Pensacola, Florida
Monday September 24th 2018

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The Innerarity Compromise


By Jeremy Morrison

The scene was rather idyllic along the curve of Bob-o-Link Road, as a late afternoon sky surrenders to another sunset. Over on Cruzat Way, a small patch of beach that overlooks Perdido Bay, dolphins crest the water’s surface just long enough to hear Escambia County Commissioner Doug Underhill saying something about how “the whole purpose here is to balance.”

Commissioner Underhill, county staff and Hammond Engineering hosted a special on-site public meeting to discuss the plans for the Bob-O-Link, Gorham and Cruzat Project. The project, previously referred to as the third phase of the Innerarity Point Road Drainage Improvement Project, began strictly as a stormwater project. While the design did improve residential flooding and the reduction of pollutants entering Perdido Bay, it did not allow for sufficient public access or provide an adequate intertidal zone. The commissioner wanted to give residents an opportunity to learn more about the revised plan during the walkthrough meeting.

The redesigned project is slated for construction bid advertisement in September. It provides not only stormwater protection but also erosion control, sand access for area residents and a living shoreline at both Bob-O-Link and Cruzat. The living shoreline will be home to a wide variety of plant and animal species.

Underhill stood in his flip-flops with a group of neighborhood residents, detailing a county project slated for the area. He stressed the compromised nature of the proposition.

“Nobody should walk out of here 100 percent happy,” the commissioner said.

Residents listened as Underhill, along with county staff and a project engineer, explained the specifics of the Bob-O-Link, Gorham & Cruzat Project. They flipped through handouts detailing the planned efforts to address the area’s stormwater and flooding issues as well as shoreline erosion concerns.

“What we do here is going to affect this neighborhood and the quality of life in this neighborhood forever,” Underhill told them.

But not everyone in the neighborhood seemed convinced the project—a phase of the Innerarity Point Road Drainage Improvement Project, funded with Local Option Sales Tax revenue—was necessary.

“I think they’re trying to fix something that’s not broken,” said resident Joi Rodgers.

This late August community meeting was the latest installment in a conversation that has been going on for the past couple of years between Escambia County and neighborhood residents. Since the project’s 2016 genesis, the county and residents have been working toward a project design that addresses drainage and erosion issues, while also allowing for continued public waterfront access.

“We have basically tried to take everything that was said two years ago and tried to get it to engineering standards,” Underhill said, explaining that the county’s original design concepts would have prevented beach access.

Some neighborhood residents have expressed concerns—on social media as well as officially in the form of a petition—about the project. They’re concerned it would impede public access to the waterfront at the ends of both Bob-O-Link and Cruzat, and afraid the use of riprap in erosion efforts will make beach access dangerous.

To address these concerns, county staff revised the design so that non-motorized vessels, such as kayaks, can still be brought to the water and limited the amount of riprap used in erosion efforts in favor of employing a living shoreline component.

“If you actually work hard at it, you can balance environmental and human use issues,” Underhill said later.

Even with the projects revisions, however, some residents at the community meeting appeared unsatisfied with, for example, the remaining riprap or felt that the area did not have any flooding, drainage or erosion issues and that the entire project was unnecessary.

“Leave it the way it is,” quipped resident Antonio Maesa.

Underhill has little patience for this attitude, which he calls an “irrational position.”

“What it comes down to, people are emotionally charged instead of actually taking off their activist hat and putting on their understanding hat,” the commissioner said, recalling a conversation with a resident who felt shoreline erosion was a non-issue. “I said, ‘Well, you see that pine stab out in the water? Within the past 10 years or so, that was terra firma; that was on shore.’”

With the project slated to begin in December, area residents have until mid-September to offer further input. But, as Underhill told attendees of the neighborhood meeting, the county isn’t looking to “go back to the drawing board” after two years of work.

“These ideas that you have,” the commissioner said, “they need to come hot and fast, and they need to be detailed.”