FDEP amends draft permit for the dredging of Big Pass, correcting the water classification of Sarasota Bay

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says the federal funding for the Lido Renourishment Project has not been included in the Trump Administration budget for the 2018 fiscal year

Structures on South Lido Key are visible across Big Sarasota Pass on an early spring morning. File photo

Almost exactly five months after it issued its Notice of Intent to allow the City of Sarasota and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to dredge Big Sarasota Pass to renourish Lido Key Beach, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) this week filed a legal document that corrects mistakes in its draft permit.

The primary change relates to the classification of the surface water in Sarasota Bay, The Sarasota News Leader learned. Another modification refers to the location of the seagrass mitigation site, which would be the Perico Preserve in Manatee County. That change incorporates language saying the preserve is within Sarasota Bay, “adjacent to” Class II Waters … in Manatee County.”

In a related matter this week, the News Leader learned that the federal funding for the proposed Lido Key Renourishment Project was not included in the Trump Administration’s proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year. USACE Public Affairs Specialist Amanda D. Parker provided that information on May 25 in response to a News Leader question following the budget’s release.

The project application shows the area of renourishment and the borrow areas in Big Pass. Image courtesy State of Florida

The USACE has committed federal financing for about 62% of the estimated $19-million project. The draft of the City of Sarasota’s Capital Improvement Plan priorities for the fiscal years of 2018 through 2022 — which the City Commission reviewed on May 22 — still lists the funding breakdown for the Lido project as $11,780,000 in the form of a federal grant, $3,610,000 in the form of a state grant and the rest from Sarasota County Tourist Development Tax revenue set aside for city beach renourishment initiatives.

In regard to the FDEP amended draft permit: The document appeared on May 22 in the docket for a Florida Division of Administrative Hearing (DOAH) case set for late August. During that proceeding, a judge will hear the challenges of three nonprofit organizations — Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2), the Siesta Key Association (SKA) and the Florida Wildlife Federation (FWF). They are fighting the proposal to remove about 1.2 million cubic yards of sand from the pass to renourish about 1.6 miles of South Lido Key Beach.

In response to a question from the News Leader, FDEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller confirmed in a May 24 email that the primary need for the amended permit was to “correct the surface water classification” of Sarasota Bay from Class III to Class II.

On its website, FDEP explains classifications and designated uses of bodies of water, as required by the federal Clean Water Act. Class II waters, it says, are “[g]enerally coastal waters where shellfish harvesting occurs.”

FDEP’s website includes this chart, which explains surface water classifications. Image courtesy FDEP

FDEP’s website chart also notes, “The surface waters of the state are Class III unless described in rule 62-302-400 [of the Florida Administrative Code].”

The chart further describes Class III as follows: “Fish Consumption, Recreation, Propagation and Maintenance of a Healthy, Well-Balanced Population of Fish and Wildlife.”

Florida Administrate Code 62-302 points out, “Water quality classifications are arranged in order of the degree of protection required, with Class I water having generally the most stringent water quality criteria and Class V the least. However, Class I, II, and III surface waters share water quality criteria established to protect fish consumption, recreation and the propagation and maintenance of a healthy, well-balanced population of fish and wildlife.”

The Florida Administrative Code classifies Sarasota Bay in Sarasota County west of “the Intracoastal Waterway Channel centerline” as Class II surface waters.

For Manatee County, Perico Bayou and Sarasota Bay also are Class II waters.

The amended permit includes this section showing part of the changes. Image from FDEP

After the amended permit showed up in the DOAH docket on May 22, attorneys for SOSS2, the SKA and the FWF all were working together “to review the modifications,” an SOSS2 news release pointed out.

During recent SKA meetings, Vice President Catherine Luckner has talked about the cooperation of that nonprofit with SOSS2, whose chair is Peter van Roekens of Siesta Key, a former SKA board member.

A new form of help?

Both the SKA and SOSS2 have remained adamant that they are supportive of Lido Key residents’ desire for a renourishment project, but they have been equally adamant that removing sediment from Big Pass could result in serious harm to Siesta Key.

Stephen Leatherman addresses members of the Siesta Key Association on Dec. 1, 2016. File photo

Luckner told The Sarasota News Leader on May 25 that the naming of Siesta Key as the No. 1 beach in the United States that morning by Stephen Leatherman of Florida International University — Dr. Beach — could prove very beneficial to the nonprofits’ legal challenges of the USACE/City of Sarasota proposal. (See the related story in this issue.)

During a Dec. 1, 2016 presentation to SKA members, Leatherman called for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to be conducted on the USACE proposal for the dredging of Big Pass. Although the USACE rebuffed the Sarasota County Commission’s request last year for an EIS, Leatherman maintained that such an intensive environmental study was warranted. “I think we need to really study this very carefully and leave no stone unturned,” he said. “If it takes more time [to undertake the EIS], so be it.”

Update for Siesta Chamber members

When the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors held its most recent general meeting for members — on May 17 — van Roekens provided an update on the efforts of SOSS2, the SKA and the FWF to oppose the dredging of Big Pass.

As he has many times since the USACE revealed its Lido Renourishment Project proposal in September 2013, van Roekens pointed out that the city and the USACE never offered a “Plan B.” If the city had made an effort to find sand from another source, he said, “we wouldn’t be in this predicament.”

He explained that the three nonprofits are pursuing unique approaches in their DOAH challenges. For example, he said, SOSS2 is working with Robert Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, which is a joint venture of Duke University and Western Carolina University in North Carolina. Young will testify about the USACE’s models of the dredging project, van Roekens said. Those models have shown Siesta Key would not suffer any adverse impact if sand were removed from Big Pass. However, during a program SOSS2 hosted in May 2015, Young questioned the findings, based on his expertise.

Peter van Roekens. File photo

Van Roekens also noted that the three nonprofits expect a ruling in September or October from Administrative Judge Bram D.E. Canter in the DOAH case. If it goes against the nonprofits, van Roekens added, they can appeal it.

At the same time, the SKA has filed a complaint in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court to stop the dredging. Judge Lon Arend ruled on April 24 that the case would be held in abeyance until after the DOAH administrative challenge process was completed.

Van Roekens also told the Siesta Chamber audience about the City of Sarasota’s proposed “insurance plan” in the event of adverse effects if the dredging does take place.

On Feb. 21, the Sarasota City Commission approved moving $2.5 million in its Tourist Development Tax revenue beach renourishment account into a special fund that would “serve as an insurance policy to mitigate any impact to Siesta Key,” according to agenda backup material provided to the board. The formal motion gave city staff 90 days to try to gain assurances from the SKA and SOSS2 that they would drop their legal challenges of the proposed dredging of Big Pass.

Then-Commissioner Susan Chapman proposed the time limit; City Manager Tom Barwin said staff would review the situation at the end of the 90 days. The next regular City Commission meeting will be held June 5.

Van Roekens pointed out during the Siesta Chamber meeting, “One house on Sandy Hook would probably take that $2.5 million …” The Sandy Hook development is situated right on Big Pass.

Finally, van Roekens said the FWF is prepared to file a complaint in federal court if that step is necessary to stop removal of sand from the pass.

One Siesta Chamber member asked him, “Do you feel like, in your heart, you will win?”

“Yes,” van Roekens replied. “We have to.”