Only two businesses have lodged complaints with staff over past months
The first time Sarasota County Commissioner Mark Smith heard a complaint about the years-long county sewer project along Beneva Road and Bahia Vista Street was slightly more than a year ago, the day he won his District 2 board seat.
He and a relative were standing next to Bahia Vista, waving campaign signs on Nov. 8, 2022, near a church where precincts are located, Smith told The Sarasota News Leader. The driver of one vehicle took the time to tell him, Smith said, that something needed to be done about the continuing work and the continued lane closures.
He has received emails about the situation since he took his oath of office in the latter part of November 2022, he added. During the Oct. 12 telephone interview with the News Leader, Smith estimated that the email count was only about eight, however.
Nonetheless, he explained, given his tally of communications by topic, eight indicates significant interest. If he receives more than three emails on any issue, he added, he keeps track of them.
Smith also pointed out that the emails were not from customers of any businesses in the project area, but from commuters.
Before Smith was elected, his predecessor in the District 2 seat, Christian Ziegler — now the chair of the Republican Party of Florida — told Mike Mylett, director of the county’s Public Utilities Department, that he routinely heard complaints from drivers who used Bahia Vista as their primary route to and from work.
On May 10, 2022, months before the General Election, Ziegler brought up the topic during the regular commission meeting that day, noting that he had received an email just the previous night from a resident concerned about the situation.
For that matter, Ziegler pointed out that he routinely drove through the project area. “It’s got to be frustrating for citizens to see cones and basically open construction that is stalled … for months.”
In late 2021, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis reminded the board members, the county’s Procurement Official terminated the county contract for the initiative, which had been awarded to Miami-based American Pipeline Construction LLC. The company was hired to install a 2-mile-long, 24-inch transmission force main from the South Gate Master Pump Station, along Hyde Park Street to Brookhaven Drive and then onto Sea View Street before crossing Beneva Road and then heading north to Bahia Vista and, finally, east to the intersection of McIntosh Road and Bahia Vista, as a county document pointed out.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) explains that a force main is a pipeline that conveys wastewater under pressure from the discharge side of a pump or pneumatic ejector to a discharge point. Pumps or compressors located in a lift station provide the energy for wastewater conveyance in force mains.” The key elements of force mains, the EPA adds, are a pipeline, valves, pressure surge control devices and a cleaning system.
As the News Leader reported in early January 2022, Lewis sent the commissioners an email on Dec. 21, 2021, informing them about the decision regarding American Pipeline.
Dec. 21, 2021 was the same day that Sarasota County Procurement Official Jennifer Slusarz sent a two-paragraph letter to American Pipeline, reminding its leadership that, earlier in the month, county staff had notified the company that it was being “afforded the opportunity to remedy deficiencies” in the contract that it won from the county in October 2020.
Yet, she continued, American Pipeline “had failed to complete all of the items listed [in that letter] to the County’s satisfaction. Therefore, termination of the Contract shall be effective as of December 21, 2021.”
The county had awarded the company $5,967,501.50 for the undertaking, according to documents in the Oct. 20, 2020 commission meeting packet.
It was not until July 13, 2022 that the commissioners voted to authorize the completion of the force main project. Mylett of Public Utilities recommended that they approve the new contract when it was placed on an upcoming agenda, though the expense had risen to $21,413,716, he reported.
A staff memo included in the July 13, 2022 County Commission agenda packet explained, “The project will focus initially on discovery and restoration where appropriate while long lead time items … [are] ordered.”
For an example, the memo said, staff anticipated that it would take 36 weeks to get valves necessary for the undertaking.
Then the memo noted, “Resumption of the pipeline portion of the project would occur in the fall based on delivery of equipment …”
Staff at that time expected that it would take a little less than a year — 330 days — for the project to be wrapped up after it once more was underway, Mylett told the commissioners.
“I feel awful for these people in this neighborhood that are dealing with this,” Commissioner Michael Moran said.
The company formally hired on Aug. 30, 2022 to take over from American Pipeline was Forsberg Construction of Punta Gorda. A news release that the county Communications Department staff released after the board vote on the contract said that the new timeline anticipated completion of construction in March 2024.
A county staff memo included in the Aug. 30, 2022 meeting packet explained the necessity of completing the project: The sewer force main in place “was constructed in multiple, segmented phases” from 2002 to 2006 “to accommodate increased wastewater flow from several completed areas of the Phillippi Creek Septic System Replacement Program,” as well as the decommissioning of the South Gate Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, “and planned developmental growth within the northern sanitary sewer collection basin.”
The memo added, “The force main is nearing capacity …”
The complexity of the work and the timeline
In a Nov. 9 statement provided via email to the News Leader, in response to the publication’s inquiry this week about the status of the work, the county’s Capital Projects staff wrote, “The phase of work heading east on Bahia Vista to approximately the Legacy Trail was originally anticipated to take 6 to 8 weeks and started at the end of September. The work is very complex and the overall progress and timeline for completion has been impacted by a struck gas line that has since been repaired,” plus dewatering activities.
“The paving of Beneva Road began [on Nov. 9] with plans to start sidewalk and sod restoration along Beneva Road next week,” the statement continued. “The contractor is striving to have Beneva Road completely reopened before Thanksgiving.
