Sebastian Inlet at 100: Innovative management fueled development

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a series marking the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Sebastian Inlet District.

So the Sebastian Inlet was finally designed, cut and constructed – permanently this time after many tries – but it took leadership to maintain, protect and develop it. And it took a lot of back-slapping, cajoling and old-fashioned wearing out of shoe leather to fund it.

Charlie Sembler II, 54, of Vero Beach, spent his youth listening and learning the ways of Old Florida from his great-grandfather Charles W. Sembler, who helped dredge or “cut” the Sebastian Inlet, which on May 23 marked 100 years since the creation of the Sebastian Inlet District.

Surprisingly, when Charlie Sembler II was just 21, he was given the authority to help shape the future of the inlet when then-Gov. Bob Martinez appointed him to fill a vacancy on the governing board, the Sebastian Inlet District Commission.

He took seriously the challenge to carry on the themes of the official charter “maintaining the navigational channel between the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian River while preserving natural resources, protecting the environment and ensuring public safety.”

But Sembler also wanted to make the inlet operation more efficient, first by spearheading the effort for the district to commission a $97,000 Comprehensive Plan similar to those later required by the state for more municipalities.

“It was a bunch of money. My whole idea was to be the first ones in,” Sembler said, equating jumping feet-first into long-range planning to being first in the swimming hole.

That innovative outlook, Sembler said, “set the standard with a good, solid management plan. We laid it out. Then we started going after money,” just like going to a loan officer at a bank with a solid business plan in hand.

Remembering his grandfather’s lessons, he started building relationships using what he calls “home cooking” with officials from state agencies and others who could help.

“What that meant was the art of people politics. It’s how you talk to somebody, how you greet somebody, how you get things done,’’ he said.

The momentum had been set years previously since the inlet was cut for good in the early 1940s using left-over Navy munitions to blast the channel. Even with the cut made, the inlet was allowed to fill with sand for the entirety of World War II for fear of U-boats entering the Indian River.

“You’re defying almost all of the physics of what Mother Nature wants to do and you’re going the opposite direction. She wants to fill it in and move the sand; and you’re trying to keep sand from filling in and keep it out of the way. It will be ongoing forever,” he said.

Cooperation, sometimes lacking now, was a common theme during those successful early days of developing the inlet, he said.

Throughout the 1950s, new concrete extended both the north and south jetties, 250 and 175 feet respectively. In 1962, a channel-dredging project was completed and the Inlet’s Sand Trap was excavated to capture sand that would otherwise cause shoaling. Perhaps the most important milestone occurred in 1965, when the bridge that crosses over the Sebastian Inlet was opened connecting A1A from Brevard to Indian River County.

In return for helping complete the bridge and pave A1A on the south side, Brevard County ceded almost 3 miles of land south of the inlet to Indian River County.

In 1970, the north and south jetties were extended further, and the State of Florida acquired the land surrounding the inlet where Sebastian Inlet State Park was established in 1971. Today, it is one of the most visited parks in the state.

“Back then you had everybody pulling in the same direction, which is kind of the way you had to do things because it wasn’t owned per se by any individual. It was a collective asset that helped everybody from Brevard and Indian River and Sebastian Creek (now called the St. Sebastian River). It was a collective effort. We all had to do what we had to do, including getting on a train to Tallahassee,’’ Sembler said.

Sembler’s experience with the inlet in effect launched a 10-year state political career (1990-2000), including serving two terms as a state representative for District 80, first elected at age 25.

He looks back fondly on his days as a politician and progress made over the years on the inlet so tied to his grandfather and family history.

“I knew that all of the stars had lined up and it would probably happen once in my lifetime. No. 2 was I remembered who my name was. We weren’t going to do average. We were going to get things done.

“It all goes back to home cooking. If you’ve got that basic skill and principle and insight to do that, you can make a huge difference. That’s what got me to the point where being able to do so much of what we’ve done here, but it wasn’t just me. It was a lot of good people,” he said.

The third part of this story will look at the people on the ground who run the inlet day in and day out, and the future of the inlet. A hint: It’s not just for boating and fishing anymore.

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