Commissioner Neunder stresses importance of county paying for necessary studies, with Gov. DeSantis having vetoed $1 million that Legislature appropriated for such work
On Oct. 10, Sarasota County’s director of public works is scheduled to make a presentation to the county commissioners about the options for restoring a tidal flow between Little Sarasota Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis told the board members on Sept. 12.
That discussion will include estimated ranges of expenses for the options, Lewis said.
During Commissioner Joe Neunder’s report to his colleagues, as part of the regular meeting on Sept. 12, Neunder broached the subject of Midnight Pass, noting that he was seeking consensus from the other commissioners to direct Lewis to try to find out what “internal funding mechanisms we have” to address restoration of that tidal flow.
Neunder reminded his colleagues that Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed the $1 million that the Legislature had included in the state’s appropriations budget for the 2024 fiscal year for engineering studies related to improving the quality of water in Little Sarasota Bay.
Last year, a group based on Siesta Key renewed a call for the reopening of Midnight Pass on that barrier island. County leaders in the 1980s allowed two homeowners to close the waterway because of shifts in the shoreline that were threatening their homes
As a result of the Midnight Pass Society 2’s efforts, state Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, told his fellow members of the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation in January that the clean-up of Little Sarasota Bay would be one of his priorities for the 2023 legislative session.
Gruters’ remarks followed public comments that Mike Evanoff, a leader of Midnight Pass Society 2, made to the Delegation members during their session on Jan. 12 in downtown Sarasota.
Prior to the pass’ closing about 40 years ago, Evanoff said, “The water in Little Sarasota Bay was as clear and vibrant as other pristine waterways.” He added that government action would be necessary “to clean Little Sarasota Bay up,” and the best way to accomplish that would be to reopen the pass.
Gruters told Evanoff and Siesta Key business owner and resident Michael Holderness, who had joined Evanoff at the podium, “This is one of my personal missions now” — cleaning up the entire Little Sarasota Bay, which would lead to a resurgence in seagrass in the water body, as well as more marine life.
The nonprofit organization’s efforts also served as an impetus for the county commissioners to make water quality in Little Sarasota Bay one of their strategic priorities for this year.
During the Sept. 12 commission meeting, Neunder stressed, “I would really like to get [this effort] some legs …”
“Spencer’s got some thoughts on that as we go forward,” Lewis said, referring to Public Works Director Spencer Anderson.
In talking about the issue with coastal engineers, Neunder said, he had heard that the expense of studies could range from $250,000 to $500,000. He wants to know, he added, where the funds could be found in the county’s budget.
“If the board makes [the study] a priority,” Lewis responded, staff will move money around to provide the amount needed for the initiative.
Lewis also pointed out that a more refined cost estimate will follow a determination of the scope of work that the board wants to see accomplished.
When Neunder asked for clarification that options and estimates would be available as part of Anderson’s Oct. 10 presentation, Lewis replied affirmatively.
Even though the 2024 fiscal year budget will go into effect on Oct. 1, Lewis said, the commissioners would be able to approve a budget amendment to establish the funding for the study.
“We’re looking at the engineering and the studying that will address clearly what it’s going to take to re-establish that historic tidal connection between the Gulf and Midnight Pass,” Neunder told Lewis.
“It’s also the permitting,” Lewis pointed out.
The most recent attempt to obtain such a permit began in 2003, the report noted. That effort continued for four years, with staff of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) ultimately denying the application.
That county staff report also estimated that it could cost the county as much as $84 million to reopen the pass and keep it open for at least nine years.
During the Sept. 12 discussion, Commissioner Neil Rainford said he believes that more state and federal support for re-establishing the pass exists than in years past. “I think it’s a different climate now.”
Commissioner Mark Smith asked whether Anderson would include options that David Tomasko, executive director of the nonprofit Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, suggested to the commissioners during a presentation to the board members in April.
Among those was construction of a culvert that would enable water to flow between the Gulf and Little Sarasota Bay, Smith noted.
“I’m sure he’s taking that into account,” Lewis said of Anderson, adding that Anderson was in the back of the Commission Chambers that day, listening to the discussion.