“Contractors are working diligently to complete the project,” the statement added. “Lane closures on Bahia Vista between Beneva and the Legacy Trail should be expected as crews continue work on pipe installation. Testing and restoration work of the pavement and other infrastructure will need to be completed before [the crews] can open that section and shift to the portion between the Legacy Trail and McIntosh Road,” Capital Projects staff said.
County staff does produce an update each month on the sewer force main initiative on its webpages devoted to major capital projects.
The October report included the following information: “The northbound lanes of Beneva Road from Sea View Street to Bahia Vista Street will continue to be shut down while Forsberg Construction makes the turn on the corner of Beneva Road and Bahia Vista Street heading east on Bahia Vista Street. This will continue through the end of September.
“Lane closures on [eastbound and westbound] Bahia Vista Street will continue through the end of October. Temporary paving of Brookhaven Drive and Sea View Street has been completed. Forsberg Construction will be repairing sidewalks, along with curb and gutter, in the vicinity of Beneva Road and Bahia Vista Street. Additional pipe installation will commence after the initial remedial work repairs are completed. Beneva Road will still need additional work; however, it will be after the pipe installation is completed and tested. Anticipated completion of the project is May 2024.”
Then the November update said that the lane closures on eastbound and westbound Bahia Vista Street would continue through mid-November. That report continued to note that the anticipated completion of the project is May 2024.
The News Leader also inquired this week about the difference between the lane closure information from the October report to the one for this month. The Nov. 9 Capital Projects statement pointed out that “the work was not anticipated to be done by the end of October and future monthly updates will be updated to reflect the timeline.”
Only two complaints logged by county Contact Center over past six months
Over the past few weeks, drivers — including members of the News Leader’s staff — have made the observation that long back-ups on Bahia Vista Street have prompted more drivers to use Webber Street as an alternative east-west route.
Early some mornings, this reporter has noted vehicles heading west backed up as far east on Bahia Vista as the eye can see from the end of The Legacy Trail segment between Webber and Bahia Vista. With lanes closed, plus construction equipment in place on the south side of Bahia Vista, drivers often have to wait through multiple cycles of the traffic signal at the Bahia Vista/Beneva Road intersection.
In an Oct. 18 county response to an Oct. 12 public records request regarding calls or emails that the county’s Contact Center had received over the prior six months about the Bahia Vista situation, the News Leader learned that only two calls had been logged.
The first, on Sept. 27, came from a person who works in the shopping center southeast of the intersection of Beneva Road and Bahia Vista Street. That complex includes Beneva Tobacco and Beer, an Earth Origins grocery store and a CVS. The Comments box said that the caller was seeking compensation for loss of business at the convenience store standing at 1295 Beneva Road because of the construction on Beneva.
The Contact Center employee who handled that complaint gave the caller the phone number for the county’s Office of Financial Management, the Commentsbox indicates.
The following day, an employee at Alma Sue’s Quilts, located at 997 Love Ave. but fronting on east Bahia Vista — near the Der Dutchman restaurant — called the Contact Center. The Comments box regarding that exchange said that the employee reported that “traffic barricades are making exit from the parking lot onto Bahia Vista nearly impossible,” and the person was “just curious if the barricades could be slightly adjusted to accommodate driveway egress.”
On Nov. 8, the News Leader spoke via telephone with Jeff Miller, manager of the complex that includes the Der Dutchman and the Carlisle Inn & Conference Center. Asked about the effects of the force main project on those businesses, Miller replied, “It hasn’t hurt us in a bad way,” noting that he had feared the situation would be worse.
“People are still able to get to us,” he added.
(During the News Leader’s interview with Commissioner Smith, he noted that, given the restaurant’s popularity, he was sure patrons were finding a way to get into the parking lot.)
Although the 100-room hotel does not generate that much traffic, Miller continued, the restaurant — as Smith indicated — does draw far more customers by motor vehicle. Miller pointed out that the Birky Street entrance to the campus from South Beneva Road allows drivers to circumvent the closed lanes on Bahia Vista.
In fact, Miller said, he would encourage people who plan to dine at Der Dutchman on Thanksgiving to take Birky Street.
Miller also made a point of commending county staff members for their communications with him. “The county’s been doing a good job of keep us updated.”
Almost exactly a year ago, on Nov. 13, 2022, the News Leader read negative comments about the project from a number of people in a Nextdoor app thread. The initial writer, who lives in Bahia Vista Estates, wrote, “Get with it Sarasota, the mess on Beneva and Bahia Vista Street is horrible and at least start repairing the roads as it’s been way too long a mess and dangerous …”
One person who responded concurred: “[T]hat mess is terrible.”
Yet another individual pointed out that Bahia Vista is “only going to get more and more backed up as the season kicks in.”
A woman who lives in the Tamaron community on East Bahia Vista, on the south side of the street, added, “[M]y back yard has the wall
next to Bahia Vista. It has been too long. Sarcastically speaking, I can’t wait to hear all the banging that shakes my home and have a show of all their machinery in my back yard Again. I am disgusted. This should have been completed a long time ago.”