Dredging of Big Pass expected to begin by early summer

Army Corps of Engineers gives formal go-ahead to Virginia firm that won bid for the project to renourish Lido Key Beach

Condominium towers are visible across Big Sarasota Pass on the evening of Nov. 29, 2019. File photo

On April 16, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) issued the “Notice to Proceed” to the Virginia firm that won the bid to handle the Lido Key Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction Project, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

That notice is the formal go-ahead for the initiative to begin.

USACE spokesman David Ruderman provided the information to the News Leader in an April 17 email.

Sarasota City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw informed the City Commission and city administrative staff of that development on April 16. In her email, DavisShaw wrote of the USACE project team members, “Now they will begin the discussions with the Contractor on schedule and other project details. I will let you know more as soon as I have it.”

During the April 20 City Commission meeting, City Manager Tom Barwin reported that city staff expects the work to begin in late spring or early summer.

The plans call for the removal of up to 1.3 million cubic yards of sand from Big Sarasota Pass to renourish about 1.56 miles of Lido Key Beach. The USACE bid documents for the initiative said 710,000 cubic yards of sand would be placed on the beach; the rest, based on information the USACE provided the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, would be lost in the dredging and transport process.

Ruderman told the News Leader in his email that the first coordination call between the contractor — Cottrell Contracting Corp. of Chesapeake, Va. — and the Corps “was scheduled to take place” on April 17.

Cottrell’s bid for the project was $12,688,582, Ruderman told the News Leader in March.

As of the News Leader’s publication deadline for this issue, Ben Cottrell, president of Cottrell Contracting, had not responded to calls seeking information about the renourishment project timeline.

This engineering drawing in the December 2019 USACE solicitation package shows the two borrow areas for the Lido project. Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Ruderman added in his April 17 email, “From the Corps perspective everything is status quo and getting out of the starting gate as planned.”

Because of a modification in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) permit for the project, Ruderman noted, “Groin placement would begin over the winter, [likely] starting in January of 2021, well after the turtle nesting season is past. Those considerations are built into the environmental compliance segment of the project agreement with the City of Sarasota and the monitoring agencies.”

Ruderman added on April 17, “Starting with today’s coordination call they are working out the nuts and bolts scheduling matters, including turtle nest placement issues, as originally foreseen. The entire project is scheduled for conclusion by May 21 of next year.”

As the News Leader reported on April 17, FDEP issued a revised permit on April 10, making it clear that the contractor would need to abide by the December 2016 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Biological Opinion issued for the Lido initiative. That prohibits construction of two planned groins on South Lido during sea turtle nesting season. The groins have been planned to try to hold sand in place between subsequent renourishments of the beach, which the USACE has said it expects to be necessary every five years. The FDEP permit, which was issued in June 2018, is valid for 15 years.

An engineering drawing in a Feb. 14 addendum to the USACE Lido solicitation package shows the location of two proposed groins on South Lido, near Ted Sperling Park. Image courtesy USACE

In its Biological Opinion — a necessary facet of the application process for the project — FWS said that groin construction could take place during both daylight and nighttime hours on the beach from Nov. 11 through April 30. However, it continued, “If the [USACE or the City of Sarasota] chooses to begin construction early (November 1), construction will only be authorized during daylight hours up [to] and through November 11, to avoid encountering nesting females and emerging hatchling sea turtles.”

The City of Sarasota was the co-applicant with the USACE for the FDEP permit for the Lido initiative.

In his April 17 email, Ruderman told the News Leader, that,  “according to the Corps team that was part of the original plan and doesn’t affect the planned construction timeline.”

In her email to city leaders, DavisShaw pointed out, “The sand placement can occur during turtle nesting season and there will be turtle and bird monitoring occurring during the project. The construction of the groins can’t start until after turtle season which ends Oct 31.”

Litigation still pending

Two Siesta Key-based nonprofit organizations — Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2) and the Siesta Key Association (SKA) — have litigation pending in an effort to prevent the removal of any sand from Big Pass. They have contended for years that the USACE design of the Lido project will lead not only to irrevocable damage to the pass but also to the Siesta Key shoreline. They also have argued that the USACE should have used a more up-do-date software modeling system to show the potential effects of the dredging and the placement of the groins on Lido.

However, the USACE has stood steadfast in saying that it has faith in its studies, which show no harm will come to the waterway or to the barrier island.

SOSS2 filed suit against the USACE in the U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Florida in January 2019. Although SOSS2 leaders indicated last year that they expected the judge in their case to rule by February, no decision has been forthcoming.

Jane West. Photo from the Jane West Law website

Attorney Jane West, whose eponymous firm is based in St. Augustine, filed the final brief in the SOSS2 case in November 2019. The USACE then filed its final reply in December 2019.

In response to a request for an update, West told the News Leader in an April 6 email, “The case has been fully briefed and there is no deadline for the court to issue a ruling. In other cases when we hit a lull like this I will seek a case management conference just to move it along but given our current circumstances, that would really not be well received by the court. So for the time being we are in just a hold pattern until things ease up.” She was referring to adjustments to court calendars as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The SKA has argued that the City of Sarasota has not complied with its own policies or — as required by the city’s Comprehensive Plan — with Sarasota County policies in proceeding with the Lido initiative.

The SKA lost its 12th Judicial Circuit Court case against the city last year. It has appealed the judge’s ruling to Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal. However, the most recent notation in that case docket says the court granted the city’s outside counsel, John Herin Jr., an extension until May 8 to file his answer to the SKA’s initial brief. Herin is a partner with the Fox Rothschild law firm in Miami.

The News Leader was not able to get comments from leaders of either SOSS2 or the SKA prior to publication of this article.

The potential for staging in Sperling Park

In her email to city leaders, City Engineer DavisShaw also referenced a facet of the project that led to modifications of the USACE solicitation for bids that was issued in December 2019. She noted that Cottrell potentially could use Sarasota County’s Ted Sperling Park on South Lido as a staging area, which would “make the project less costly and less impactful on the public …”

This engineering drawing in the original, May 2019 USACE solicitation for the Lido Renourishment Project identified the North Staging Area at Lido Pavilion. That staging area also was identified in the second solicitation package, for which a bid was awarded in March. Image courtesy USACE

In late January, Sarasota County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht, along with Sarasota Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch and City Attorney Robert Fournier, signed an agreement county staff had drafted. Laying out terms for use of a portion of the park, that document called for the contractor to carry a specific level of general liability insurance that would cover any damages to county property as a result of the renourishment initiative.

Last year, Ahearn-Koch asked the county commissioners to approve staging in the park, saying the USACE had informed city staff that that could save about $1 million in project expenses. Otherwise, the only staging area the contractor could use would be in the vicinity of the Lido Pavilion.

Yet, county commissioners — especially Charles Hines, who is an attorney — voiced concerns about the potential for reimbursement if the contractor did damage the park.

After the agreement was inked on Jan. 31, the USACE issued an amendment to its Dec. 12, 2019 solicitation package that removed the park as a staging area.