montes, both of whom have with him witnessed what they call “sunny day flooding” on the north end of the island associated with high tides but no storm activity.

Without the protection of dunes, Longboat’s bay side is more vulnerable to potential sea rise than the Gulf side, Bullock said.

With Lynn Burnett, the city engineer for Anna Maria, Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach, Longboat is investigating the possibility of installing valves on its street storm drains that could keep back the bay when abnormally high tides occur, Bullock said.

When repaving streets, the town may put new asphalt on top of the old to raise the road’s elevation.

“We’ll get smarter with infrastructure,” Bullock, who retires in January and will be succeeded by Sarasota County Administrator Tom Harmer, predicted.

Because Longboat is a small municipal government with limited resources, it will look toward others setting examples of what planning works and what does not, Bullock said.

“It’s not an emergency, but you’ve got to deal with it,” Bullock said. “This is a story that will be written over decades.”

North Port also continues to participate in meetings with Freeman-Montes and its comprehensive plan already mentions “minimizing the effects of sea level rising,” Michael Fear, the city’s Public Works customer service and outreach manager, said. “This is the extent of our involvement at this time.”

Venice, too, joins in the regional discussions. For Nokomis Avenue stormwater improvements, “we have chosen to increase the pipe sizes to the maximum extent possible,” Assistant City Engineer James Clinch said. “This is in part because it is a tidally influenced outfall and we anticipate sea level rise could impact this system in the future.” Other “specific projects or initiatives” in Venice have yet to be implemented.

In the Sarasota-Manatee area, however, the city of Sarasota is gaining the most ground in regard to thinking ahead — though it, too, admits that it has a long way to go.

Assessing vulnerabilities

Ten years ago, the city of Sarasota pledged to minimize its contributions to climate change by signing the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.

It reinforced that pledge this summer at the encouragement of the highly vocal and organized Sarasota Climate Justice Coalition. Sarasota became the 29th city in the nation and third in Florida to join the national Sierra Club’s “Ready for 100” campaign.

The City Commission wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent communitywide by 2025, based on a 2003 baseline. It also agreed with the Sierra Club’s lofty goal of making the entire municipality, including the private sector, reliant on 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.

Yet Sarasota’s most important step forward in specifically addressing the potential impacts of sea level rise occurred two years ago. It hired Freeman-Montes, who had been doing similar work in Oregon, as its new sustainability manager.

Using projections from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Freeman-Montes started considering the possibility that the Gulf-front city could, by the year 2050, experience sea level rise of 12 to 18 inches.

Freeman-Montes’ “interim vulnerability report” is a work-in-progress inventory of the city’s assets: roads, sewage facilities, stormwater retention areas, shorelines, parks, water supplies, buildings – and potential exposures.

“We have so many large investments,” she noted.

Mainland Sarasota is mostly well elevated but models show the barrier islands and bayfront to be at risk.

Freeman-Montes cites areas of concern that include St. Armands Circle (where she is examining the capacity of five pumps that transfer stormwater into Sarasota Bay) and Lido Key, the bayfront marina, Ringling Causeway, Siesta Drive, U.S. 41 from Fruitville Road to Osprey Avenue, U.S. 41 at Whitaker Bayou, the Hudson Bayou bridge on U.S. 41, the 10th Street boat ramp and the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall area.

The waters of Sarasota Bay surpass a seawall near Bayfront Park in Sarasota in September 2016, after Hurricane Hermine passed through the area. (Courtesy photo / Sherri Swanson, HDR Inc.)

She is looking at how existing infrastructure could either be relocated or somehow fortified, such as whether sewer lift stations can be water proofed with encased control panels.

Because climate change is predicted to cause increases in precipitation as well as drought, Freeman-Montes is thinking about consequences of both extremes: Should future city landscaping strictly be heat-resistant plants? If a 5 to 10 percent increase in “really hard rain events” occurs, could the existing stormwater system manage the additional stress?

The next step, Freeman-Montes said, will be in upcoming months – when the city adopts specific “adaptation strategies” and starts applying for grants to assist with the costs.

‘A living document’

The city of Punta Gorda set an early example of planning for sea level rise in 2009, five years after being struck hard by Hurricane Charley.

City leaders considered sea level rise a future problem they wanted to start addressing immediately. The city recruited Jim Beever of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, who worked with the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program on what would become a 409-page “adaptation plan” for the municipality.

Residents of the Punta Gorda area reach a consensus on priorities for that city’s sea level rise adaptation strategy during a 2009 meeting. (Courtesy photo / Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council)

Hurricane Charley “had a big influence” on the city’s willingness to get a preparation strategy underway, Beever said. It was rebuilding anyway and decided that “instead of rebuilding the same to rebuild better” and not be “just the same old, strip-mall, small town.”

The plan took shape during numerous public meetings. It looked forward into the next century and eventually identified more than 240 “climate change management adaptations” to be addressed over decades.

The city is examining “a new drainage system for downtown” and a gate system that could hold back street flooding during high tides, he noted.

Most importantly, the strategy calls for the city to avoid “a hardened shoreline so habitats can migrate,” Beever said. Obstructions such as seawalls and roads can prevent vegetation that can protect shorelines, such as mangroves, from moving to higher ground if it becomes too submerged.

Punta Gorda intends to have “a stepped-back shoreline,” with “a series of terraces” that can accept rising waters away from “elevated buildings,” Beever said. “You want to see habitats migrate. You don’t want an all-concrete waterfront.”

The document includes “no regrets” and “low regrets” clauses that Beever considers paramount. Those sections simply state that, even if sea level rise is not as severe as some climate scientists warn, making investments that better protect the city’s infrastructure from storms, improve water quality, preserve and restore habitat, conserve energy, consider irrigation alternatives during droughts and other objectives are still worth making and will have long-term benefits.

Having heard about his ongoing efforts in Punta Gorda, the Pelican Cove community in south Sarasota County invited Beever to be a guest speaker at a homeowners meeting last year.

Pelican Cove, a condominium community on Little Sarasota Bay, is working with the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council on a long-term strategy to adapt to sea level rise. An option under consideration is converting its marina to elevated or floating docks.(Herald-Tribune staff photo /Thomas Bender)

Beever spent months crafting an adaptation plan specifically for that bayfront neighborhood of 731 condos – visiting the area several times and conducting meetings attended by hundreds of homeowners.

The strategy calls for Pelican Cove to work with the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program to create oyster reefs to protect its shoreline. The community will also remove silt from Clower Creek for better drainage, plant trees that can better withstand storms and take other protective steps.

“It was an eye-opening, really good experience,” Pelican Cove general manager Jack Stevens said of the planning process. “It brought the focus in for our community.”

Although Beever drafted “a whole shopping list of things we can do,” Stevens said, improving the sustainability of Pelican Cove will require investments over several decades.

The neighborhood has already “pulled the trigger” and started planning for the oyster reefs and improving the creek as a stormwater outlet, he noted.

Even if sea level rise is not as extensive as climate scientists may predict, Stevens said, preparations for it have left Pelican Cove residents – as they have for Punta Gorda residents - feeling “optimistic” about making their community more resilient to future storms and better guardians of water quality.

“Our hope is other neighborhoods will see what we’ve done and join in,” Stevens said.

Whether an adaptation plan is done by a local government or a private community, it should be considered “a living document,” said Beever, who is now working with the city of Cape Coral on climate change preparations.

“There’s always new things to do,” Beever said. “It’s not static.”

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