Posted on September 21, 2021
Collier County commissioners agreed to continue working with USACE after failed attempt to sever ties with coastal resiliency study.
A Collier commissioner’s effort Tuesday to sever ties with a federal study meant to protect the county’s shores from storm risks fell through.
Board of Collier County Commissioner Chairwoman Penny Taylor asked her fellow board members to stop moving forward with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study, and to thank the Corps for their efforts.
“Collier County’s always been concerned about the future, especially about the beaches and about the property values on the beaches and maintaining a strong, vibrant economic base — tourist base,” Taylor said. “But now let us go and use the resources that we have, including this plan, and plan for our future independent of this Army Corps plan.”
What is the Tentatively Selected Plan?
The Corps’ study outlines multiple proposals, but its engineers chose one as its Tentatively Selected Plan, which is meant to harden the county’s beaches, back bays and buildings against storm surge and other risks.
The preferred plan within the study aroused opposition from citizens who thought it did not protect enough of the county and also from the City of Naples, which sent a letter to the county in “strong opposition” of the Corps’ study.
All four other county commissioners said they would not agree to stop cooperating with the Corps’ efforts.
Commissioner Rick LoCastro, who said he’s done dozens of feasibility plans with the Corps during his time in the military, said it would be irresponsible to not get the benefit of the Corps’ analysis.
Within the study there may be “pie-in-the-sky” ideas, he said, but there could also be analysis that shows which parts of the county are most vulnerable.
“There’s counties all over the country right now that would kill to have the Army Corps of Engineers on their soil, doing anything for free to give us some analysis,” LoCastro said. “All we’re looking for is the final report, then we will judge what to do with it.”
Commissioner Andy Solis said it’s premature to stop supporting the Corps’ study.
“I dealt with Corps in my prior profession and you don’t want to throw them to the curb unless it’s really necessary because that has ramifications in the future in getting their participation,” he said.
Collier’s Deputy Manager Amy Patterson told the board that former director of the county’s Coastal Zone Management department, Gary McAlpin, spent about 12 years trying to get this study funded and authorized to look at improvements to the beaches.
“Around the same time resiliency efforts became very important, very popular and so our beach-only effort became a resiliency effort and that’s where we stand today,” Patterson said. “So, Mr. McAlpin spent an extensive amount of time bringing the Corps to Collier County to ultimately be where we are today with a resiliency plan, as well as those beach elements.”
Patterson also said the Corps is now reevaluating the study due to changing costs.
“As we are experiencing throughout the country and here locally there have been pretty rapid escalations in construction costs and other costs related to projects,” she said. “Because of that, cost benefit is one of the most important aspects of this project and the ability to put federal funds on the project. If you can’t meet cost benefit, you can’t spend federal funds.”
Any prior presentations the Corps gave could now be outdated, she said.
Looking to nature for solutions
During the meeting, local environmental organizations expressed the need to reengage with the Corps to modify the Tentatively Selected Plan.
Meredith Budd, with the Florida Wildlife Federation, said the county should not withdraw from the study, but take a strong stance on advocating for natural features.
“In the final plan, Collier needs to ensure the Corps prioritizes nature-based features and plan in concert with other mitigation efforts,” Budd said. “We also want to ensure decisions are made equitably so all residents can see benefits of the plan.”
Kathy Worley, with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said a more comprehensive approach is required to protect the county.
“Storm surge is only one aspect of climate change. A multitude of other climate change impacts are equally problematic,” she said. “The Tentatively Selected Plan is reliant on hardened structures. This approach can have water quality, environmental and quality of life implications.”
Worley asked the commissioners to step back and consider a more holistic approach and to consider all aspects of climate change together.
The idea to add more natural and nature-based features to the Corps’ study has been an initiative of the Environmental Defense Fund, a non-profit environmental advocacy group, since the draft study was released in 2019.
Rachel Rhode, a senior analyst with the group, said there is a large national effort to get the Corps to look at these studies in a more holistic viewpoint rather than just addressing storm surge.
“We at EDF found success promoting nature-based solutions in Louisiana, New Jersey and North Carolina,” she said last week. “They can provide a number of co-benefits that hard infrastructure can’t.”
Mangroves, oyster reefs and wetlands can provide protections against storm surge but also provide fish and wildlife habitat, Rhode said. Nature-based solutions can adapt over time where sea walls and flood gates cannot.
Collier’s commissioners should push for a locally preferred plan, she said.
“The locally preferred planning process is county-led with support from the Corps to get way more input from the community and bring stakeholders to the table and come up with an actual solution to present to the Corps,” she said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Brad Cornell with Audubon Florida and Audubon of the Western Everglades reminded the county commissioners they had previously discussed forming a technical advisory committee to address the needs of the county.
“I think that we have an opportunity here to re-engage the Corps constructively and look at alternatives to what is currently in front of us,” he said.
The county has big problems in terms of flooding, coastal storm threats, sea-level rise and climate change, he said.
“These are big, big threats that are just going to get worse as the years go on,” he said. “So, the scale of Army Corps’ plan is right: We should be talking in terms of billions of dollars, big comprehensive plans. The fact that we don’t like all the specifics means we should get down to some nitty-gritty details.”
County Commissioners, in the end, agreed to look into forming an advisory committee, and Patterson said staff will look at existing committees to see if one fits the purpose of the Corps’ study.
The issue will come back to the board at a future meeting.