Army Corps of Engineers working on seagrass mitigation initiative necessary to fulfill state permit requirement for Lido Key Renourishment Project

COVID-19 travel restrictions have put agency’s plans on hold in regard to installation of camera system on Siesta Key to observe any wave and beach changes related to Lido initiative

An engineering drawing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers submitted to the state earlier this year shows part of Borrow Area C in Big Pass. Image courtesy Florida Department of Environmental Protection

As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) continues planning for the start of dredging in Big Sarasota Pass around July 6, its project team for the renourishment of Lido Key Beach also is working to complete the necessary Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) permitting requirements before the initiative can begin, The Sarasota News Leader learned this week.

In response to News Leader questions, David Ruderman, a spokesman for the USACE with its Jacksonville District Office, confirmed that the agency team handling the Lido Key Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction Project conducted a conference call last week with representatives of the company that won the bid for the work, Cottrell Contracting of Chesapeake, Va. No change in the project timeline resulted from those discussions, Ruderman wrote in a June 1 email.

The USACE plans to remove up to 1.3 million cubic yards of sand from two borrow areas in Big Pass to renourish about 1.56 miles of South Lido Key Beach.

As for the remaining FDEP permitting issues, Ruderman explained, “The district team is in the process of obtaining a seagrass survey that will document pre-construction conditions adjacent to the borrow area. As for seagrasses to be impacted in the borrow area, the district plans to perform mitigation (seagrass planting) at Perico Preserve to offset those impacts. The mitigation was planned to occur this summer, but was delayed due to COVID-related delays/complications,” Ruderman added.

He was referring to the national public health emergency involving the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

As the News Leader has reported, the Sarasota City Commission voted unanimously on July 15, 2019, to approve an agreement with the Manatee County Commission for seagrass mitigation within that county’s Perico Preserve.

This USACE graphic, submitted to FDEP in 2016, shows facets of the seagrass mitigation plans at that time. Image courtesy Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Stantec, the consulting firm whose Sarasota staff worked with the Manatee County Commission on the preserve project, notes on a webpage that the creation of the wildlife habitat from “a 175-acre parcel of abandoned farmland was no small task …” That webpage also references the firm’s ecologists’ efforts to identify “a potential seagrass mitigation site …”

Perico Preserve’s website says that it contains the type of “coastal wetlands expected in this area as well as carefully planned scrub hills and upland areas that hearken back to historical coastal Manatee County.”

Siesta Key Association (SKA) leaders have contended that mitigation for seagrass destroyed in Sarasota County coastal waters must be undertaken with the county’s waters. To pursue an outside site, they argue, is a violation of Sarasota County environmental regulations.

However, City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw told the city commissioners that no suitable mitigation location could be found within the waters closer to Siesta and Lido keys.

In its correspondence this week with Ruderman of the USACE, the News Leader also asked about the planned installation of a camera system on a condominium tower on Siesta Key, as noted in the Lido Key project solicitation package the federal agency published in December 2019.

Ruderman wrote, “Presently the Corps has one camera system operating on Lido Key. The project manager, who took the helm a couple of months ago, is not aware of an agreement with a specific condo at Siesta Key, but will let me know if he finds one.”

A section of the solicitation package said, “A camera system is being deployed for this project on the south end of Lido Key and the north end of Siesta Key to observe wave conditions and beach changes. This data will be used to validate computer modeling efforts associated with capturing wave and beach changes before and after construction. The data will be available to the public and may include images of active dredging and beach placement work during construction.”

In February, Ruderman told the News Leader that two camera stations had been installed on the roof of the Lido Harbour South condominium complex, and the USACE planned to set up additional stations on the roof of a building at Whispering Sands, a condominium community on the northern part of Siesta Key.

Two towers stand on the Whispering Sands property. Image from the Whispering Sands website

Whispering Sands representatives have declined any comment on the issue of the camera system.

In his June 1 email, Ruderman wrote, “[T]he installation of a camera system at Siesta Key was put on hold a couple months ago because the specialized equipment is in Hawaii and COVID-related travel restrictions negatively impacted its transport to Florida.”

“The district still plans to install [the system on Siesta] at some point in the future,” Ruderman noted, “even though it proved undoable … prior to initial construction [on Lido].”

“The district’s thinking,” he continued, “is that the additional Siesta Key camera is not a permit requirement, but is still desirable to provide valuable long-term monitoring data to support future modeling efforts.”

Such a camera system has been used at a USACE Research and Development Center in the town of Duck on the North Carolina Outer Banks.

“Founded in 1977, the [Field Research Facility in Duck] has maintained a comprehensive, long-term monitoring program of the coastal ocean, including waves, tides, currents, local meteorology and the associated beach response,” USACE Public Affairs Officer Carol C. Coleman wrote in a Feb. 21 news release. “As such,” she continued, “it has become an internationally recognized observatory and premier location for conducting complex and comprehensive nearshore research and engineering studies.”

Continuing litigation

Both the SKA and a second Siesta-based nonprofit, Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2), still have litigation pending in an effort to halt the removal of any sand from Big Pass. The USACE has been steadfast in its assertions that the pass and Siesta’s shoreline will suffer no harm from its Lido project. However, SKA and SOSS2 leaders likewise have remained firm in their contention that the USACE modeling for the project was faulty.

In March 2017, the SKA filed a complaint against the City of Sarasota in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court, alleging that the city had not complied with the appropriate city and Sarasota County environmental policies in proceeding with plans for the Lido Beach renourishment endeavor. That case is on appeal with the Florida Second District Court of Appeal.

Big Pass separates Lido Key from Siesta Key and provides an outlet to the Gulf of Mexico. File photo

SKA leaders have voiced frustration over the Appeal Court’s willingness to allow the city’s outside counsel, along with attorneys for the Lido Key Residents Association (LKRA) — which was allowed to intervene in the lawsuit — to delay the proceedings. In a May 7 motion, both sets of lawyers explained that the public health emergency had exacerbated work difficulties for them, so they sought a 30-day extension of the May 6 deadline for their responses to the SKA’s initial brief. On May 26, the Appeal court granted their request, but it cautioned that “further motions for extension of time are unlikely to receive favorable consideration.”

The court previously had granted the city and the LKRA attorneys one extension, which called for them to file their answer briefs by May 8.

The city is the local sponsor for the USACE’s Lido initiative. SOSS2 filed suit against the USACE in federal court in January 2019, contending that an in-depth environmental review of the potential effects of the Lido project — called an Environmental Impact Statement — should be conducted before any sand is removed from Big Pass.

The federal judge presiding over that case has yet to issue a ruling, even though the final briefs were filed late last year.

SOSS2 leaders have declined any comment to the News Leader about the status of that litigation.