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Date of Issue: October 21, 2009

Corps mum on McClash request as support grows

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has made no decision on a request by Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash to hold a public hearing on Longboat Key’s application to construct erosion control measures near Beer Can Island southwest of the Longboat Pass Bridge.

McClash sent a letter Oct. 1 to the Corps asking for a public hearing on Longboat Key’s application, noting that federal law states that anyone can request a public hearing.

In response, the Corps e-mailed McClash that his request was “under consideration.”

Corps spokesperson Mark Peterson said there is no response at this time to McClash and another request from ManaSota-88 for a public hearing. He said it will take about 30 days before the Corps will issue a decision.

Peterson said the Corps has to “study all the comments,” including those from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the other government and private agencies that have provided comments, along with those from the public.

Following McClash’s letter, county commissioners distanced themselves and Commission Chairperson Gwen Brown issued a statement that McClash was acting as a private citizen, even though he wrote the Corps on county stationery.

Not so, said McClash. He said he is still a county commissioner.

“I’m doing my job as a county commissioner. It’s what I was elected to do and I’m not concerned with how other commissioners feel about this project.”

McClash said the use of man-made materials such as “geotextile fabric and armor stone” concerns him because he does not know what effect those materials will have on Coquina Beach, which is in Bradenton Beach but operated by Manatee County.

Use of man-made structures in the Longboat Pass waters could impact the quality of the tourism product for both Longboat Key and Coquina Beach, and the entire Island, he indicated.

According to information about the application provided by the Corps, Longboat Key plans to construct four breakwaters beginning just south of the Longboat Pass entrance from the Gulf of Mexico and extending around the pass to Beer Can Island.

Each breakwater would weigh four tons, with geotextile fabric on the bottom and armor stone above the fabric. Each breakwater would be approximately 100 feet long and extend 4 feet above sea level. They are to be placed 210 feet from the shoreline.

There also is a safety and navigational issue for swimmers and boaters, said McClash.

What really bothers the commissioner, however, is that nobody informed Manatee County of the project. He discovered the Longboat Key application while making a routine online inspection of permit applications to the Corps.

“It’s really upsetting that we have nobody at the county looking out for the county interests and the Corps does not have to notify us. It’s up to us to continually monitor Corps applications,” he said.

McClash noted that the county’s environmental department, which used to track these issues, no longer exists.

He also observed that Longboat Key’s application is “not for beach renourishment. This is a breakwater project” for erosion control, he said. Longboat Key has a second application with the Corps for dredging.

The commissioner did not disagree that Longboat Key has an erosion problem in the area.

“If they had come with sand for the project, I would have no objection, but I don’t have enough information” about the use of man-made materials for erosion control, McClash said.

Hence the request for a public hearing.

“The deadline to make a request was Oct. 7, so I had to move quickly,” he said.

McClash said it’s possible that all his concerns could be satisfied at a hearing, but at this point, “I really don’t see any evidence why sand can’t be put there on a periodic basis.”

In addition to the McClash hearing request, the environmental group ManaSota-88 sent a similar letter to the Corps asking for a public hearing.

“We are very concerned about the impact this project could have to Longboat Pass, Anna Maria Island and Sarasota Bay,” said ManaSota-88 executive director Glenn Compton.

“We need to see exactly what is proposed and look at an environmental impact study, and there are concerns about the effect man-made materials will have on the marine environment,” he said.

McClash also received support from Sandra Ripberger of the Manatee-Sarasota Sierra Club, who said her organization also wants a hearing before any construction of offshore breakwaters.

Bradenton Beach Mayor Michael Pierce, whose city sits just across Longboat Pass from the construction area, said he would also like to know more about the project.

“I need a little more information about this,” he said, acknowledging that, while Bradenton Beach wants to be a good neighbor with Longboat Key, it also has to be concerned with its own shores.

“I don’t see any reason why not to look into [the project],” Pierce said.

Former Bradenton Beach Mayor Katie Pierola, who was involved obtaining approval and funding for the 1992 beach renourishment on Anna Maria Island, said she is “very alarmed” because Coquina Beach has never had a serious erosion problem until recently. She wants to know what the breakwaters mean for the sands at Coquina Beach.

“I’m concerned how these breakwaters will affect Coquina and I think there should be a public hearing and everything put on the table,” she said.

Pierola found it odd that the Corps has determined there is no need for an environmental impact study of the project.

“This will most definitely affect the dynamics of Longboat Pass. We need to know what’s going to happen,” she said.

Longboat Key responds

Not surprisingly, Longboat Key town officials were not happy with the McClash request, particularly after more than a year of preparing the project.

Longboat Key Vice-Mayor Bob Siekmann said the $2.4 million project is not using any federal or county money, although there might be some state funding involved.

“It’s all the town’s money and I’m surprised that [McClash] would come at this late date to object. It’s been on our city agenda for more than a year,” he said.

Siekmann noted that both marine engineering companies working for the city on the project have said the geotubes will not damage the Longboat Pass environment.

And one of those companies, Coastal Planning and Engineering of Boca Raton, also is the marine engineer for Manatee County, he said.

Siekmann said that the McClash request will cause the city to “miss the window of opportunity” to complete the project prior to the start of the 2011 turtle-nesting season, which begins around April. The city had hoped to begin the project at the end of the 2010 turtle nesting season, he said.

“It was very surprising to us to hear about the McClash letter. Everything we’ve done has been by the book and out in the open. Why did he wait until the last minute?” Siekmann said.

McClash could have attended any number of Longboat Key commission meetings to become informed about the project, he said.

The vice-mayor said the houses in the affected area were probably constructed too close to the shoreline, but that’s hindsight. Some of the houses were built decades ago, he said. The city has to deal with the problem now and this is the best solution, he said.