Lagoon tourism is endgame of dredging drudgery

For six months now, contractors for Brevard County and Cocoa Beach have been dredging muck from the bottom of the Indian River Lagoon.

The goal of the $2 million project, part of the county’s Save Our Indian River Lagoon Plan, is to remove 83,000 cubic yards of the black, rotted vegetation from the lagoon. Nitrogen and phosphorous in the muck have nourished growths of algae that block sunlight from seagrasses and choke off oxygen from fish and other marine creatures.

And while that work goes on, county Natural Resources Director Virginia Barker is looking to another phase of lagoon improvement – restoring the environment for tourism. “The muck project and others we’ve done are based on removing nitrogen and phosphorus,” Barker said last week. “The new projects won’t be pollution-reduction. They will be more about restoring the habitat.”

For the tourism-related improvements, the County Commission on Aug. 14 is scheduled to consider amending its tourist-development ordinance by including lagoon- and estuary-related projects. Tourist-development money comes from the 5 percent “bed tax” the county adds onto hotel and other short-term rental stays.

Starting next year, in fiscal year 2019-20, county tourism officials expect to have $1 million a year left from their beach-improvement program after paying for beach projects. The lagoon-tourism money would come from that $1 million.

“As long as we don’t have, like, three hurricanes in a row, they should have that ($1 million) to spare,” Barker said.

Barker said she could envision such lagoon-tourism projects to include shoring up some causeway parks, where horseshoe crabs have historically mated and laid eggs.

But so far, acting Space Coast Tourism Director Bonnie King said, her agency won’t have a project list until commissioners approve the new use for tourist taxes and advisers compile the list.

To make the list, she said, projects will need at least a 4-1 vote. And any grant more than $50,000 would need a match.

“This money will be based on a 3-1 match,” King said. “So if you have a plan to help the lagoon and you need $100,000, you provide $75,000 (in state or federal money). Of course, this all needs to be fine-tuned.”

Commissioners on July 24 voted 5-0 on Commissioner Curt Smith’s motion to advertise the upcoming public hearing – but not before Smith and rival John Tobia got into a quarrel over it.

Tobia recalled Smith opposing an effort last year by state Rep. Randy Fine (R-Palm Bay) to use county tourist taxes on the lagoon.

At the time, Smith said recently, legal uses for tourist taxes didn’t include the Indian River Lagoon. Fine changed that this year, getting fellow lawmakers to include “estuaries” in the uses.

Then in April, Tobia proposed removing $9.4 million in tourist taxes from four projects which he had questioned, but which were approved by the Tourist Development Council. Tobia wanted that money spent on the lagoon instead. Smith and the others opposed it.

“Now the TDC can come to us with a lagoon project,” Smith said. “But we still can’t go to the TDC and say, ‘We want to use that money.’”

Smith said Tobia and Fine have tried to paint him as an opponent of the lagoon. He said he has always favored the idea of helping the lagoon, considering he has fished it and boated on it, but was held back by rules on spending tourist taxes.

During the meeting, as Tobia and Smith kept quarreling, commission Chairwoman Rita Pritchett called for a five-minute break.

“If one commissioner wants to be childish, he can be childish by himself,” Smith said.

Following the break, Tobia joined the others in a unanimous vote – after thanking Smith for his turnaround.

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