City Commission agrees to set up $2.5-million ‘insurance policy’ fund to mitigate any damage to Siesta Key from dredging of Big Pass

Motion includes stipulation that if Siesta Key nonprofits refuse to drop their legal challenges, the fund will be dissolved after 90 days

A boat makes its way through Big Pass. File photo

With the unanimous approval of the Sarasota City Commission on Feb. 21, city staff will move $2.5 million in Tourist Development Tax revenue into a special fund “to serve as an insurance policy to mitigate any impact to Siesta Key” as a result of the proposed dredging of Big Sarasota Pass to renourish about 1.6 miles of South Lido Key.

At the commission’s direction, city staff will have 90 days within which to try to gain assurances from the Siesta Key Association (SKA) and Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2) that they will drop legal challenges to the initiative.

The Tallahassee law firm representing the SKA notified the city on Jan. 19 that it would file a complaint in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court over the proposed dredging within 30 days if issues it has raised were not resolved by that time. Kent Safriet, the attorney with Hopping Green & Sams, told The Sarasota News Leader on Feb. 21 that he had no news to report this week about any negotiations with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) over the plans for the complaint. On Feb. 17, an FDEP spokeswoman wrote in response to the News Leader’s request for an update that she had no further information to provide at that point; a follow-up request to FDEP this week was not answered.

The SKA and SOSS2 both have alleged that areas of Big Pass the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) proposes to dredge on behalf of the city are within the territory of Sarasota County. In its draft complaint, the SKA argues that the city would be violating its own Comprehensive Plan to pursue the removal of sand without the County Commission’s permission.

On Dec. 22, 2016, FDEP issued a Notice of Intent to provide the permit the city and the USACE need for the approximately $19-million project, which calls for a total of about 1.2 million cubic yards of sand to be taken from the pass for the first renourishment. The permit would be valid for 15 years. USACE project managers have cited the necessity of further dredging every five years, though City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw has suggested that the second removal of sand would not be necessary for seven or more years after the initial project.

A USACE map shows the borrow areas in Big Pass. Image courtesy FDEP

The SKA and SOSS2 also have filed administrative challenges with FDEP, seeking hearings on the Notice of Intent to issue the permit.

During the Feb. 21 City Commission meeting, City Manager Tom Barwin said of the emergency mitigation fund, “This is a good faith effort to respond to concerns which have been expressed” in regard to the FDEP action late last year.

When Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie asked how long it took to accumulate the total of $3 million the city has set aside for beach renourishment initiatives, Assistant City Manager John Lege told her that by the 2008-09 fiscal year, the city had $1.5 million. City staff puts funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and FDEP into the account with the Tourist Development Tax revenue distributed by the county to the city for beach renourishment, he continued. After the city received reimbursements from FEMA and FDEP for efforts the city undertook after the 2008-09 fiscal year, he said, the city received another $1.5 million from them.

The money has not been committed to any specific project, Lege explained.

“The only concern I have with this,” Commissioner Susan Chapman said, “is that there’s no restriction as to time.” If the Siesta-based nonprofits say the emergency fund would not allay their concerns, she added, “then we need to get the money back.”

“You have total control over this,” Barwin replied, then suggested the 90-day period.

When Chapman asked what would be considered a reasonable amount of time to let the litigants know of the city’s plan for the mitigation fund, City Attorney Robert Fournier told her, “I think 60 to 90 days …”

“We’ll review [the situation] at the end of 90 [days],” Barwin added.

Then Chapman made the motion to approve the resolution establishing the emergency fund, with the 90-day stipulation.

In the meantime …

On June 6, 2016 erosion from Tropical Storm Colin was evident on Lido Key Beach. The white marker denotes the boundary of the Ritz Carlton property. Photo courtesy of Laura Bryg

In late January, Barwin wrote an article for a newsletter of the Lido Key Residents Association, discussing interim strategies city staff is researching while the USACE project for Lido remains on hold.

He listed the following:

  • A permit for “hot spot” renourishment.

With financial assistance from the county, the city was able to use FEMA grant funding to renourish part of Lido’s shoreline a couple of years ago as a response to damage Tropical Storm Debby wreaked in June 2012.

  • An attempt to expedite a permit to replace sand lost during, or as a result, of Tropical Storm Hermine’s passage by the county’s shoreline in late August. “Our hope is for a permit and cost sharing agreement to recycle up to 50,000 cubic yards of sand from a [borrow] site south of New Pass,” Barwin added. “We could also ask Sarasota County (or perhaps Siesta Key) to contribute additional sand to this effort,” he wrote.
  • “Identify vulnerable locations where jersey barriers, sand bags, or other measures may be appropriate (as was done in the 1990’s) and work with private parties to respond to their requests for installing and permitting protective measures on their properties at their requests.”

“The good news is that they are looking at a ‘Plan B,’” Peter van Roekens, chair of Save Our Siesta Sand 2, told the News Leader.

Van Roekens and SKA Vice President Catherine Luckner have said numerous times over the past several years that they want no harm to come to Lido. However, both have urged city leaders to explore options for sand other than Big Pass.