Florida water manager denies Bobby Jones water quality project
SARASOTA — Sarasota’s own representative on a state board that manages regional water resources recently voted against a $1.5 million grant targeted for a crucial wetland redevelopment project at Bobby Jones Golf Course.
The denial was “highly unusual and something I never experienced in my 27 years of public service,” said Sarasota City Manager Marlon Brown in an email to city commissioners and staff informing them of the decision.
In a 2-1 subcommittee vote last week, Southwest Florida Water Management District Governing Board Vice Chairman Joel Schleicher voted to deny the city’s request that the district contribute half of $3 million construction cost to build an 18-acre wetland treatment system adjacent to the municipal course.
The regional project is meant to restore wetlands and improve water quality by filtering tons of impurities and nutrients before entering the Phillippi Creek and eventually Sarasota Bay. It was highly ranked by the state and supported by the city of Sarasota and Sarasota County.
Schleicher’s objection did not appear to be focused on the project itself but on his dislike of the city of Sarasota and its apparent complaints about other projects.
For about five minutes, Schleicher, a technology company CEO who was appointed to the board in 2017, lambasted the city’s mismanagement of Lift Station 87 and grievances over street flooding issues on U.S. 41 near the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Sarasota.
Schleicher subsequently denied an attempt to bring the proposal before the full 13-member board that oversees water resources across a 16-county region, including Sarasota-Manatee. For projects to receive consideration, they need the blessing from the area’s representative.
Schleicher, who represents Sarasota and Charlotte counties on the water board, has repeatedly railed against city officials in recent years.
In a blogpost last year, he equated Sarasota city officials to “drunken sailors” and criticized their attempts to redevelop Bobby Jones Golf Course and other efforts.
In an interview with the Herald-Tribune on Monday, Brown, the city’s manager, said that Schleicher’s attempt to block the project would likely amount to a temporary setback (construction is supposed to begin in December). Brown said that the City Commission may consider formally appealing their request for funding or explore the possibility of funding the project itself.
To Brown, the opportunity to treat billions of gallons of water full of nutrients that contribute to harmful algal blooms before it reaches Sarasota Bay and other waterways is too important to pass up.
“This is not about us, it’s about Sarasota County and our entire region,” Brown said.
You might also like:Bobby Jones Golf Course: The story behind its name
An important tool for water quality
For years the city has struggled to settle on plans to redevelop the nearly 300-acre historic Bobby Jones Golf Course. Last year, city commissioners agreed to reduce the size of the municipal course and expand park land. Included in the effort is a conservation easement and the construction of a wetlands system that would create additional wildlife habitat and significant stormwater quality improvement in the heart of Sarasota.
An estimated 2.6 billion gallons of water flows through Bobby Jones every year. The project was supported by the county largely because it would help mitigate polluted water collected from 5,800 acres north of the municipal course.
In 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order that instructed the five water management districts to prioritize funding to focus on projects that will address harmful algal blooms.
The project in Sarasota received a high ranking from…