County Commission agrees that potential for harm to Siesta Key warrants Environmental Impact Statement on Lido project

Board votes unanimously to seek that initiative and to convey its concerns to the state about the proposal for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use a staging area in Ted Sperling Park        

Lido Key properties are easily visible across Big Pass from Siesta Key's north end. File photo
Lido Key properties are easily visible across Big Pass from Siesta Key’s north end. File photo

Responding to a July 14 request from the Siesta Key Association, the Sarasota County Commission on Aug. 23 voted unanimously to ask the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to undertake an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to more fully explore the potential for harm to Siesta Key from the proposed dredging of Big Sarasota Pass to renourish South Lido Key Beach.

“The biggest concern to me was there was never a ‘Plan B’ for a smaller taking of sand,” Chair Al Maio said after making the motion.

Additionally, Maio called for conveying to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) the board’s concerns about the USACE’s latest plan to use part of the county’s Ted Sperling Park on South Lido as a staging area for the work on Lido Beach.

Jono Miller, former director of the Environmental Studies Program at New College of Florida and an advisory board member of Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2), had pointed out in public comments that morning that an EIS is appropriate in any situation that involves ecologically critical sites and projects that are “highly controversial.”

Furthermore, SKA Second Vice President Catherine Luckner sent the commissioners a follow-up email on Aug. 22, referencing sections of the county’s Comprehensive Plan that call for measures other than groins to protect the county’s shoreline. The USACE has proposed to construct two groins on South Lido to help hold the sand in place between subsequent renourishments.

“I’m completely sympathetic to Lido Key and the residents and what they’re experiencing,” Commissioner Christine Robinson said, referencing what condominium owners and City of Sarasota leaders have pointed to as severe erosion on that barrier island. However, Robinson continued, “I can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that the possible ramifications to Siesta Key could be similar in nature” to the state of South Lido, if Big Pass were to be dredged. “I can’t choose one and say to the other one, ‘You might have to pay the price to fix the problem.’”

A graphic submitted with the Lido renourishment application shows the infill plan. Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
A graphic submitted with the Lido renourishment application shows changes on the island over a 100-year period. Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo pointed out that as a City of Sarasota commissioner prior to his election to the county board, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for funding for the Lido Renourishment Project. Its need is obvious, he added. Acknowledging the surprise when Big Pass first was mentioned in a public meeting as the source of the sand for the project, he continued, “At the end of the day, there is a fear of the unknown, and I believe that it’s very justified, because the project is significant. If there is an augmented due diligence [through an EIS], so be it. I think it’s completely appropriate.”

Commissioner Charles Hines announced that he also would support the motion. However, he continued, if the USACE agrees to undertake an EIS, he believes the board members “need to have a Plan B” to provide interim assistance — including funding — to Lido Key. “Beach nourishment projects aren’t cheap,” he pointed out. Referencing the Town of Longboat Key’s recently completed project that involved trucking in sand from a mine in Immokalee, he added that such efforts are “short-term patches.”

Maio signed the letters on Aug. 24, county staff confirmed for The Sarasota News Leader.

In an Aug. 24 telephone interview with the News Leader, City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw said the board’s vote calling for the EIS “defies explanation,” adding that homeowners on Lido Key “are county residents, too. … We’re working diligently to try to get this project constructed.”

An engineering drawing in the USACE application shows details about the proposed groin design. Image courtesy State of Florida
An engineering drawing in the USACE application shows details about the proposed groin design. Image courtesy State of Florida

What she especially found troubling, she added, was that the County Commission took such action without discussing the issue with the City Commission first.

As for the letter the board sent to FDEP about Sperling Park, DavisShaw said the staging is “not dependent on that location.” Therefore, because the USACE could use another access point, she explained, FDEP staff would not need to consider that County Commission concern as a factor in the permitting process for the project. The County Commission would have to grant its approval for use of the Sperling property only if the USACE needed that area, she pointed out.

