by Jeremy Morrison
A little push back was to be expected. That became apparent early on in the recent update meeting for the Living Shorelines projects planned for Pensacola, with irritated grumblings about “being dealt a borrowed set of poker cards.”
“You’ve got some serious people here,” growled Harold Hommeland. “You’re gonna effect the rest of their lives.”
A resident of the Sanders Beach neighborhood, Hommeland was upset about the prospects of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection turning a nearby pool of Pensacola Bay into a marshland in an effort to improve water quality and decrease shoreline erosion. He wasn’t alone.
“If you looked out at a beach your whole life and then one day you woke up and they say it’s going to be a marsh, how would you feel?” demanded Chris Bowen.
The FDEP officials, having made their way over from Tallahassee for the July 18 meeting, were in no mood to entertain such sentiments. Pearce Barrett, a National Resource Damage Assessment project coordinator with the department, informed people that the public comment period was “over and done with.”
“Please don’t get up here and pontificate for 15 minutes,” he said. “We’re not here for that.”
The state officials were there to present the conceptual designs for two living shoreline sites — one off of Sanders Beach, and another near the already exiting Project Greenshores — planned for the area. The projects are a result of $10.8 million worth of environmental restoration funds intended to compensate the Gulf Coast for damage sustained due to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The living shoreline projects, such as Project Greenshores, located near the bay bridge, are intended to prevent coastal erosion and act as a filtration system. They are also suppose to encourage marine habitat growth and recreational activities, such as kayaking.
In total, the two new projects being planned will create approximately 18.8 acres of salt marsh habitat and four acres of oyster reef habitat. Preliminary designs incorporate channels to allow for flow and circulation.
“It’s a combination of planted areas and open areas to provide for circulation,” explained Cameron Perry, an engineer with HDR, the firm designing the projects.
Concerns voiced during the local meeting centered on the locations of the FDEP’s proposed living shoreline projects, particularly the Sanders Beach site. Nearby residents pointed out that the area had traditionally been a sandy bottom site and that the project would dramatically alter their shoreline.
“You’ve lost your beach, you’ve lost your view and you’ve lost the value of your waterfront property,” said one beachfront resident.
Other people charged that the projects were being done simply because there were restoration dollars needing to be spent. They questioned if these projects would accomplish their intended purpose of restoring a damaged ecosystem, and asked if the money might be spent differently.
“This is a disaster,” said Bowen.
Laurie Rounds, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, explained that the sites had been chosen because they were appropriate sites to host a marsh habitat, reminded people that the projects were underway and attempted to steer the conversation back on course.
“So, again, we’re here tonight to discuss the conceptual design,” she said.
After the meeting, Barrett said he wasn’t surprised by the reception the Tallahassee delegation received.
“The general populous sees the benefit of the projects, the people closest to it want to protect and preserve what they have,” he said. “There’s always someone that’s not going to be happy.”
As for the charges that officials were creating a marsh habitat where none previously existed, Barrett insisted that the projects would be a benefit in helping to prevent erosion and improve the coastal environment.
“Sometimes it takes a little push from man to help things get along,” he said.
Pensacola Assistant City Administrator Keith Wilkins, who previously served as Escambia County’s director of natural resources management, hit a similar note, albeit more cautiously.
“We’re pro-project, but absolutely we want to address some of the issues,” Wilkins said following the meeting.
Wilkins said that the city was familiar with the concerns voiced by residents during the meeting, primarily the altering of the Sanders Beach viewshed and landscape.
“We’ve heard them before and we’ve communicated them to NOAA,” he said.
But overall, the assistant administrator noted, the projects will be an environmental win for the area.
“Ecologically, I think it’s super,” Wilkins said. “It’s not what was actually here, but nothing is what it was.”
With the conceptual designs of the two proposed living shoreline sites 30 percent complete, the next work to be done involves additional site surveys — both biological and sedimentary —completing the designs, and securing the required permitting. Actual construction of the living shorelines is expected to begin late in 2017.