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Sarasota Tuesday, May 25, 2021 1 year ago

Regional board reverses denial of Bobby Jones wetland grant

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Following support from county officials and members of the public, the Southwest Florida Water Management District endorsed the city’s request to fund a stormwater project.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

The Southwest Florida Water Management District’s Governing Board unanimously endorsed the city of Sarasota’s request for a $1.5 million grant for a created wetlands project at Bobby Jones Golf Club.

The vote at today’s meeting reversed the decision of a SWFWMD subcommittee, which in April moved to deny the grant request despite an endorsement from water management district staff.

The city intends to create an 18-acre wetland on the Bobby Jones site designed to treat stormwater runoff from an approximately 5,800-acre watershed to the north. The project is estimated to cost $3.02 million, and the city hoped to get half of that expense covered via a SWFWMD grant.

As part of the process of evaluating funding requests from throughout the region, SWFWMD staff ranked the city’s project as a high priority, calling it in line with a directive from Gov. Ron DeSantis to pursue initiatives capable of mitigating harmful algae blooms. At today’s meeting, SWFWMD staff continued to speak positively about the proposal’s potential to reduce nutrients entering Sarasota Bay.

“The project is highly cost effective,” said Randy Smith, chief of the SWFWMD natural systems and restoration bureau.

The 18-acre created wetlands is part of a larger plan to renovate the 293-acre Bobby Jones Golf Club property. File image.

Today, the staff presentation led to the 12-member Governing Board’s decision to include the city’s grant request in the recommended budget for fiscal year 2022.

That was not the case in April, when the Southern Region Cooperative Funding Initiative voted 2-1 to recommend against the city’s request — the lone denial among 22 projects ranked as a medium priority or higher. Subcommittee Chairman Joel Schleicher also rejected staff’s request to make a presentation to the full SWFWMD board for further consideration.

City Manager Marlon Brown called the outcome of April’s meeting “highly unusual“ and unlike anything he had experienced in his career in government. Following the meeting, critics of the subcommittee’s decision drew attention to Schleicher’s history as an active critic of the city government. Schleicher is the co-founder of BEST Plan for Sarasota, a nonpartisan advocacy group that has said the city lacks effective leadership. He contributed $50,000 to a political committee under the same name in 2019. 

Following the meeting, Schleicher defended his vote, stating it was rooted in questions about the value of the project and the city’s ability to follow through on its plans. Today, however, Schleicher reversed his previous position, voting with the rest of the Governing Board in favor of the city’s proposal.

“To take the nutrients out of this broad watershed area I think makes a lot of sense,” Schleicher said.

Schleicher cited new information about Sarasota County’s support for the project as a factor that led to him changing his outlook. On May 18, the County Commission voted unanimously to endorse the city’s plans for the created wetlands at Bobby Jones. Smith said 85% of the watershed the project would reach is located outside of the city limits in unincorporated Sarasota County. Smith also said county staff has been coordinating with the city on the project for about two years.

In a letter to City Manager Marlon Brown, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis said the county would continue working with the city on construction and maintenance of the wetlands.

“Water quality is a top priority to the Sarasota County Commission,” Lewis wrote.

SWFWMD board member Rebecca Smith said she was excited to see the city submit a plan related to stormwater treatment.

“I’m a big fan of the project and glad to hear, Joel, that you’ve gotten behind it, because I think it’s an amazing asset,” Smith said at today’s meeting. 

The city hopes to secure permits for the wetlands project in July and begin construction in November.

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