In response to a request for comment from FDEP, spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller wrote in an Aug. 24 email to the News Leader, “[W]e have not received the referenced correspondence from the county, [but] I can tell you that any public input received up until the department takes final agency action will be considered in our evaluation of the proposed activity.”

On Aug 1, the USACE filed its response to FDEP’s second Request for Additional Information (RAI) about facets of the project. Miller also pointed out, “The department’s review of [that] information … is still under completeness review.” If the application is deemed complete, she added, the department has up to 90 days from Aug. 1 to take final action — to issue a Notice of Intent to Issue a permit or Notice of Intent to Deny. The challenge period of that action is within 14 days of the date of publication of the notice or written notice, whichever occurs first, Miller has explained.

Also on Aug. 24, the News Leader received a reply from the USACE after the publication contacted the Jacksonville District office for a comment. “Per the county’s request, we are preparing a formal response,” wrote Public Affairs Specialist Erica Skolte. “In the interim, we want to emphasize that we have, and will continue to, follow the proper NEPA process.”

Photos show Lido Key in the 1920s and this decade. Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Photos show Lido Key in the 1920s and this decade. Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Skolte was referring to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Signed into law on Jan. 1, 1970, the policy requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of their proposed actions prior to making decisions about how to proceed, according to an explanation on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website. NEPA calls for the federal government “to use all practicable means to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony,” the website says.

Public responses

Contacted by the News Leader after the board vote this week, Luckner of the SKA said, “I am thrilled that we have the support from the county commissioners.” They have the responsibility to take care of all county residents, she added.

Speaking on behalf of his board, Peter van Roekens, chair of SOSS2, told the News Leader, “It was a thoughtful decision on a very complex issue. There were many good points raised, but I was really impressed by the leadership shown in this unanimous decision. Thousands of Siesta Key residents applaud this decision. We hope the Army Corps and [FDEP] respect this and are open to creating a Plan B. If not, SOSS2 is ready to file suit and urges all residents and Siesta organizations to support us.”

Laura Bryg, vice president of the Lido Key Residents Association, took this photo of Lido Key Beach erosion during Tropical Storm Colin's passage by the coast in early June. Image courtesy Laura Bryg
Laura Bryg, vice president of the Lido Key Residents Association, took this photo of Lido Key Beach erosion during Tropical Storm Colin’s passage by the coast in early June. Image courtesy Laura Bryg

Taking a different view, Laura Bryg, vice president of the Lido Key Residents Association (LKRA), said in an Aug. 24 telephone interview, “We are very disappointed in the county’s vote to ask for this environmental study to be done.” Members of the organization were especially dismayed, she added, that even Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo — who represents Lido as the District 2 representative on the board — voted in favor of the request. She noted that commissioners have attended LKRA meetings when the severity of erosion and the need for the project on Lido have been discussed.

Moreover, Bryg said, the LKRA members were upset that “we weren’t notified that [this issue] was on the agenda for the vote.” That meant no one from the city or Lido Key was present to offer comments, she added.

“We are very anxious,” she said, “to see what they mean by helping us with an interim project.” LKRA members appreciated the county’s funding assistance for the renourishment undertaken in early 2015 as an emergency remedy for damage done by Tropical Storm Debby in 2012, she continued, but that sand already has disappeared. “We’ll have to see just what the county will propose that we can support.”

The background

County Administrator Tom Harmer. File photo
County Administrator Tom Harmer. File photo

County Administrator Tom Harmer raised the Siesta Key Association’s request for the EIS during his report to the commission on Aug. 23. In response to the letter, he said, county staff had prepared a memorandum for the board, explaining how the EIS process works.

Regarding Miller’s comments about Sperling Park, Harmer continued, “We have not received any official request from the city” to use that county park as a staging or mobilization site.

In an email to Harmer and the commissioners on the morning of Aug. 22, van Roekens of SOSS2 referenced the staff memo.”[T]he staff could drive development of a Plan B which does not involve dredging Big Pass. I am sure staff has many things on their plate but protecting what we have should be a top priority.”

