The County Commission approves an independent analysis of multiple aspects of Army Corps of Engineers modeling
By Rachel Brown Hackney
On a unanimous vote during their Aug. 20 budget workshop, the Sarasota County Commission directed staff to go beyond parameters it had recommended in seeking an independent peer review of the Lido Renourishment Project as detailed in a June report issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Laird Wreford, the county’s coastal resources manager, suggested a narrow analysis related only to use of property in the county-owned Ted Sperling Park on South Lido Key for a work staging area and for the proposed construction of a groin. However, Commissioner Nora Patterson said she felt people in the community would be dissatisfied if the process did not include a look at the potential effects of the proposed $19 million project on Siesta Key’s beaches and navigation in Big Sarasota Pass.
The Army Corps of Engineers has called for 1.3 million cubic yards of sand to be removed from the pass for the first renourishment of Lido under a 50-year plan. As Patterson pointed out on Aug. 20, the pass never has been dredged, and the public has decried previous plans calling for such an undertaking.
Commissioner Joe Barbetta made the motion to accept the staff recommendation with Patterson’s caveats. However, he included in it the go-ahead for staff to choose the peer reviewer from among a list of seven in a county “library” of firms that have been approved for county contracts.
Wreford estimated the cost of the review between $15,000 and $50,000.
Barbetta also urged in his motion that the undertaking be expedited, a point on which Patterson concurred.
“Having walked Lido Beach,” Patterson said, “it’s in bad shape, and it’ll be a while before the Army Corps can put a grain of sand out there.”
Later discussion indicated the project is at least two years away from getting the necessary permits and federal funding to proceed.
Although the commission will not have to provide formal approval of the firm’s selection, Wreford promised to keep the board apprised of staff efforts.
The staff proposal
At the outset of his presentation, Wreford said staff recommended “that we do focus more thoroughly on … our individual landowner issues” on South Lido Key, especially the potential effects of the project on the shoreline and on users’ experiences in Ted Sperling Park.
Ever since the Army Corps’ project manager revealed details of the Lido Renourishment Project to the county’s Coastal Advisory Committee in September 2013, concerns have been aired about the potential of the groins to hamper individuals’ enjoyment of the beach.
Further, the best way to expedite a peer review, Wreford continued, is to use the county’s list of already approved firms for such work, a view supported by the county’s Procurement Department staff.
Wreford also told the board, “We decided rather than trying to navigate this whole issue of how on earth do we select somebody who’s going to be acceptable to everybody,” staff “went ahead and convened a meeting with some of the more engaged and vocal members of our community who have expressed great concerns about the project …”
The result, he pointed out, is a plan to allow that group to help staff determine the scope of services for the peer review firm, including the selection of questions. “This way, we get much better agreement, buy-in and a comfort level, frankly.”
Although he is not certain when the city might seek a construction easement from the county for the groin, the information provided by the review should enable the county board members to decide how to respond to it, he added.
As soon as Wreford concluded his comments, Patterson told him, “I’m not entirely comfortable with your recommendation.”
While the suggestion of focusing on South Lido “has a logic to it,” she had two other concerns, she said.
First, Patterson noted that the peer review should provide reassurance that removing 1.3 million cubic yards of sand from the ebb shoal in Big Pass “is not going to impact Siesta Key in its current state, which is really more accretion than anything else.”
Second, she said the shallowest area of Big Pass “has never gone below five-and-a-half feet,” a fact of which she is very aware from years of boating in the area.
Most of the channel is 8 or 9 feet, Patterson pointed out, adding that many boaters are concerned about the impact of the dredging on navigation.
“A lot of passes that are dredged are a disaster,” Patterson continued. “Of course, they were probably a disaster, which is why they were dredged in the first place.” What she wants, she continued, is “at least some reassurance that we don’t see that this is going to disturb what nature has provided over the years.”
However, Patterson made it clear she was not calling for an independent firm to completely redo the Army Corps’ modeling.
Finally, Patterson said, “I’d like to see it done by someone who doesn’t manage beach nourishment. Maybe that’s unavoidable. I don’t know. … I think getting the right party that has the expertise … but hasn’t done six projects for the Army Corps before would be really helpful.”
Patterson pointed out that she had provided similar comments in answers to every one of the many emails she had received on the Lido Renourishment Project, and all the writers had agreed that her vision for the peer review made sense, including those who want the work to begin as soon as possible.
Vice Chairwoman Christine Robinson told Patterson, “I agree with everything you said,” with the exception of hiring a firm that does not handle beach renourishment projects. Robinson, who is an attorney, likened that to asking someone to render an opinion on how strong a case is “when they’ve never practiced law in a courtroom.” She added, “I think you need to have that expertise of dealing with the Army Corps and the understanding of how they do things …”
Patterson conceded that was a valid point. Still, she maintained the county should hire a firm whose income stream is not dependent upon the Army Corps. If the firm’s representatives regularly work with the federal agency, Patterson continued, “Are they going to tell the Army Corps, ‘I’m sorry; you’re all wrong’ [in regard to the Lido project models]. Maybe, but are the people opposed [to the dredging of Big Pass] going to feel real comfortable?”
Wreford responded, “Commissioner Patterson, I think we can find a firm [to meet those specifications],” though he added he did not expect it would be easy.
Still, Wreford said, it is very likely the firm the county hires will subcontract out part of the work and that the subcontractor will be “outside the realm of dependency on the Army Corps.”
At that point, Barbetta made the motion to proceed with the review, including Patterson’s caveats. He has a lot of faith in county staff finding the appropriate firm to handle the work, he added.
Barbetta also stressed that although the Army Corps is talking about a 50-year project for Lido, “we’d only be approving one dredge. Anything after that would have to come back” for further board action.
“Exactly,” Wreford told him. A state permit granted to the federal agency for the work “does not authorize the next 10 nourishments.”
After the discussion, Peter van Roekens, a former director of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) and a member of the area Boaters’ Coalition, told The Sarasota News Leader he was pleased with the board’s action.
Earlier in the week, van Roekens sent the following email to the commissioners:
“Many people have signed petitions or written about the need for a truly independent peer review of the [Army Corps of Engineers] proposal. Since a project of this magnitude has never been done before in this area, careful consideration by independent knowledgeable parties seems more than warranted.”
He added, “While there always will be some who have a knee jerk reaction to any dredging, I believe that most people will be able to suspend their disbelief if an independent peer review indicates there is minimal risk to navigation and beaches. If this is found to be the case we all need to support this project to benefit the entire community. If there are problems with the current plans, then we will know more about how to address them.”
On Aug. 21, Catherine Luckner, vice president of the SKA, emailed the county board members. “THANK YOU for supporting the funding for an Independent Peer review regarding the Lido Key and … Big Pass project,” she wrote. “You can count on SKA to continue working thoughtfully throughout the course of this project.”
Earlier this year, the SKA was one of several Siesta organizations to approve resolutions opposing the dredging of the shoal or channel in Big Pass, based on the information available at that time. The unanimous SKA action in January was the first the board had taken on the project since Aug. 1, 2013, when it also voted unanimously to pay up to $2,000 for an independent review of the Army Corps’ modeling after the work was completed.
In recent meetings, Luckner has said the organization still has the funds set aside if needed.