County to embark on RESTORE pilot project in Sperling Park

Staff explains process for using BP settlement funds allocated to Sarasota County

A sign welcomes people to Ted Sperling Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A sign welcomes people to Ted Sperling Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

With a unanimous vote on March 23, the Sarasota County Commission agreed to allow staff to proceed with the development of a pilot project for Ted Sperling Park on South Lido Beach, which will be funded by an allocation to the county through the RESTORE (Resources and Ecosystem Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities and Revived Economies) Act.

The project will include creation of a 0.9-mile multi-use recreational trail, replacement of two deteriorating boardwalks and habitat restoration and protection. “There are a lot of opportunities to improve water quality,” said George Tatge, manager of beaches and water access in county parks for the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department.

The trail would be 8 to 10 feet wide with shoulders, he pointed out, and it could be created with mulch and then paved later, if funding constraints made that necessary.

Laird Wreford, the county’s manager of coastal resources initiatives, explained that the county has been allocated $1,020,017 out of RESTORE Act funds that have been apportioned to each of the 23 Florida counties affected by the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The commission previously had ranked the Ted Sperling Park project as No. 3 on a priority list for use of RESTORE funds, he pointed out. One reason staff recommended it be chosen for a pilot project, Wreford explained, is that “it was as close to shovel-ready as any project that we have on our roster.” Moreover, the design and permitting phases for it have “pretty much been done,” and the expense will fall into line with the RESTORE money already available.

The staff estimate is that the project will cost $1,035,113.93.

According to the terms of the BP settlement over the Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf, he pointed out, the county probably will end up with $5.5 million paid out over 17 to 18 years in one “pot” of money going to victims of the ecological disaster. “Although the funding is certain,” he continued, “the timing of it and the exact amount are not.”

A graphic shows details of the proposed improvements. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A graphic shows details of the proposed improvements. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Still, Wreford pointed out, the money can be used at the discretion of the County Commission. On the other hand, he noted, “We have found that the process that was set up by the federal government [to access the money] ended up being fairly complex. It involves a process that is labor-intensive and fairly difficult to follow.”

That process is known as a Multi Year Implementation Plan, or MYIP. Each project a county wishes to fund through the RESTORE account it has been allocated, Wreford said, has to be submitted to the federal government for review and approval, similar to the procedure for obtaining a permit to undertake an environmental project.

After the federal government approves a proposal, a county then must submit a grant application for the funds to cover the initiative. “It is a federal granting process at its most bureaucratic,” he added.

Coastal Initiatives Manager addresses the County Commission on March 23. Rachel Hackney photo
Coastal Initiatives Manager Laird Wreford addresses the County Commission on March 23. Rachel Hackney photo

Another reason staff sought to undertake the pilot project, he explained, was to gain experience in how the MYIP process works.

“I sure hope that we can develop some sort of methodology that is a little more inclusive,” with public input and more participation by the municipalities, in settling on future county projects, Commissioner Christine Robinson told Wreford. She made the statement after the board’s unanimous vote in support of the Ted Sperling Park improvements.

County Administrator Tom Harmer probably will ask staff to come back to the board with a proposal for such methodology, Wreford told her.

Still, she said, “I understand we are going to learn a lot from this.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Wreford replied.

The other BP settlement money

A 2007 photo shows the Dona Bay Estuary. Photo courtesy Sarasota County
A 2007 photo shows the Dona Bay Estuary. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

Of the three “pots” of funding that are being divvied up through the RESTORE Act, Wreford explained this week, the local account is referred to as Pot 1.

In regard to the state “pot,” he told the board, the 23 county commissioners representing the 23 Florida counties affected by the BP oil spill worked out a compromise so each county would get the same amount of money. “They had a lot of varying views on this,” he said of the consortium, “[but] I think what we’ve struck so far is a very good compromise.”

For Sarasota County, Commissioner Charles Hines has been the consortium representative, Wreford noted.

Some of the discussions, Wreford continued, “were a bit heated and contentious …”

Wreford estimated that each county eventually will end up with about $12.4 million from that state pot.

In regard to the federal pot, Wreford pointed out, each of the five states that suffered economic adversity as a result of the 2010 oil spill has a representative on the committee that oversees projects that will be funded with that money. The group includes six members from federal agencies, he added.

(The Tampa Bay Times reported on March 23 that attorneys representing the federal government formally asked a judge in New Orleans on March 22 to accept a proposed $20-billion settlement the five states and the federal government have worked out with BP.)

The county’s top priority for BP settlement assistance — the Dona Bay environmental restoration, which is estimated to cost $11,250,000 — “did not end up getting included in the State of Florida submittal” of projects, Wreford noted.

When Robinson asked whether he knew why, Wreford replied that he felt it was because of “just the incredible crush of projects that were available …” More than 1,100 were submitted from Florida, he pointed out. “Our odds were not that great.”

Projects that reflected coordinated efforts to improve larger watersheds were selected, he added. In the future, he continued, if Sarasota County works with Charlotte County on the Dona Bay initiative and ties it to other watersheds in the county, he feels it would stand a better chance of winning funding.

Robinson responded that the County Commission and staff recently worked together on a thorough assessment of needs regarding improvements to River Road in South County, with the hope of receiving a specific type of federal grant. While the county did not win that grant, she said, the resulting package of material could be marketed to other groups — including the Legislature — in an effort to gain funding support. Perhaps such an initiative could be undertaken in regard to the Dona Bay project, she said.

“I think that’s a great suggestion, Commissioner Robinson,” Wreford told her. Staff might be able to work with the Governor’s Office, he added, to obtain advice on how best to proceed with packaging the Dona Bay plans.

A 2007 photo shows Dona Bay at the Venice Jetty. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A 2007 photo shows Dona Bay at the Venice Jetty. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Robinson recommended that county staff also coordinate the effort with Rob Lewis, the county’s governmental liaison, to learn more about how the River Road initiative worked.

Harmer agreed with Robinson’s suggestions as well, adding of the River Road material, “That’s a good format.”

Commissioner Hines pointed out that state leaders have told him they have grown tired of hearing about the Dona Bay proposal, “because it’s been around for so long.” However, he concurred, too, with Robinson’s recommendation, noting that the county has been putting funds toward the Dona Bay initiative. “We are getting closer to shutting off this fully untreated water that’s been destroying an entire watershed for 30, 40, 50 years,” he pointed out. Furthermore, he said, political views about water quality in the state have been changing over the past couple of years.

“That’s just an excellent point,” Chair Al Maio said.