The nonprofit’s chair tells a Siesta merchants organization that FDEP staff members tried to convince him that a hearing is not necessary
As the City of Sarasota and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) await a final determination from the state on their permit application for the Lido Renourishment Project, one facet of the process has received scant attention. Yet, it must be resolved before the permit can be issued, the chair of a nonprofit organization opposing the dredging of Big Sarasota Pass pointed out this week.
Peter van Roekens of Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2) told members of the Siesta Key Village Association (SKVA) during their Oct. 4 meeting that he participated in a conference call the previous day with Greg Garis, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) project manager overseeing the city/USACE application, and Scott Woolam of FDEP’s Division of State Lands. Their focus, van Roekens explained, was to convince SOSS2 to back away from its call for a public hearing on the granting of the necessary state sovereign easements if FDEP staff decides to issue the permit for the dredging of Big Pass. (See the related article in this issue.)
“They really didn’t want to do that,” van Roekens added, referring to the scheduling of a hearing. Nonetheless, SOSS2’s view remains that the public needs to be made aware of all facets of the proposed project to renourish about 1.6 miles of South Lido Key, van Roekens added; therefore, his organization has no desire to back down.
The public hearing will have to be scheduled before Dec. 27, he pointed out, as that is the date by which FDEP must announce its intent either to issue or deny a permit for the project.
He anticipates that the Florida Wildlife Federation (FWF) and the Save the Manatee Club also will have representatives appear at the hearing to explain their concerns.
As part of FDEP’s April 2015 request to the USACE for additional information regarding the permit application, the state department issued a notice that the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund had received an application from the City of Sarasota “requesting a sovereignty submerged land public easement for the Big Sarasota Pass channel and ebb shoal, and two groins …”
That board of trustees comprises Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet.
On Nov. 2, 2015, van Roekens sent letters to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater — who serve on the Cabinet — and FDEP Secretary Jon Steverson. Van Roekens explained that SOSS2 “strongly objects to [the dredging of Big Pass] and proposed easements [as they are] contrary to the public interest and [it] hereby requests that an informal public hearing be held on this matter in Sarasota County where this project is located.”
The letter cited Section 253.001 of the Florida Statutes, which says that all lands held in the name of the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund “shall continue to be held in trust for the use and benefit of the people of the state pursuant to [articles] of the State Constitution.”
Van Roekens’ letter references other sections of the statutes, as well, that deal with protection of water quality and management of public resources. Among them, Section 253.034 contains the provision that all state-owned lands “shall be managed to provide for areas of natural resource based recreation, and to ensure the survival of plant and animal species and the conservation of finite and renewable natural resources.”
Furthermore, the letter points to criteria for activities in a body of water protected as an Outstanding Florida Water, as Big Pass is.
“SOSS2, Inc. is very concerned that this first ever dredge of Big Pass would create unexpected consequences,” van Roekens wrote, calling for an Environmental Impact Statement on the project. He added, “Big Pass is one of the last remaining natural passes along the Gulf shoreline and is critical in sustaining the local economy, environment, and use and enjoyment of the area by residents of Siesta Key and surrounding areas. The proposed project will also directly impact the public health, safety and welfare of the surrounding residents by changing the flow of the pass and sand.”
In a Dec. 15, 2015 response to van Roekens, Deputy Cabinet Affairs Director Jessica Field, working in Putnam’s office, wrote that she had contacted FDEP staff to learn more about SOSS2’s request. She added, “Although the regulatory [dredging] permit would be issued through the Bureau of Beaches and Coastal Systems, the request for a public hearing is a proprietary one and would potentially be facilitated through DEP’s Division of State Lands (DSL).” She noted that the contact for that division would be Scott Woolam.
Van Roekens thanked her in an email the same day and indicated that while Woolam had not contacted him, “our assumption is that he is processing our request and we will hear shortly about the scheduling of the hearing.”
With still had no response from Woolam, van Roekens addressed an email to him on Dec. 24, 2015, asking about the status of SOSS2’s request.
Finally, after no follow-up from FDEP staff, van Roekens sent an email on Jan. 5 to FDEP Secretary Steverson, copying Fields: “Can you please let us know why there has been no response to our request for over two months.”
Subsequently, on Jan 28, Thomas W. Reese, the attorney for the Florida Wildlife Federation, sent a letter to Steverson, also in opposition to the city’s application for the sovereign submerged lands easement. Reese, too, cited applicable statutes, as well as federal laws.
He further pointed out that the proposed dredging of Big Pass “will likely harm and harass [Florida manatees, which] use the shallows of [the pass] as quiet warm water resting areas, safe areas for breeding, and areas with aquatic vegetation.”
The dredging of the channel also was likely to attract more boating to that area, he continued, “thereby destroying the breeding and aggregation grounds of the endangered Florida manatee in violation of the 1973 federal Endangered Species Act …”
Moreover, he pointed out that FWF was unaware of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service having issued the City of Sarasota or the USACE an Incidental Take Permit, which would allow for manatees to be harmed or killed in the course of the dredging.
As The Sarasota News Leader reported last month, the Save the Manatee Club sent a letter to FDEP in late August, expressing its own concerns about the proposed dredging’s impact on the sea creatures.