Siesta residents continue to voice strong opposition to work taking place during height of tourist season
Although Mark Smith, the new Sarasota County commissioner from Siesta Key, underscored island residents’ concerns about the timeline for the initiative, he ended up making the March 7 motion for the board members to approve an extra $7,709,200 in funding for the South Siesta Key Beach Repair Project.
The motion included authorization for County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to approve a contract for the initiative that is not to exceed $11 million.
During the March 7 County Commission meeting, Rachel Herman, manager of the county’s Environmental Protection Division, did note that, on March 1, the county received two bids for the project, which staff originally had hoped to see underway early this month.
One was for $8.3 million, she said, while the other was for $8.6 million. Explaining staff’s request for the vote this week on the additional funding, Herman noted that, after learning of bids for a similar project on Fort Myers Beach, staff felt the bids would be higher for the south Siesta project than the county’s consultant earlier had anticipated.
That consultant, Geosyntech — which has offices in Tampa and Clearwater, among other locations — had expected the initiative to cost about $5.7 million. However, the bids that the Town of Fort Myers Beach received ranged from $7,559,840 to $8,797,200, as noted in a county staff memo in the commissioners’ March 7 agenda packet.
As The Sarasota News Leader has reported, the county’s solicitation for the South Siesta Beach Repair Project was issued on Jan. 13, with a bid deadline of 2:30 p.m. on Feb. 15. However, after staff received only one bid, the decision was made to extend the deadline to March 1.
On March 7, Herman of Environmental Protection reminded the commissioners that Hurricane Hermine, which traveled through the Gulf of Mexico in September 2016, eroded sand that was placed on the south Siesta shoreline during the second county renourishment project on that segment of the Key; the work was completed in late April 2016.
During her presentation, Herman also discussed the fact that, on Feb. 26, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) issued the permit modification needed for the county to proceed with the repair project. However, she noted, FDEP provides for a 14-day window to challenge permit modifications.
During the March 1 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting, Director Robert Luckner indicated that the nonprofit might file such a challenge. As of March 8, the News Leader found no indication of such a challenge in FDEP records. The department’s public records website was not functioning when the News Leadertried another search on March 9.
The SKA leaders have discussed the south Siesta project during meetings over the past months, with members of the organization voicing adamant opposition to the initiative taking place during the height of tourist season.
As Herman explained again to the commissioners this week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Florida Department of Emergency Management have agreed to cover 87.5% of the overall expense of the work. The rest of the funds would come out of county “bed tax” revenue generated by the 6% tax on rentals of accommodations for six months or less time, Herman said.
However, she pointed out, “After construction is complete, we could seek another 40% of our 12.5% as a reimbursement grant from [FDEP].”
Because only 92,500 cubic yards of sand is needed — compared to the 713,563 cubic yards of sand spread over approximately 2.1 miles of the south Siesta shoreline in the spring of 2016 — FEMA indicated that the county should pursue a “truck-haul project.”
Thus, Herman noted, trucks will bring the sand to Siesta from an inland mine that has FDEP approval for the sand’s compatibility with sand on the beach.
Commissioner Smith told Herman, “I believe that a 10-minute interval between trucks is going to get the dump truck onto the beach property through the [Turtle Beach Park] parking lot,” and then back onto Midnight Pass Road for a return to the inland sand mine.
“With 60 days [allocated for the project timeline],” Smith continued, “and an eight-hour day, I believe the [original] timeframe was close to 5 minutes.”
“Hmmm,” Herman responded.
Smith said his advice was for staff to plan on 10-minute intervals, “just to make sure there’s enough time.”
FEMA has set a June 30 deadline for the county to complete the undertaking, or the county would lose the federal grant, Herman also reminded the commissioners this week.
A slide she showed the board members said staff is anticipating a 60-day construction period, “including site restoration based on pre-construction conditions.”
Given the fact that the bids for the project are under review, Herman continued, it appears that the work will get underway in late March. That would be preferable, she indicated, as the Sarasota County School District’s spring break will be next week.
(Sgt. Dan Smith, leader of the Sheriff’s Office’s Siesta Key substation, told Siesta Key Association members last week that, as in years past, he and his fellow officers expect the majority of spring break visitors from around the country to show up on the island this month.)