The board discussion

On Aug. 23, Robinson asked that staff provide a public explanation of the difference between the draft Environmental Assessment the USACE submitted as part of its and the city’s permit application to FDEP in March 2015, compared to an EIS.

Maio concurred with her request, even though the Aug. 17 memo from Rachel A. Herman, the county’s environmental planning manager, offered such background.

If the USACE, through its research, had found that a significant impact on the environment would be expected as a result of the proposed project, Herman told the board, the federal agency would have pursued an EIS. An EIS would contain details about that impact, as well as alternatives to the design of the project.

“To me, it’s alarming” that the USACE chose not to prepare an EIS, Maio said. He then read from Herman’s memo: “An EA is typically a shorter document than an EIS, and its preparation offers fewer opportunities for public comment or involvement than an EIS. EAs have fewer procedural requirements and therefore take less time to prepare on average than an EIS.”

“I’m very concerned,” Maio added after he finished the passage. “The public is heavily engaged. This board has always pushed for as much public involvement [as possible] … I’m concerned [that] we’re not asking for an EIS.”

“The board certainly could [request one],” Herman replied.

Rachel A. Herman. File photo
Rachel A. Herman. File photo

The USACE would have to reverse its draft Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) included in its EA, Herman said, and then initiate an EIS.

“I believe [an EIS] is the best way you get your arms around what the real environmental impacts are,” Maio responded, before undertaking a project such as the dredging of Big Pass.

Replying to a question from Robinson, Herman said that the Environmental Assessment that the USACE submitted to the state would not be considered final until after FDEP issued a permit for the Lido project. Herman added that the County Commission could ask for an EIS because the county is considered an affected property owner as a result of the latest USACE proposal to use the Sperling Park staging area.

When Robinson asked if the county could stop the project after FDEP issued a permit for it, Herman said she was not aware of any way to do so.

A court challenge is possible at that point, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh explained.

When Robinson asked whether the USACE had suggested an alternate site to the Sperling Park area, Matt Osterhoudt, interim director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, replied, “I’m not aware of [one].”

Making the case

City Engineer Alex DavisShaw talks with County Commission Chair Al Maio before the start of the meeting. File photo
City Engineer Alex DavisShaw talks with County Commission Chair Al Maio at a March meeting of the county board. File photo

Maio pointed out that facets of the project have changed significantly since the city and the USACE formally announced in 2013 that they wanted to dredge Big Pass. The amount of sand proposed to be taken from the pass has varied from 1.5 million cubic yards to 775,000 cubic yards to, most recently, 1.2 million cubic yards, he said. The federal agency also has switched from an adamant stance that three groins were needed to hold sand in place on Lido Key to planning for two smaller groins, he pointed out.

He was told two possible sand sources exist in the Gulf of Mexico, he continued: One is about 7.6 miles from Lido; the other, about 11.2 miles offshore.

(Bryg of the Lido Key Residents Association told the News Leader her understanding that the sand from those sources is not suitable for the renourishment of the Lido Beach.)

“This has always been a very, very difficult subject,” Robinson said, pitting residents of one barrier island against those of another barrier island. It’s like the Hatfields and the McCoys, quite frankly, and we’re kind of stuck in the middle, because we’re related to both.”

The letter to the USACE, signed by Chair Al Maio, is dated Aug. 24. Image courtesy Sarasota County
The letter to the USACE, signed by Chair Al Maio, is dated Aug. 24. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Bryg also told the News Leader, “The Army Corps of Engineers is supposed to be the experts” on projects such as the one planned for Lido. However Robinson pointed out during the Aug. 23 discussion that other USACE projects that have resulted in harm, including negative consequences to areas surrounding Lake Okeechobee in South Florida. “Promises by the Army Corps were not kept,” Robinson continued, though that was partly related to lack of funding from Congress.

Nonetheless, Robinson said of the USACE promise “that this [Lido project] will do no harm to Siesta: I’m just not there.”

“Reversing something after it’s done is very difficult,” Hines added.