Drainage improvement project planned in 2016 for Higel Avenue/Ocean Boulevard area of Siesta Key

County staff is seeking a permit to lay pipes in the ditches that will enable treated stormwater to flow into the Grand Canal, especially during heavy rain events

Ben Quartermaine. Rachel Hackney photo
Ben Quartermaine. Rachel Hackney photo

As the sand in Big Sarasota Pass has shifted over the years, and more beach has accreted on the northern part of Siesta Key, the drainage system that used to allow stormwater to flow to the Gulf of Mexico has been disrupted, Sarasota County stormwater engineer Ben Quartermaine told The Sarasota News Leader this week.

As a result, heavy rain events — when about 3 or more inches fall — bring misery to the residents of about 20 homes in the vicinity of the Higel Avenue/Ocean Boulevard intersection, Quartermaine explained to about 15 members of the Siesta Key Village Association (SKVA) on Dec. 1. “Those folks are in a real hurt right now.”

That is why he and other county staff members are seeking a permit from the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) to create changes in the drainage basin and pipe the stormwater to the Grand Canal, he continued. “It’s a little bit more involved … than our typical maintenance projects would be,” he said during the SKVA meeting, because staff will have to demonstrate to SWFWMD that the water that will flow into the Grand Canal has been treated properly first. “We can’t have cloudy sediment-filled water dumping into the Grand Canal,” he pointed out, “and we have to address other pollutants in the water.”

The design calls for stormwater to percolate through the ground before it reaches the Grand Canal, he added.

The plan includes enhancing the look of the Ocean Boulevard/Higel Avenue intersection by creating a bioswale on the south side of Ocean and on the west side of Higel, instead of the big ditches drivers see, he pointed out. Regarding the right turn vehicles make from Higel onto Ocean Boulevard to head to Siesta Village, he added, “That is the primary gateway to the commercial area.”

As for the ditch on Ocean, he continued, “It flows and it functions, but aesthetically, it could be a lot better than it is.”

Staff proposes to pipe that ditch and then add plantings similar to those in the new parking lot at Siesta Public Beach. Similar work will be done in the ditch along Higel between Ocean Boulevard and Reid Street, he indicated.

A graphic shows the area of the planned drainage improvements. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A graphic shows the area of the planned drainage improvements. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In a Dec. 1 telephone interview, Quartermaine told the News Leader he hopes to have the necessary permit in hand before the end of the first quarter of 2016. As part of that process, he and other county employees are meeting with residents and business owners on Siesta Key, as well as with the property owners in the affected area. Quartermaine was scheduled to make a presentation on Dec. 3 to members of the Siesta Key Association.

Staff already has planned for the project to begin after the end of peak tourist season, he told the SKVA members this week. However, Russell Matthes, co-owner of the Daiquiri Deck restaurants, pointed out, “Summer remains relatively busy out here.” In that event, Quartermaine replied, “I’m open to a target date that works best for you.”

Matthes added that business on the Key does not slow down until after Labor Day. SKVA board member Kay Kouvatsos, co-owner of Village Café, suggested the first full week of September would be a better time to start the project.

The ditch on the west side of Higel Avenue continues along Ocean Boulevard. Rachel Hackney photo
The ditch on the west side of Higel Avenue continues along Ocean Boulevard. Rachel Hackney photo

When County Commissioner Al Maio, a guest at the meeting, asked about the cost of the project, Quartermaine said staff estimates it will be between $300,000 and $400,000.

SKVA Vice President Mark Smith asked whether any lane closures would be necessary during the work. Quartermaine replied that he doubted that would be necessary. However, it is possible, Quartermaine added, that one lane might need to be shut down to traffic for perhaps 15 or 20 minutes at a time to facilitate some of the construction.

“It’s not major work,” he said of the project. “The ditch is there,” and a crew will be putting a pipe in that ditch.”

Asked how long he expected the project to take, Quartermaine estimated three weeks for the construction in the area of the Ocean Boulevard/Higel Avenue intersection. Another part of the project will take an additional three weeks, it said. That will involve work on Lotus Lane, which is on the east side of Higel Avenue, across from Reid Street.

He has talked with the homeowners on Lotus Lane, he added, assuring them that they will have 24-hour-a-day access to their driveways when that part of the project gets under way.

An aerial view shows Lotus Lane and Higel Avenue. Image from Google Maps
An aerial view shows Lotus Lane and Higel Avenue. Image from Google Maps

When Smith asked whether any of the work could be pursued at night, Quartermaine told him, “It’s a safe option during the day.” If it proved necessary, work could be done at night, he added. Still, he said, he would feel better paying for a crew to help with traffic flow in the daytime instead of pursuing the project at night.

In response to a question from SKVA Treasurer Roz Hyman about where staff plans to stage the pipes, Quartermaine pointed out that the county can use the property where the former Siesta Key sewer treatment plant sits, which is a short distance from the project site. Material can be offloaded from trucks and set into place quickly, he added. If it proved necessary, he continued, staff could look at using right of way in the immediate area of the project.

When Smith asked whether county staff plans to put a sidewalk on the south side of Ocean Boulevard, Quartermaine said that is not a facet of the project. However, he noted, one option for the bioswale is to put down a shell base that would remain mostly dry and “that could be traversable.”

After Siesta Key Association President Michael Shay noted that drivers tend to throw a lot of trash into the ditch on Ocean Boulevard, Quartermaine pointed out that, as part of the treatment system, a basket will be used “to catch floatables.” Then, the county’s vacuum truck will clean out the debris, he added.

“Thank you,” Shay replied.

Quartermaine told the News Leader on Dec. 1 that planning for the project began about midway through 2014 and intensified in the latter part of that year, after the county brought a consulting engineer on board to assist with the design. “We’ve spent the better part of a year looking at different alternatives,” he added.