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Will poor planning sink our shot at state funding for lagoon?

STORY BY CASEY STAVENHAGEN (Week of April 13, 2023)

One hundred million dollars in state funding for Indian River County’s namesake lagoon will soon be up for grabs, but the county may get passed over due to not having a fully developed and approved Indian River Lagoon Management Plan with local matching funds committed to shovel-ready projects.

The bare-bones outline of a plan to protect and restore the lagoon has been in the works for five years, but county staffers say it’s nearly a year from being finished, and the Board of County Commissioners is rightly concerned that when state funding becomes available on July 1, many projects which could benefit will be bogged down in the development phase of the plan.

“I want to get this done tomorrow,” said Commission Chairman Joe Earman at last week’s commission meeting. “It’s kind of frustrating for me – presenting plans and trying to move ahead to see some real stuff being done. Time is of the essence and to me this ought to be probably the No. 1 priority on our list of things to do upon the thousand other things we have.”

The lagoon-specific funding stems from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Executive Order 23-06, which pledges $3.5 billion over four years “to further advance the protection of Florida’s environment and water quality,” according to the governor’s website. Of that sum, $100 million is set aside annually for Indian River Lagoon water quality projects.

While other counties, such as Brevard County, have similar management plans developed and in place, Indian River county is lagging behind. Commission Vice-Chairwoman Susan Adams said she feared a funding issue of this nature would arise when development of the management plan began in 2018.

“If we don’t have a plan, everybody else is going to draw down all those funds and we, who have the name of ‘Indian River Lagoon’ in our county name, are going to be sitting here, wringing our hands, because we don’t have the dollars to do the projects that are necessary because we’ve been working on a plan for five years,” Adams said. “Too much planning at this point.”

The management plan is the task of the Indian River Public Works’ coastal division, in partnership with Tetra Tech consultants, who also worked on Brevard County’s 273-page plan. However staffing shortages in the division, Covid delays and other more urgent priorities such as hurricanes and beach replenishment put the lagoon plan on the back burner.

“We haven’t been sitting on our heels watching this go by,” said public works director Rich Szpyrka. “My staff has been busting their butts on this and the beaches. With those three, and now we have turtle season, we’ve been doing the best we can with what we got. We’ll put this as a priority – we’re doing it all at the same time.”

Szpyrka said the county has several worthy projects in the works that could be highly ranked for state funding.

“We tried to move forward as best we could, this is important to us. We have projects in the hopper ready to go. I know there’s a lot of money out there – I’m all about spending other people’s money to get things done for the community and save the taxpayers dollars,”  Szpyrka added.

As July 1 approaches, lagoon plan environmental specialist Melissa Meisenburg said staff hopes to have a rough outline of the plan ready to go, along with several projects that are already permitted.

“There are definitely projects that we have, including projects that I have permits for, that are ready to move forward,” Meisenburg said. “We need funding. They include seagrass restoration, oyster restoration as well as muck mapping for the lagoon.”

In the following 9-12 months, Meisenburg said the focus for the plan will be plugging in data to the outline while communicating between staff and Tetra Tech on edits.

“I know we’re short staffed and I know we’re doing a whole bunch of other stuff. I know that I’ve talked to Mr. Zito about this and will talk with the county administrator about getting some additional help or whatever we need to do,” Earman said. “I’m all ears. It’s just not moving fast enough for me, and I’m not blaming anybody at all.”