VERO BEACH — The City Council Tuesday shut down yet another attempt to halt a planned expansion of the city marina.
The appeal was the latest effort by citizens group Vero Beach Preservation Alliance, led by beachside residents, to stop expansion of the marina. The group successfully petitioned to put a referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot which would have stopped certain sized expansions at the marina — and other city park properties — without voter approval.
The city sued the alliance, claiming there were ambiguities in the referendum's language, and a judge struck the referendum from the ballot after polls closed. But, records showed, 55% of voters rejected the referendum, even before the judge gave her ruling.
On Tuesday, The alliance once again attempted to halt the expansion by filing an appeal against the Planning and Zoning Board's approval, forcing the City Council to review the plan in a hearing.
The council unanimously rejected the alliance appeal.
"We have made our case to the community in various venues, by the way," Mayor John Cotugno said Tuesday. "This venue, in court, in a referendum that was defeated, even though it wasn't official. So, to me, the community says that this is an acceptable use of that property, for a storage facility."
The city for years has planned to expand and improve the marina and its dilapidated dry-boat storage building. It started working on the plan in 2019, according to city documents, and it ultimately settled on a 21,355-square-foot building — about doubling the current 11,300 square feet of combined storage and office space. This followed a compromise where the city agreed to reduce the building length from 210 feet to 180 feet.
The alliance and its attorney, Richard Grosso, presented a number of complaints Tuesday: They argued the site plan did not follow certain off-site parking and loading requirements; it did not take marine life, water quality and environmental habitats into account; and it would cause disruptions for adjacent properties and homeowners, including noise and trash.
Grosso argued that by more than doubling the size of the boat barn, it would bring more boat traffic to the area.
"The nature of the environmental impact here, it ain't the footprint of the project," Grosso said Tuesday. "It's where those boats go. And the whole nature of why you have a boathouse is so boats can leave and trek up the lagoon to go offshore or to go wherever they're going to go."
But Planning and Development Director Jason Jeffries pushed back on the alliance's complaints, saying the plan did meet city parking regulations; that environmental studies identified no critical habitats — such as wetlands or seagrass beds — within the project area; and that boating impacts in the lagoon have nothing to do with the project's approval.
"Those impacts do not occur on the proposed site," Jeffries said.
Following each side's arguments, public opinion was split. Some people spoke in favor of the alliance's effort, including limiting the size of the boat barn and how more boat traffic could impact wildlife. Others cast doubt on the group's environmental concerns, arguing more boats in dry storage would mean fewer boats on the water.
"Manatees die from boat strikes when boats are going fast, not when they're going slow," Keith Drewett, Clean Water Coalition board member, said during public comment. "The area from the Barber Bridge to well north of the marina, in the basin and in the mangroves, is a slow-speed zone."
According to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data, yearly manatee deaths from boat accidents have hovered around 9% to 10% in the past two years, Drewett pointed out. Most manatee deaths last winter were due to starvation — in 2021, watercraft caused 103 of 1,101 manatees deaths, and 74 have died from watercraft so far this year out of 760 total deaths, according to FWC.
As of data from Dec. 2, five of those 74 deaths this year were in Indian River County, the sixth-most of any county in Florida. Volusia County has had the most watercraft-related manatee deaths so far at 13.
Because the alliance appeal failed, the project can move forward. Responding to the appeal, both Cotugno and Councilman Rey Neville cited how the city already compromised on the project this year by shrinking the storage building.
"We made that decision in consideration of [the alliance's] observations about the size of it," Neville said. "And I thought that was a fair compromise on our part. We could have made it even larger and chose not to."
This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Vero Beach Preservation Alliance appeals, fails to stop city marina plan