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County's request for funds for Oslo boat ramp denied

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of July 31, 2014)
Photo: CCA President Lange Skykes and Brendan Burke.

The Florida Inland Navigation District has turned down the county’s request for nearly half a million dollars in matching funds to expand the Oslo Road boat ramp.

If the County Commission decides to go ahead with the expansion despite this latest in a long series of setbacks, county taxpayers will have to foot the full $1-million cost for a project lagoon scientists, area environmental organizations and government agencies have long opposed as environmentally harmful.

Indian River County FIND Commissioner Paul Dritenbas says it is the county’s own fault the funds were not approved at the July FIND meeting.

“I met with Mike Nixon and other county staff and suggested scaling the project back to come up with a solution that would provide access but not harm the environment,” Dritenbas says.

Nixon is an engineer in the public works department who has been managing the permit application process for the ramp expansion.

“When he brought me the grant application to sign, nothing had been changed,” Dritenbas says. “I had to sign the application because it was correctly filled out and complete, but I told him I was going to oppose the project when it came before the commission.”

On June 20, the 12 counties in FIND’s jurisdiction presented the projects for which they are seeking 50-percent matching funds.

After the presentations, each commissioner had 10 minutes to ask questions or make remarks, and Dritenbas spoke about his objections to the Oslo boat ramp expansion, which he believes would damage seagrass beds in one of the few parts of the lagoon where the invaluable aquatic meadows still thrive.

The commissioners then rated the Oslo project and others on 10 criteria. FIND staff tabulated the commissioner’s ratings, and came back with recommendations about which projects to fund at FIND’s July 18 meeting.

“Projects have to get a score of 35 to go forward and the Oslo boat ramp got a 31.58,” says FIND Executive Director Mark Crossly.

How wrongheaded was the county’s approach and refusal to compromise?

“There were 60 or 61 projects submitted by the 12 counties and the Oslo ramp was the only one that did not move forward,” says Crossly.

“When a FIND commissioner comes to them with suggestions about how to improve the project they want FIND money for, and they ignore me, what am I supposed to do?” Dritenbas says. “It is my job to look at projects like this and provide perspective. Why do they think the governor appointed me?

“The county engineers are good engineers, but they have to do what the commission tells them to do. The commissioners are going to have to deflate on this, to put it kindly. They are going to have to let go of their egos and compromise.”

The county has already spent more than half a million dollars on the effort, which would impact 1.41 acres of wetlands, expand and pave the parking area near the ramp and the section of Oslo Road leading to the ramp, add dock space and dredge the channel connecting the ramp to the Intracoastal Waterway.

The county says no environmental harm will result, but lagoon scientists and conservation organizations pretty much universally disagree.

Pelican Island Audubon Society, Marine Resources Council, Sierra Club, Save the Manatee Club, Coastal Conservation Association and Indian Riverkeeper Marty Baum are among those who say the proposed “improvements” will disrupt a phenomenally important game fish nursery, endanger manatees and damage seagrass in one of the few areas where it still thrives in Indian River County.

They point out the ramp is located within the boundaries of a state aquatic preserve on property the county bought through the Florida Communities Trust Program primarily for conservation, and say it makes no sense to invite increased boat traffic and bigger boats in such an ecologically sensitive area – especially since the existing ramp infrastructure is in good condition and is well-used by small boat owners.

Commissioners Peter O’Bryan, Wesley Davis and Joe Flescher have repeatedly justified the project by saying the ramp area needs improvements, but Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission rates the ramp’s current condition as “Excellent” on its website.

O’Bryan and other commissioners have also claimed the public is clamoring for ramp improvements, citing petitions bearing hundreds of signatures sent to St. John’s Water Management District two years ago.  But a Vero Beach 32963 investigation found many of the signatures were fake or forged, triggering an investigation by St. Johns.

O’Bryan claims there is no seagrass present at the ramp but Lange Sykes, president of the Treasure Coast chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association of Florida, a 20,000-member organization of environmentally-minded fishermen, made an underwater video that clearly shows seagrass in the dredging area. Dritenbas says he has waded the area and seen the seagrass for himself.

“At a time when our most valuable resource is in jeopardy, coupled with the overwhelming scientific evidence clearly illustrating the significance of this specific location, it is hard to fathom our elected representatives advocating such a nonsensical initiative,” Sykes says. “I am pleased the FIND commission appropriately decided not to fund the project, which is in line with the overwhelming majority of public opinion.”

“The seagrass was in pretty good shape when the county started down this road,” says Dr. Richard Baker, University of Florida biology professor emeritus and president of Pelican Island Audubon Society. “That is not the case today when we have lost 60 percent of the grass and that are all kinds of problems in the lagoon.

“A million dollars would pay for a lot of oyster reefs and stormwater filtration infrastructure that we know would help the lagoon instead of spending it on a project we know is going to hurt the lagoon.”

“There is no need to dredge that channel 210 feet out,” says Dritenbas. “If they do, boats will get up on a plane and then when they veer off from the channel, they will tear up adjacent sea grass beds. It cannot happen. It must not happen.”

Up until last summer the Oslo plan met a stone wall of resistance from St. Johns and other permitting agencies. Throughout 2010 and 2011 USFWS, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency repeatedly denied the county’s applications for permits needed to proceed with the project on the grounds it violated Federal law and would cause environmental harm. Florida Fish and Wildlife also weighed in against the plan.

After Congressman Posey’s chief of staff met with government officials at the county’s request, the agencies reversed course and approved the needed permits last summer.

Dr. Baker, PIAS and Vero Beach Ecologist David Cox filed a case in Administrative Law Court to stop issuance of the permits and the case has been tied up since then.

A hearing was held in June in front of Judge D. R. Alexander and his opinion is expected soon, either allowing or disallowing permits for the project.

Even if Judge Alexander allows the project to go forward, it can still be stopped by three votes against it on the County Commission. Earlier this year, Commissioner Bob Solari suggested tabling the plan for several years rather than risk damaging the lagoon, but did not get a second for his motion. If two other commissioners have a change of heart and vote with Solari, the plan will be killed or mothballed.