Siesta residents offer cautionary tale in their history of the closing of the island’s Midnight Pass

A former county commissioner and a former SKA director offer examples of damage to be expected if Big Pass is allowed to be dredged

A 1993 publication of the Midnight Pass Society tells the story of the closing of the pass. News Leader photo

With the looming potential that Big Sarasota Pass will be dredged to renourish South Lido Key Beach, a past director of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) has pointed to the history of Siesta Key’s Midnight Pass as a cautionary tale.

In December 1983, two property owners on the southern part of the Siesta Key — Pasco Carter and internationally acclaimed artist Syd Solomon — were alarmed that their homes were precariously close to tumbling into Midnight Pass. Their only hope, they decided, was to relocate the waterway. On Oct. 4, 1983, they won permission from the Sarasota County Commission to do that. Then in December 1983, they brought in bulldozers and closed the channel, according to a timeline provided by the nonprofit Midnight Pass Society.

As members of the Society wrote in a publication they issued a decade later, “State officials hastily blessed the plan [with] no environmental impact studies, no baseline data, no water monitoring, no administrative hearing and no engineering review to improve chances the plan would succeed.”

An aerial map shows the area where Midnight Pass once existed. Image from Google Maps

The publication continued, “The senseless act all but destroyed the historic environment, the ecosystem that once was Little Sarasota Bay. … Vast and vibrant seagrass beds once teeming with life have been devastated, breaking the chain of life that existed here for as long as we know. The numbers and diversity of fish have been severely reduced, and all of the clams have been killed.”

Referring to the Midnight Pass situation and the City of Sarasota/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to remove about 1.2 million cubic yards of sand from Big Pass, Bob Waechter said on Jan. 12, “This is what happens if you don’t stop them before they do it.”

Passion about the passes

A former SKA director who served for many years with the organization — and a longtime member of the Midnight Pass Society— Waechter addressed about 80 people during the Jan. 12 SKA meeting.

Before Midnight Pass was closed, Waechter continued, “we had all the assurances as a community from the permitting agencies: ‘This is going to work just fine.’ We didn’t know that there was a knife in their hand when they said that.” He added that the proposed Lido project is proof of Spanish philosopher George Santayana’s famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Bob Waechter speaks to SKA members on Jan. 12. Rachel Hackney photo

About 10 people attending the Jan. 12 SKA meeting in the Parish Hall of St. Boniface Episcopal do remember what has happened since December 1983, Waechter added. As a direct result of that closing of Midnight Pass, he continued, the county has had to help pay for two renourishments of South Siesta Key’s beach. (The most recent undertaking was completed in late April 2016, at a cost of approximately $21.5 million. The first placement of sand on that beach — completed in 2007 — cost about $11.2 million.)

During a November 2015 presentation to SKA members, Laird Wreford, the county’s coastal initiatives manager, also talked about how the closing of Midnight Pass had exacerbated the situation on south Siesta. When the pass was open, Wreford pointed out, “sand was still being somewhat held in” on the southern portion of the Key. “You didn’t have that same rate of erosion on Turtle Beach and south Siesta [as seen today].”

During the Jan. 12 SKA meeting, Waechter told the audience that, among other impacts of the closing of the pass, the benthic creatures in Little Sarasota Bay died off, “to be replaced by another environmental community but a much inferior environmental community.” (“Benthic” refers to the lowest level of a body of water, including the sediment surface and some sub-surface layers. Organisms living in that zone — including crustaceans — are called the “benthos”; they are an important part of the food chain, scientific research has shown.)

Scouring of the channel in Venice has been another result of the Midnight Pass action, Waechter pointed out, with between 80% and 90% of Snake Island having disappeared. The northern end of Siesta Key has seen scouring as well, Waechter noted.

“Most people don’t know that Midnight Pass had a greater volume of water flow through it” than either of the passes on each end of the key, he added, referring to Roberts Bay and Blackburn Bay.

