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State hearing sought on lagoon docks

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of April 5, 2012)

Attorneys with the Tallahassee firm Causley & McMullen have filed a formal "Petition for Administrative Hearing" on behalf of island resident Michael Casale to try and stop the Osprey Estate Development.

Located adjacent to an aquatic preserve on the mainland shore of the Indian River Lagoon about a mile north of the Barber Bridge, the development proposed by Oculina Bank would include three 6,000-square-foot homes with docks protruding as much as 500 feet into the estuary.

Should the project proceed, 1.8 acres of mangrove wetlands will be filled and hundreds of pilings will be sunk in shallow water on the western shore of the lagoon where manatees are known to graze on sea grass beds.

“Docks that length could pose a hazard to navigation,” says Ralph Monticello, director of land protection at Indian River Land Trust. “They could also interfere with manatee feeding areas.”

Casale’s petition came in response to a Feb. 10 Florida Department of Environmental Protection notice of intent to issue a permit for the controversial project.

The petition lists 41 objections to the project, reasons why it does not fit state guidelines for waterfront development in an aquatic preserve, and asks that it be stopped or modified.

Reasons include the likelihood of harmful impacts to fish, birds and other wildlife, including mantes, degradation of water quality to substandard levels and loss of protected sea grass beds.

State and federal statutes protect sea grass because it is a foundational component of lagoon ecology, providing food and shelter for many marine animals.

Manatees rely on the lush underwater meadows for much of their diet and the grasses act as a nursery for fish.

Females lay their eggs in the lagoon and hatchlings live, feed and hide from predators in the greenery until they are mature enough to venture into open waters.

Docks endanger sea grass beds by cutting off sunlight needed by the plants.

A study done by The Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation, a private, nonprofit non-partisan organization founded in 1971, found sea grass density is reduced by more than 40 percent in shaded areas, and the proposed docks would shade more than 5,000 square feet.

The petition alleges "the docks proposed as part of the project exceed permissible lengths and other parameters under applicable law.”

According to state code, “no dock shall extend waterward of the mean or ordinary high water line more than 500 feet or 20 percent of the width of the water body at that particular location, whichever is less,” but the site plan submitted with the permit application shows the longest Osprey Estates dock extends more than 500 feet into the lagoon and obstructs more than 40 percent of the waterway. 

Steven Gieseler, an attorney representing Oculina Bank, says the docks will not be as long as shown on the site plan.

“Plans like this are a fluid thing,” he says. “The people opposing the project are not privy to the changing information we are privy to.

“Sometimes members of the public bring something to the DEP’s attention that they have overlooked. If they then come to us and say there is something that would make the project more amenable to getting final approval we look at it and see if the client is willing to go along with the change.”

“That is not a credible scenario,” says David Cox, an environmental consultant hired by a group of John’s Island and Grand Harbor residents who also are filing a petition for administrative review of the project. “Those guys at Central District [of the DEP] didn’t accidently overlook the length of these docks. They know the regulations controlling docks inside and out without even looking them up.”

Gieseler would not go into detail about the discussions he says are taking place to modify the development or say exactly how long the docks will be, but his statement seems to substantiate another argument in the in the petition where it alleges “the applicant and its agents have not accurately and/or fully represented all aspects of the project, and their associated impacts, in the permit application to the DEP; or, conditions in and around the project site have changed since the petition was submitted.”

Meanwhile, DEP officials will not say why docks twice as long as allowed by code were on the verge of approval until stopped by concerned citizens is not known.

“We can’t comment while the matter is in litigation,” says Patrick Gillespie, a DEP spokesman.