Additionally, the official start of sea turtle nesting season in the state is May 1, Herman said. If it proves necessary, she added, FDEP will allow the contractor for the South Siesta Project to work on the shoreline beyond that date, but any nests discovered would have to be relocated.
Still hoping for FEMA approval of a delay
Commissioner Smith reminded Herman that he had talked with her about the potential delay of the initiative until November.
If FEMA is willing to give the county another extension — the fourth the county has sought — Herman said the November timeline would be what county staff would pursue.
Commissioner Nancy Detert did note that she and Rob Lewis, director of the county’s Governmental Relations Department, had met in Washington, D.C., recently with Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, emphasizing that the South Siesta initiative would be taking place “in the middle of our [tourist] season. … If a U.S. senator’s office calls FEMA,” she added, “it probably means a little bit more than us making the call.”
Moreover, Detert said, the county’s federal lobbyist has been working with FEMA staff members “so that they understand we’re a little bit different than every other state This is our busiest time [of year]. Maybe we’ll get some help.”
Herman told the commissioners that she had touched base the previous day with the county’s Governmental Relations staff and learned that no news had been received from FEMA.
Chair Ron Cutsinger asked Herman whether the county would have to readvertise its solicitation if FEMA agreed to the delay.
Carolyn Eastwood, director of the county’s Capital Projects Department, responded, “Typically, [contractors] hold bids for 120 days.”
In this case, she continued, “We can reach out to the low bidder and see if they would keep the price.” If not, Eastwood added, then a new solicitation for the work would have to be issued.
Another plea from the SKA
At the outset of Herman’s March 7 remarks, she noted that she had received additional correspondence the previous evening about the agenda item; she had provided a copy of it to the clerk to the board, to be included in the record of the discussion that day.
Director Luckner of the SKA copied the News Leader on that correspondence:
Luckner pointed out first, “The logical construction alternative of delivery of beach replacement sand by barge has been arbitrarily rejected by FEMA, FDEP and County staff without study.”
As the News Leader reported in late December 2022, Donald DeBerry, senior transportation manager in the county’s Public Works Department, explained to the publication, “Working with barges is difficult.” Moreover, he noted of the south Siesta undertaking, “This is actually a fairly small project.”
“I would not have considered a barge, either,” DeBerry added. “We’re not getting the material out of the [Gulf]. … The best match was the inland sand.”
He also pointed out, that, whereas trucks could transport 100 loads a day to the project site, the best estimate for barges would be 10 loads a day, and each barge would need to be guided by a tugboat.
Using barges is “pretty doggone difficult, too,” DeBerry added, and “it would take a lot longer.”
Luckner continued in his March 6 email that it is the opinion of the SKA board that using large dump trucks, which would come over the Stickney Point Road bridge to Midnight Pass Road, is “logistically infeasible.” He added, that the project team’s information indicated that more than 110 trucks per day would have to traverse the southern part of the Key, “which we believe is beyond the traffic capacity of [the] Turtle Beach access road and dumping area and may very well lead to unsafe traffic congestion on South Midnight Pass and the Turtle Beach Park.”
Herman told the commissioners on March 7 that the access to the project area would be through the county’s Turtle Beach Park.
Further, Luckner wrote, “The cost of the construction part of the project has grown from $5.7 million to $8.8 million,” which, he added, is a 54% increase).
Moreover, he pointed out, during the March 2 SKA meeting, “members in the audience expressed concern with the current project and schedule. They stated it is not an emergency and they are receiving [visitor] reservation cancellations during the next few months due to the planned project. Work on this project in [the fourth quarter of 2023] would be more appropriate.
“SKA appreciates that FEMA has bound your hand in the project execution and SKA appreciates that the County has been trying to [obtain] a more reasonable schedule and/or construction method,” Luckner wrote. “But at this price and risk reaching for the [shiny] prize is not worth the risk.”
Commissioner Smith summed up part of the email’s content on March 7 by telling his colleagues, “From what I’ve heard from Siesta Key, this is not a critical repair, but we do want it to happen.”