State senator talks of pursuing action during 2023 legislative session
State Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, has announced that cleaning up Little Sarasota Bay will be one of his priorities for the 2023 legislative session, which will begin on March 7.
That will include a focus on reopening Midnight Pass, which once separated Siesta Key from Casey Key, Gruters indicated during the Jan. 12 Sarasota County Legislative Delegation meeting in Sarasota.
During that meeting, two representatives of the Midnight Pass Society 2 asked the four Delegation members for their help in getting the pass restored between Little Sarasota Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Mike Evanoff, a Sarasota business owner, explained that he and his fellow volunteers with the nonprofit Midnight Pass Society 2 have been working to bring awareness “to the diminished capacity of Little Sarasota Bay.”
About 40 years ago, Evanoff pointed out, the Sarasota County Commission agreed to allow private property owners to close the waterway in an effort to protect shoreline erosion that was threatening their homes. The intent was that the individuals would reopen the pass, he added. However, the homeowners ran out of money before they could achieve that goal.
Prior to the pass’ closing, Evanoff continued, “The water in Little Sarasota Bay was as clear and vibrant as other pristine waterways.” Evanoff added that government action would be necessary “to clean Little Sarasota Bay up,” and the best way to accomplish that would be to reopen the pass.
Evanoff promised grassroots support for the legislators if they agreed to take on the challenge. Midnight Pass Society 2 would organize trips to Tallahassee, he said, to advocate for the initiative. Representatives of the nonprofit also would be willing to provide the Delegation members with letters of support, he noted, and they would like to schedule community meetings for the legislators to discuss the potential reopening of the waterway.
Evanoff added that the nonprofit’s volunteers would do “anything else that you think will be helpful.”
“Good work with what you guys have been doing,” Gruters responded.
Noting that he is a lifelong Sarasotan, Gruters added of Little Sarasota Bay, “The clarity of the water is terrible. It’s nothing like the northern Sarasota Bay.”
Then he told Evanoff and Siesta Key business owner and resident Michael Holderness, who had joined Evanoff at the podium, “This is one of my personal missions now” — cleaning up the entire Little Sarasota Bay, which would lead to a resurgence in seagrass in the water body, as well as more marine life.
When he campaigned last year for re-election to the state Senate, Gruters continued, he heard more about the proposal to reopen Midnight Pass than anything else.
Rep. James Buchanan, R-Osprey, chair of the Delegation, recalled that when he was a child, Little Sarasota Bay “was very vibrant.”
When Buchanan asked whether a storm caused the pass to close, Evanoff explained that renowned artist Syd Solomon and Pasco Carter, who both lived near the pass, were the leaders in working to close the waterway to save their homes.
On Oct. 4, 1983, the County Commission voted to approve an ordinance calling for the relocation of the waterway to its 1950 location. However, an Oct. 27, 2022 county staff report on the history of the pass and efforts to reopen it pointed out that “all attempts [to relocate it] failed.”
“It seems to make great sense to me,” Buchanan said of the Society’s proposal.
“Is there opposition to it?” Buchanan asked of the nonprofit’s goal.
“No,” Holderness replied. The issue is the need to secure the support of the County Commission, he said, and then to obtain the necessary permits from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).
When Buchanan then asked whether the men had undertaken any research regarding the expense of their proposal, Evanoff told him that they had not engaged in such an effort. Nonetheless, Evanoff indicated that the type of project the USACE and FDEP would allow would have a bearing on the ultimate expense.
“The first thing is getting the Board of County Commissioners on board,” Evanoff added, “which I think they are.”
Yet, as The Sarasota News Leader reported last year, then-Commissioner Christian Ziegler had won his colleagues’ support for staff to pursue the necessary research into the array of details related to reopening the pass. The resulting Oct. 27, 2022 report said that the cost of restoring the waterway could be approximately $84 million, based on the scope and design of such an initiative in 2009.
Ziegler first brought up the issue of reopening the pass during comments that were part of the Sept. 13, 2022 County Commission meeting. He noted at that time that he had been talking with advocates for the proposal.
Focusing on Little Sarasota Bay
During the Jan. 12 Delegation meeting, Sen. Gruters said the County Commission has made cleaning up Little Sarasota Bay a priority.
On Jan. 18, as the commissioners conducted their first regular meeting of the year, they unanimously adopted their 2023 Strategic Plan. The third item on the list of Objectives under the heading Exceptional County Services Aligned with Resources reads, “Plan and fund water quality improvements.”
Farther down in the document, a chart with potential policy agenda items included, in sixth place, the following: “Health of the Bay: Midnight Pass and future openings.” The item, which involves the county’s Public Works Department, says, “Provide a current update on the health of [Sarasota] Bay and future implications along with recommendations to obtain Board direction for improved water quality.”
Gruters said on Jan. 12 that he had talked with FDEP staff, as well as with members of legislative appropriations committees. His intent, he continued, is to try to fast-track funding for a study regarding the improvement of water quality in Little Sarasota Bay. He added that he believed everyone with whom he had spoken is in favor of reopening Midnight Pass.
Anyone who takes a boat to Little Sarasota Bay, Gruters pointed out, could see that “the water’s black; it’s disgusting.”
Moreover, he said, he believes the restoration of the water quality in Little Sarasota Bay aligns with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Jan. 10 Executive Order calling for further steps to protect the state’s environment and water quality.
However, during a Nov. 7, 2022 presentation to the Sarasota City Commission, David Tomasko, executive director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, explained, “Little Sarasota Bay’s not dead. There are more fish … in Little Sarasota Bay than any other part of Sarasota Bay.”
He did note that those fish are small, because Little Sarasota Bay is a nursery.
Moreover, Tomasko said, the water quality in Little Sarasota Bay is better than it has been in the past five years or so, though “it’s not the way it used to be.”
He acknowledged that Little Sarasota Bay “no longer has the circulation it used to have.”
The Sarasota Bay Estuary Program is not opposed to discussions about reopening Midnight Pass, Tomasko told the city commissioners. Nonetheless, he pointed out, any new effort “has to be based on science.”
A Delegation priority
Following the final Jan. 12 presentations by community leaders and members of the public on issues they would like to see addressed in the 2023 session of the Legislature, Gruters asked his Delegation colleagues’ for their support in making the clean-up of Little Sarasota Bay one of their priorities this year. Buchanan seconded the proposal, but no formal vote was taken.
The Delegation members plan to meet again prior to the opening of the 2023 session, Buchanan’s legislative aide, Lindsay Cosby, told the News Leader last week. However, she said, no meeting date had been set.