It was a busy Collier County Board of Commissioners Meeting on Tuesday, April 27. Commissioners started by giving County Manager Leo Ochs a fond farewell. Ochs was attending his final Board meeting. Each Commissioner spoke from the heart, thanking Ochs for his many years of service. Ochs, in turn, thanked the commissioners for their support along with prior officials, non-profits, businesses and the staff members he was privileged to work with over the past 36 years. Ochs is staying in the community and Commissioners have already joked about putting him on committees.
A variety of issues were on the table, none more detailed than the County Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study presented by Dan Hughes with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This was a long, thorough, and detailed presentation that generated many questions from the Commissioners and significant feedback from local community representatives. The task before the county is to sign a non-binding letter in support of the recommended plan. The non-binding letter needs to be approved to move the process along and secure federal funding but does not bind the county to any financial commitment at this point.
What is a Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study? Just that – a study evaluating how to manage the risks and damages associated with storms. The risk extends to residents, industries and businesses and took into account current and future population, the mixture of structures residing in the studied areas, the loss already incurred by Collier from past storms and projected sea level rises. This study began in 2018 and if the project moves forward, would be completed by 2035.
The Army Corps of Engineers’ recommendation to improve conditions and minimize storm risks is with a combination of structural, nonstructural, beach and critical infrastructure that would keep the water from storms impacting the studied areas. Structural includes surge barriers with a mixture of sector gates, sluice gates and floodwalls, pump stations, a jetty at Wiggins Pass, dune, and berm beach fill. Nonstructural includes elevating existing structures and flood proofing. Also included is beach nourishments. Hughes provided detailed maps of the studied areas showing exactly where the structural and nonstructural initiatives would happen. Environmental impact information was also presented and the mitigation to mangroves, vegetated dunes and more.
So, what constitutes a studied area? Federal dollars can only be applied where there is a cost benefit; once the cost of fixing the problem exceeds what it will save (damages prevented), the Corps cannot legally partner with the county and use federal dollars. So not all the county coastal areas were studied and not all studied areas received the same recommendations. And what constitutes cost benefit? Well, that was the main area of contention with two of the studied areas, one of those being Marco Island.
The Corps recommendation for Marco, Goodland and Isles of Capri is nonstructural. Commissioner LoCastro asked for further clarification and Hughes explained that a structural solution isn’t feasible because as an island, water can enter from all sides. The internal canal system also creates a problem. Many beachfront condos have garage areas at beach level that reduces their building’s structural damage, thus reducing the cost benefit. As for inland homes, Hughes talks about targeting the older ones not built to the current required higher elevation and getting them to a flood proofing level. The goal is to partner and identify those at-risk homes, but it will be voluntary for homeowners to do it.
Councilor Brechnitz was in attendance and represented the concerns from Marco. He said that while the City supports the objective of the study and the need to address the island’s vulnerability from storms and sea level rise, they do not support the plan because it excludes beach resiliency, dune features and any other structures in its recommendations. The northwest portion of the island was not even studied – this is due to the federal requirement that there must be public access every quarter mile to get federal funding. Brechnitz points out that there are billions of dollars of assessed evaluation on that stretch of the island that was not even considered, meaning it did not play into any cost benefit analysis. He also believes it unlikely that any of the inland homes they want to raise up will be able to be raised up. The City wants the plan for Marco to be reassessed to include structures, saying the City has not seen any numbers to support the cost benefit analysis the Corps used for not providing them.
Cost-benefit played into the other area of concern, specifically Planning Area Two in Naples (located between Vanderbilt Beach Road and Park Shore Road). Speakers felt that the proposed plan helps other areas at their expense and that the cost-benefit analysis is flawed. Hughes explains that the Corps has limits on what areas they can participate in so while he acknowledges the concerns, encourages the county to set aside money to help those areas and “fill in the gaps” left off their plan.
Risk management for storms and sea level rise is hugely important; the presentation and discussion took about three hours. This brief synopsis doesn’t include the many charts shown during the meeting nor the nuances of the discussion or of the plan itself. County Commissioners were dialed in and attentive to every aspect and Mr. Hughes was knowledgeable and transparent with his answers. It is important to note that the Corps recommended plan will reduce future damages in Collier by 36% with 64% of future damages still remaining after the plan is implemented. The plan also carries a 21% reduction in loss of life with 79% of estimated life loss still remaining. Hughes points out this is not the single end-all solution to eliminating coastal storm risk and storm surge and that the county still bears responsibility for its own efforts. There will always be continual risk of coastal damage for storms and residents and businesses need to heed warnings.
In the end, the Commissioners moved forward on signing the non-binding letter so that the process would not stop. Commissioner Solis said, “we can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater”. Signing allows the process to move forward and not lose a potential two-billion-dollar funding source. Commissioners also acknowledged that there are concerns that need to be addressed. Staff confirms that we can leave this process at any time but signing the non-binding letter gets us to the next step in the process and get the funding. The county can refine the recommendations or leave it at any time. It’s all about the funding. If we fail to provide the matching funds when the time comes, the project does not move forward.
If Collier County is your long-term living plan, you’re encouraged you to go to the County website and watch this segment. Google search “Collier County Board of Commissioners Meetings” and it will take you right to the Meetings and Information page. From there you can watch the Board of County Commissioners Regular Meeting, April 27, 2021. You can click right to this subject “Coastal Storm Risk” and see the full presentation.