Army Corps of Engineers says use of Ted Sperling Park could save $1 million in project expenses
Four of the five Sarasota County commissioners this week agreed that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) can plan on the county’s Ted Sperling Park on South Lido Key as a staging area for the City of Sarasota’s long-term renourishment project on the South Lido shoreline.
However, the motion by Commissioner Christian Ziegler called for county staff to work with city staff to ensure that the county will have recourse if two groins the USACE plans on South Lido end up causing damage to the park, or if other problems arise from the renourishment initiative; as Ziegler put it, “So we have proper protections that if anything goes south, that we can come in … and adjust — literally so.”
Earlier, Ziegler had voiced worries about the groins’ potential impact on the natural north-to-south downdrift pattern of sand flow on the west coast of Florida. He called Siesta Key’s beach — south of Lido — “really our crown jewel for tourism here locally [that] really helps build the identity of Sarasota County.”
Chair Charles Hines seconded the motion.
The lone “No” vote came from Commissioner Alan Maio, who was chair of the county board in 2016 when he and his colleagues at that time sent letters to both the USACE and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), requesting that an in-depth environmental analysis of the Lido Key Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction Project be undertaken prior to FDEP’s awarding the necessary permit to the city and the USACE for the Lido initiative.
“I am still shocked at how our request for an EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] by two jurisdictions above us … was just dismissed,” Maio said on Nov. 5, during the County Commission’s regular meeting, held in Venice. “People can couch that response however they like,” Maio continued, “but our request was just dismissed.”
During the Open to the Public portion of the meeting, Mark Smith, representing the Siesta Key-based nonprofit Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2), also referred to the inaction at the state and federal levels, saying the City of Sarasota and the USACE “[have] blown you off.”
SOSS2 filed suit against the USACE in U.S. District Court in Tampa in January, contending that the USACE has violated a number of federal policies — including the National Environmental Policy Act — by refusing to undertake an EIS on the Lido project.
“If things go wrong,” Smith told the commissioners on Nov. 5, referring to the city’s and the USACE’s plans, “you can just almost predict that they’re just going to say, ‘Well, that’s just too bad.’ … You need to protect our park, our county, the environment,” Smith stressed to the commissioners.
At one point, Commissioner Michael Moran told his colleagues, “Could you imagine, just for a minute, if this was a private project … what we could put [the applicant] through,” in regard to fees, permitting, “performance bonds and hearing after hearing after hearing. … We better make sure that we would put our city partner through what we would a private-sector [applicant] to represent our taxpayers.”
Moran added, “It’s in the interest of this community to get this right.”
In an appearance before the County Commission that morning, Sarasota City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw countered Smith’s assertions, explaining that the FDEP permit for the Lido initiative “does have very, very strict monitoring requirements, more broad than any permit we’ve ever had …”
That includes the monitoring of any potential effects on Siesta Key from the dredging of up to 1.3 million cubic yards of sand from Big Sarasota Pass to place on the Lido Beach, she indicated to the commissioners.
If results showed any problems on Siesta Key or that the “behavior of the [Lido] shoreline is not within historical normal tolerance,” DavisShaw added, “then [FDEP] would require us to make modifications.”
As a result, she continued, the USACE modified its design of the groins to make it easier to adjust them, if that becomes a necessity.
The latter comments were directed principally at Maio. During his earlier remarks, he also pointed out that the USACE originally proposed three groins on South Lido to try to hold sand in place on the beach between subsequent renourishments; the USACE has said it expects such action to be necessary every five years.
“After there was a hue and cry from citizens,” Maio said, the third groin — which was to stand furthest south — was eliminated from the proposal. “That is not science.”
DavisShaw further explained that the plan for the groins was 20 years old. Over time, she noted, the shoreline changed on the southernmost part of Lido. She indicated that by the time the USACE began its permitting process with FDEP — in 2015 — the coastline “was much different,” with significant accretion in front of Ted Sperling Park.
“Our goal is to make sure … both keys are functioning the best they can,” DavisShaw told the commissioners, referring to Siesta and Lido. “I think we would be more than happy to have something in [the park use agreement] so we could give you that comfort level.”
Laying the groundwork
Both DavisShaw and Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown had failed in efforts earlier this year to win county staff approval for use of Sperling Park for USACE staging purposes.
