FDEP gives Siesta Key Association until April to decide on filing formal challenge of permit for South Siesta Beach Repair Project

County staff had hoped to see the work underway by late March

As its board contemplates filing a formal challenge of the state permit for the South Siesta Beach Repair Project, the Siesta Key Association (SKA) has won an extension of more than three weeks from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) in which to file a challenge, The Sarasota News Leader learned this week.

The deadline had been March 10; FDEP has revised that to 5 p.m. on April 3.

“This makes it virtually infeasible for the county to start the project this month and finish by June 2023,” SKA Director Robert Luckner wrote in a March 12 email that apparently went to other members of the board, though he did not share the recipient list when he provided a copy of the email to the News Leader.

As the News Leader has reported, during the March 2 SKA meeting, Luckner indicated that members of the nonprofit’s board were thinking of challenging the permit.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has committed to paying for 87.5% of the cost of the project, Rachel Herman, manager of the county’s Environmental Protection Division, reminded the county commissioners last week. The county would cover the rest of the expense through “bed tax” revenue allocated for beach renourishment efforts, she said.

However, Herman has explained, FEMA will provide its funds only if the initiative is completed by the end of June.

Herman also noted that FDEP issued the necessary modified permit for the project in late February. However, she said, FDEP was allowing two weeks for the filing of any opposition to the permit.

Originally, as county staff reported to SKA members in December 2022, plans called for the South Siesta Project to get underway in early March, with completion prior to the official May 1 start of sea turtle nesting season in Florida.

However, staff said in mid-February that only one bid had been received in response to the county’s Jan. 13 issuance of its solicitation for the project. Therefore, staff extended the bid-opening date from Feb. 15 to March 1. Herman told the commissioners last week that staff ended up with a total of two bids, which were under review. Therefore, she added, staff expected the contractor to be able to start work in late March.

Commissioner Nancy Detert has reported to her colleagues that she and Rob Lewis, director of governmental relations for the county, held meetings in person with Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott in Washington, D.C., asking for their help in convincing FEMA to allow the county to delay the repair work until November of this year. She told her colleagues during their March 7 meeting that she and Lewis stressed that FEMA officials needed to understand the fact that Sarasota County typically has a very busy tourist period in the spring.

Truck-hauled sand and tourist traffic congestion

SKA members have voiced adamant opposition to the beach repair project, because it had been scheduled to begin during the height of tourist season. Since the volume of sand to be used is less than half the amount placed on the south Siesta shoreline during a 2016 renourishment initiative, the FEMA had proposed a truck-haul project, instead of offshore dredging.

The sand, as Herman and other county staff members have explained, would be transported to the Key via trucks, with 100 such vehicles a day anticipated going to and from the barrier island via Stickney Point Road and Midnight Pass Road.

Residents of the southern part of the island have contended during recent SKA meetings that it would be impossible for the trucks bringing sand from an inland mine to get to their shoreline access point through Turtle Beach Park and back onto Midnight Pass Road as fast as the project timeline indicates. Traffic congestion on Midnight Pass Road during the height of tourist season would make that impossible, they have stressed.

Commissioner Mark Smith, a Siesta resident, discussed that truck turnaround issue with his colleagues on March 7. He also reported that while residents of the affected area did not believe the project was critical, they did want to see it take place.

In his March 12 email, Luckner wrote his nonprofit colleagues, “So, SKA was successful in stopping the truck traffic this Spring.”

On Feb. 8, Herman of Environmental Protection sent a letter to a representative of the Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) in Tallahassee, formally requesting help with getting FEMA to extend its grant deadline to April 30, 2024. She provided three primary reasons why the delay would be appropriate:

  • Work on the mixed-use Siesta Promenade project on approximately 24 acres “at the nearest major intersection to the access point to Siesta Key” is underway. “This development includes roadwork, associated new traffic signals, and the construction of a mixed-use, open-air retail center, hotel, and multi-family residential project,” the letter said. Siesta Promenade entails 130,000 square feet of retail space, 7,000 square feet of office space, 414 multi-family dwelling units, and a 130-room hotel, she added.
  • “The Florida Department of Transportation is initiating a project to mill and resurface Midnight Pass Road, the schedule of which will overlap with the [the Siesta Key Beach Repair Project] by several weeks.” That work entails the 1.6-mile stretch of Midnight Pass Road from the Stickney Point Road intersection north to Shadow Lawn Way, which is one of the entrances to the Siesta Isles community. The Florida Department of Transportation has reported that the contractor will wait until the latter part of April, after Easter, when tourist traffic on the Key typically begins to slow, to begin regular lane closures.
  • “The months of March and April are historically the most active part of Sarasota County’s tourist season, which corresponds to the highest traffic volume throughout the area, especially on roads that lead to and from the barrier islands,” Herman noted in her letter.

“The above-listed items may impact the project construction timeline (June 30, 2023) to an extent that is undetermined at this time,” Herman added. “Depending on the impacts associated with the items above or other issues that may arise within the existing narrow construction window, we seek a 4th Time Extension.”

In his March 12 email, Luckner pointed out, “SKA’s request [for FDEP to extend the challenge period] was consistent with the County’s request to FEMA to delay the construction to late this Fall.”

Luckner added that he had conveyed the news of the potential challenge to Commissioner Smith. Then Luckner concluded the email: “Our request for the permit delay does not, of course, obligate SKA to legally challenge the FEDP permit and its conditions.”

The sea turtle nesting season issue

FDEP staff used the original, 2006 permit for the first renourishment of south Siesta Key’s shoreline as the basis for its modified permit.

Herman of Environmental Protection told the commissioners last week that the department had given the go-ahead for the South Siesta Project to continue after the May 1 start of turtle nesting season, if necessary.

The modified permit lays out specific conditions that would have to be met, however. They are as follows:

  • “Daily early morning marine turtle nest surveys shall start two weeks prior to marine turtle nesting season (April 15) or 65 days prior to beach placement whichever is later. Daily nesting surveys shall continue through November 30, oruntil two weeks after the last crawl in the project area, whichever is earlier.
  1. “Daily nesting surveys shall be conducted beginning [half an] hour prior to sunrise, and no construction activity may commence until completion of the marine turtle survey each day.
  2. “The [county] shall ensure that marine turtle nesting surveys are conducted as required in this authorization, and only conducted by personnel with a valid FWC [Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission] Marine Turtle Permit, that covers all project activities as required by [state regulations].”
  3. “Only those nests laid in the area where sand placement will occur shall be relocated, and nest relocation shall cease after the sand placement is completed. Nests requiring relocation shall be moved no later than 9 a.m., the morning following deposition (no longer than 12 hours from the time the eggs are laid), to a nearby self-release beach site in a secure setting, where artificial lighting will not interfere with hatchling orientation. The relocation site shall be determined in conjunction with and approved by the FWC prior to nest relocations. Relocated nests shall not be placed in organized groupings. Relocated nests shall be randomly staggered along the length and width of beach settings that are not expected to experience any of the following: inundation by high tides; severe erosion; previous egg loss; or illumination by artificial lighting.“
  4. Nests deposited within areas where construction activities will not occur for 65 days, or nests laid in the nourished berm prior to tilling, shall be marked and left in place. The Marine Turtle Permit Holder shall install on-beach markers at the nest site to establish a minimum 5- foot radius around the approximate clutch location and shall also install a secondary marker at a point as far landward as possible to assure that the nest can be located should the on-beach marker be lost. No activity shall occur within the marked area, nor shall any activities occur that could result in impacts to the nest. Nest sites shall be inspected daily to assure nest markers remain in place and the nest has not been disturbed by the project activity.”