Representative of Siesta nonprofit points to county Comprehensive Plan policy that prohibits dredging of county waters without county approval
On Jan. 10, the only Sarasota County Commission comments regarding the proposed Lido Renourishment Project came from newly elected Commissioner Nancy Detert, and she prefaced part of them with a question to County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh.
What power does the county board have over a City of Sarasota decision regarding who will undertake the renourishment of a beach within the city? Detert asked. She was referring to the application the city and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) submitted to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) in March 2015 for a permit to dredge about 1.2 million cubic yards of Big Sarasota Pass to renourish about 1.6 miles of South Lido Key Beach. “Legally, we can’t override that decision, can we?”
The County Commission does not have the right to select consultants or contractors on that project, DeMarsh replied. Those matters had to be left to the city and the USACE, he added.
“Well, government is complicated,” Detert responded. As a Florida state senator before her election to the county board, she continued, “I was in charge of getting beach nourishment money.” However, she said, she did not consider what happened after she acted on behalf of communities seeking such state funding assistance.
“I think the public needs to understand what we can legally do or not do as county commissioners,” Detert added.
However, one representative of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) pointed to Environmental Policy 4.6.1 in the county’s Comprehensive Plan as a basis for action he said the county rightfully could take. That policy says, “Prohibit dredge and fill activities in the Gulf of Mexico, bays, rivers, and streams of the county except to maintain previously dredged functional navigation channels and existing drainage canals.”
Based on the SKA’s research, one of the sand borrow areas in Big Pass is in the county, Robert Luckner told the board. Therefore, the dredging of Big Pass would need county approval. “I hope you would agree with me,” Luckner added. “I think it’s a correct reading of the Comprehensive Plan.”
He urged the commissioners to take the necessary steps to ensure that representatives of the city and the USACE speak with them about “what it will take” to get their approval for the dredging.
Altogether, nine speakers commented on the status of the Lido Renourishment Project during the board’s Open to the Public period at the outset of its Jan. 10 regular meeting in Sarasota. The session was the first opportunity for the commissioners to address FDEP’s Dec. 22 Notice of Intent to issue the permit to the city and the USACE for the project. Already, two organizations — Save Our Sarasota Sand 2 (SOSS2) and the Florida Wildlife Federation — have petitioned FDEP for administrative hearings on that decision. The Siesta Key Association (SKA) won a 10-day extension from the state department, allowing the SKA to submit a petition no later than Jan. 16; it had sought a delay until Jan. 31. (See the related story in this issue.)
Assistant County Attorney David Pearce filed for a 10-day extension — which FDEP granted — to enable the commissioners to discuss this week whether they wanted to respond to FDEP’s action; the board was in recess over the holidays.
When County Administrator Tom Harmer brought up the matter during his report to the board on Jan. 10, he referenced a staff memo that had been provided in advance to the commissioners; it explained the background of the FDEP announcement and subsequent events. Harmer also asked Matt Osterhoudt, interim director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, to provide a quick overview of the memo’s key points.
In his remarks, Osterhoudt noted, “The county has not received a request from the permittees to use Ted Sperling Park [for a staging area].” The park, which the county owns, is on the southernmost portion of Lido Key.
However, Osterhoudt continued, such a communication would not be expected until after FDEP had issued the permit.
If the city and the USACE did submit a request for use of the park and the county denied that, Osterhoudt said, that “would not prevent the project from going forward. It would just delay it,” while the city and the USACE found another location.
City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw told The Sarasota News Leader late last year that several property owners on Lido Key have offered to provide easements for the project, if the county refused to allow the city and the USACE to undertake staging in the park.
After Osterhoudt completed his comments, Chair Paul Caragiulo asked whether any of his colleagues wished to speak or ask a question. After a moment of silence, he said, “No? No.”
Then Harmer went on to the next item of his report.
Varying public views
The final person of the eight who addressed the board about the Lido project on Jan. 10 was City Manager Tom Barwin, who pointed out that the city had been working on the plan for more than 10 years, and the process had encompassed “an immense amount of citizen participation.”
“The good news,” Barwin continued, “is that the project is much improved as a result of the comments and analysis. … In fact, the [draft FDEP] permit is as thick as a book.” Barwin held up the document to illustrate his point.
It is “loaded with conditions,” he continued, noting the intensive monitoring that the city will pursue.
However, Barwin said, “The bad news is that it’s taken 10 years.” The barrier island is just one storm away from a possible breach of its shoreline by the Gulf of Mexico, he told the county commissioners, reprising remarks he made to the City Commission during its Jan. 3 regular session. During that meeting, Barwin talked at length, too, about how a surge from the Gulf of Mexico would overwhelm the city’s stormwater and sanitary sewer systems and make the roads on Lido impassable. The result, he told the county commissioners this week, would be “millions and millions of dollars of damage …”
Regarding the planning for the project, Barwin continued, “I’ve offered to Administrator Harmer even setting up a contingency fund, if something adverse happens, to correct it immediately.”
Barwin and Carl Shoffstall, president of the Lido Key Residents Association, both told the county commissioners that Save Our Siesta Sand2 (SOSS2) and the Siesta Key Association (SKA) had rebuffed their attempts to meet about the Lido Renourishment Project.
“All of the scientific facts on this project have been presented many, many, many times over. … It’s the economic impact that is of major concern for the county as well as the city,” Shoffstall said. Two of the condominium complexes on South Lido are precariously close to the Gulf of Mexico, he added.
Among the other speakers who urged the County Commission not to interfere with the project was Hugh Fiore, president of the St. Armands Residents Association, and Jeff Mayers, general manager of the Resort at the Longboat Key Club.
“All three of our local beaches — Siesta, Lido and Longboat — are precious natural resources,” Fiore said. “A lengthy period of litigation will not be in anybody’s best interest,” he added, as that would lead to further erosion on Lido.
Mayers told the board, “This renourishment project is vital to the economic stability and viability of Lido Key.” FDEP and the USACE are “highly accredited and acclaimed agencies with undeniable expertise in their respective areas,” he continued, “and they have given the green light to proceed.”
Taking the opposite view, Catherine Luckner, the SKA’s second vice president, said the organization “has very honestly, and with great effort for the past three to four years,” taken every opportunity to work with FDEP and the USACE about the project. “We’re not interested in suing people,” she told the board, but “We are at a place where I appeal to everybody in this room to approach the idea that this particular project may not be the best design. … We have many examples in our county of what we thought was the best, and it didn’t turn out so well.”
Her husband, Robert Luckner — a member of the SKA’s Environmental Committee — also expressed concern that, in the draft permit, FDEP called for the city to get the county’s permission if the city wished to use Ted Sperling Park in any capacity for the project. “Why it takes a state agency to order the city to come and talk to you about an obvious requirement is beyond me.”
Representing SOSS2, Jeanne Ezcurra referenced part of that organization’s appeal to FDEP, explaining that every proposed action regarding the county’s coast should be studied in the context of the whole system, from Anna Maria Island south to Venice. “We realize that Lido needs sand,” she said, but the residents “should have been given alternatives.”
Just as Lido residents are worried about negative impacts from a failure to renourish their beach, Ezcurra pointed out, Siesta Key residents are worried about the potential negative impacts of the dredging on their beaches and businesses.
After the speakers concluded their comments, Commissioner Detert said, “The citizens present are our partners, not our enemies. It’s not us against you. We’re all in this together to protect the paradise that we get to live in.”