On Oct. 8, two representatives of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) pleaded with the commissioners not to risk damage to Sperling Park, while several Lido residents pressed the board members to make it easier for the USACE to widen the beach. One Lido speaker pointed to significant erosion since the city completed an emergency renourishment project on the Lido Beach in April.
Additionally on Oct. 8, City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie addressed the County Commission, emphasizing the need for the USACE to use the park, so it could save taxpayers’ money on the expense of the overall project. Chair Hines thanked her for the City Commission vote the previous night. He added that, as the city policymakers, the City Commission needed to be the entity making the request of the county, not City Manager Barwin or other city staff members.
During an appearance before the City Commission on Oct. 21, when he provided general updates on a variety of issues, Hines promised to try to get the follow-up discussion about the park on a county agenda as soon as possible. The Nov. 5 meeting was the first regular session the County Commission has had since Oct. 8.
Present and future
In correspondence and conversation with the USACE, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis told the county board on Nov. 5, he had learned that the federal agency would be able to shave $1 million off the project costs if the County Commission agreed to permit the staging in Ted Sperling Park. However, Lewis added, even though he had spoken with a USACE representative as recently as the previous night, no one with the agency could “provide some breakdown on the $1 million.”
Lewis also noted that he had been operating “under the impression” that a County Commission decision on the staging request was necessary that day. However, he continued, while that “is certainly their preference, to have it before the end of this week,” the USACE had let him know that, in a “worst-case scenario,” it later could adjust its upcoming solicitation package for the Lido project.
In early August, the USACE cancelled the initial solicitation, which it had published in May, because the two responses it received were far higher — by approximately $8 million and $13 million — than the amount the agency had expected.
On Oct. 23, Trisston Brown, chief of the USACE’s Florida Projects Section in Jacksonville, told The Sarasota News Leader that the latest schedule for the new advertisement for bids calls for the package to be published in December. Then, the USACE would receive proposals in January 2020 and award a contract in February 2020, Brown added.
After Lewis offered his remarks on Nov. 5, Chair Hines said he felt that any time the county could help the city, “It makes absolute sense to do it.”
Then Hines referenced language in the permit FDEP issued to the city and the USACE in June 2018, stressing a sentence that says that if the groins do not function as planned, “the city shall seek a modification of the permit to construct adjustments of the groins [Hines’ emphasis].”
Hines was the first to propose a provision either in an interlocal agreement with the city for the park use or an easement, to give extra protection to the county if damage occurred.
Referring to the permit language, Deputy County Attorney Karl A. Senkow said, “I’d rather have a contractual standing than just the fact that we’re suffering the damage,” to ensure that remediation is pursued.
“I have the exact same concerns that you have,” Commissioner Nancy Detert told Hines. She wanted to enable the city to undertake the Lido project “as quickly and cheaply as possible, Detert said. However, “I think the Army Corps of Engineers has, frankly, not a great track record in some areas, and I believe that these groins … [could] cause erosion.”
“Nobody asked our opinion on the project itself,” Detert added. “It puts us in a thorny position. … I wish they’d spend a little more time on the science of [the Lido initiative].”
The USACE has asserted that its modeling has demonstrated that no harm would come to Siesta Key or Big Pass itself, as a result of its design of the project. However, during his Nov. 5 public comments, Smith of SOSS2 read the commissioners an excerpt from a peer review of the project that the county paid for in 2015. That analysis questioned the accuracy of the USACE modeling and, especially, cited concerns about the potential for extensive damage to Ted Sperling Park.
Commissioner Ziegler on Nov. 5 also referenced one-on-one meetings board members had had with Rob Patten of Sarasota, a former county marine biologist and later manager of what was then the county’s Environmental Services Department.
Patten had explained how the groins could lead to erosion of the shoreline in front of the park, Ziegler continued. “That could be a major, major problem for us.”
Ziegler indicated that he found Patten’s arguments credible because of of Patten’s expertise in environmental issues.
“South Lido Park is an amazing facility … that a lot of citizens use,” Ziegler added.
Nonetheless, he continued, “Lido Key needs sand. They’re in trouble.”
Another speaker during Open to the Public that morning, Scott Ashby, a Lido Key resident for more than three decades, had urged the board members to cooperate with the city and the USACE and save taxpayers the $1 million.
“We want to have a good relationship with the cities,” Ziegler added.