Sea grass dispute has Marco in 'a holding pattern'

On the banks of the Tigertail Beach lagoon, grass stretches tentacle-like toward its brethren on the dune across the way. In between there’s a 200-foot stretch of beach with a pathway narrowing with every grasp of the grass.

The South Seas condo complex sits behind a ribbon of vegetation on Tigertail Beach on Marco Island on Monday. Collier County’s Coastal Advisory Committee is attempting to get a permit to remove and relocate the plants, as residents in the high-rise condo complex have complained of obstructed views of the Gulf of Mexico.

Photo by TRISTAN SPINSKI, Daily News

The South Seas condo complex sits behind a ribbon of vegetation on Tigertail Beach on Marco Island on Monday. Collier County’s Coastal Advisory Committee is attempting to get a permit to remove and relocate the plants, as residents in the high-rise condo complex have complained of obstructed views of the Gulf of Mexico.

Now grass isn’t the only thing crowding the pathway.

In the last month, government agencies, environmental groups and condominium owners have begun to jostle over the land each with different ideas for how to handle the issue. The controversy sparked the City of Marco Island, where the beach is located, to hold a special-called meeting on the subject July 16.

The drama began innocently enough when condominium owners at the South Seas began complaining nearly a year ago that the grass growth is ruining their access — and visitor access — to the beach. Officials from the Collier County-owned park agreed.

In November, the county’s Coastal Advisory Committee unanimously recommended a $30,000 Tourism Development Council study needed for a Florida Department of Environmental Protection permit to remove some of the grass and return access in the pathway to 100 feet.

To remove an acre of the native vegetation — described as primarily saltgrass — the DEP is requiring the county to plant a corresponding amount somewhere else.

Everything was running smoothly until that "somewhere else" became someone else’s backyard.

Residents at five other Marco condominiums learned the beaches outside their properties were targets for vegetation planting. Their objection raised the project’s profile where now local environmentalists and a Marco City Council member are questioning the plan’s purpose.

Almost 30 people crowded into a first floor conference room at City Hall last month for a Beach Advisory Committee meeting where board members received an update on the project from Nancy Richie, the city’s environmental specialist. Richie had informed the condo residents where the grass would be planted and expressed concerns about the city’s contribution to the project. As part of the DEP permitting process, Marco must submit a letter on consistency stating the project fit the city’s comprehensive plan for development.

"I don’t know if it is consistent with our comprehensive plan," Richie said during the meeting.

Representatives from environmental groups such as Friends of Tigertail and The Conservancy of Southwest Florida attended the meeting and expressed doubts about the program.

"This program is absolutely not necessary," said Ken Kubat, 63, Friends of Tigertail’s treasurer. "Why can’t the 30 feet out there just be raked to keep the grass where it is? I’m absolutely stunned the TDC spent $30,000 for a study."

Nicole Ryan, the Conservancy’s governmental relations manager, also didn’t see a need for the project.

"You’re removing an acre of dune vegetation that could impact the beach," she said. "You’re likely going to need the grass to protect the shoreline from storm damage. I don’t understand why the county would want vegetation removed from the beach."

City Councilman Glenn Tucker, a city representative on the county’s Coastal Advisory Committee, didn’t understand why everyone was objecting to the project now after it had been on the table for more than nine months.

Tucker lambasted Richie and by extension City Manager Bill Moss for directing Richie to come before the Coastal Advisory Committee on June 14 without keeping him apprised of staff’s view of the project. He called the staff view "unacceptable."

"Quite honestly, I think (Moss) was speaking out of turn when he asked you to make the comments you’re making today," he said to Richie at the meeting. "If the administration was going to come out and oppose something it should have done something six months ago."

Following the meeting, Tucker spoke with Richie and Moss about the issue and continued to express frustration at the delay in the permit’s submission.

"If the Conservancy had its way, Marco Island would be entirely leveled," he said. "If you want to cut a daisy anywhere in the county, the Conservancy is going to object to it. It’s their job."

Moss said city staff was working on the matter and he didn’t expect a Marco letter of consistency to be any problem.

Then Councilman Chuck Kiester got wind of the issue. He fired off an e-mail to the Collier County Commission expressing his disapproval of the project and calling it a "dangerous precedent."

"Collier County should be setting the example for how dunes are protected. Approval of this project sets a poor example," Kiester wrote.

After an irascible e-mail exchange between Tucker and Kiester, Moss stopped city efforts on the project and the City Council meeting was set for Monday, July 16.

Until then, grass growth is likely to continue unabated.

"We are in a holding pattern until Marco resolves the replanting issue," Collier County Senior Project Manager Gary McAlpin wrote in a recent e-mail to members of the County Commission and staff.

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