A slide from a 2006 Sarasota County presentation about Midnight Pass included these historic photos. County leaders were working on a new initiative to try to reopen the waterway. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In 1994, Waechter explained, “the county came around to our way of thinking,” in large part because of the efforts of Nora Patterson, who served on the County Commission for four terms before having to step down in 2014 as a result of term limits. Prior to that, she was a Sarasota city commissioner for eight years. Patterson also lives on Siesta Key.

Sarasota County spent $1 million in a fight for the state permits to reopen Midnight Pass, Waechter told the audience. State environmental officials required the county to undertake “all the studies and the engineering reports that they didn’t do [before the pass was closed].” The state agency that was the predecessor of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) even insisted that the county undertake an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), Waechter said. “Unfortunately, we were fought to a standstill.”

The state ultimately refused to grant the county permission to reopen the pass, he added.

If the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the city are allowed to dredge Big Pass once, he pointed out, “you will never get them to retreat.”

The USACE manager who introduced the Lido proposal in September 2013 said the project would cover a 50-year period, but in its Dec. 22, 2016 Notice of Intent for the project, FDEP staff wrote that the permit it would issue would be good for only 15 years. The USACE has predicted that more sand will be removed from Big Pass every five years to continue to bolster South Lido Beach.

The 1993 Midnight Pass Society publication Waechter referenced earlier in the meeting included one quote from a person whose name the audience members would readily recognize, Waechter noted: Stephen P. Leatherman, professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University. On Aug. 19, 1991, Leatherman said, “My initial tendency would be to recommend that Midnight Pass be opened. It provided a natural flushing, which is needed for this type of an area.”

The 1993 Midnight Pass Society publication included this history of the pass and the Society. News Leader photo

“We called him ‘Mr. Beach’ at that time,” Waechter added.

Leatherman is known as “Dr. Beach” for the Top 10 U.S. beaches list he issues each Memorial Day weekend. In 2011, he named Siesta Public Beach No. 1; the beach earned the No. 2 spot in 2016, after Leatherman decided to allow shorelines that he previously had honored to be reconsidered again.

“So hang in there,” Waechter told the SKA members. “Fight your hardest fight now.”

More caution

Then SKA Vice President Catherine Luckner introduced Patterson, who pointed out that she has lived on Siesta Key since 1970.

“I think [Waechter] said it really, really well,” Patterson began.

Former County Commissioner Nora Patterson. Rachel Hackney photo

When the USACE announced that Big Pass would be its primary sand source for the Lido project, she continued, the County Commission asked why it did not seek other sources before it dredged “a pass that had never been dredged. Their answer was that the nearest sand source was 45 miles away.”
Patterson added that at the same time, the county was working on plans for the second South Siesta Key Renourishment Project. Two sand sources for that undertaking had been located in the Gulf of Mexico, she pointed out, though she acknowledged that the sand was “a little grayer … than what you could possibly get from Big Pass.”

(During his November 2015 comments to the SKA, Wreford of the county staff noted that the two borrow areas for the South Siesta Renourishment Project were about 10 miles and 8.5 miles, respectively, from the south Siesta shoreline.)

The USACE’s response, Patterson continued, “sort of inbred, especially for those of us who have been here a very long time on Siesta Key and in Sarasota … a certain distrust of really quick answers from the Army Corps.” She added, “It’s hard to trust folks once they’ve fooled you.”

A bit of humor amid the angst

On the lighter side of the issue, Patterson did relate an anecdote about how she and her husband received a call very late one night, not long after Midnight Pass was closed, from a representative of a group of people “just totally outraged about [the situation].” The person said, “‘We’re going down there with shovels and we are going to open Midnight Pass.’” A “few large coolers of beer” accompanied the brigade, Patterson continued, eliciting laughter from audience members. Then “a massive group of people with shovels, including my husband and myself, opened Midnight Pass. There was a column of water really running; it was symbolic.”

Very quickly, however, someone — probably from the county — showed up with a bulldozer, she said, and closed the pass again. “I actually have pictures … of individual people really outraged, but also realizing the humor of what they were doing,” she told the audience.

Patterson concluded her remarks with a note of appreciation to the attendees: “Thanks for caring so much about Siesta Key.”