Sarasota city manager talks of concern that Lido could be ‘one tropical storm away’ from the Gulf breaching the shoreline
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) has granted Sarasota County’s request for a 10-day extension of the period during which an administrative challenge may be made to the department’s intent to issue a permit for the joint City of Sarasota/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) plan to dredge Big Sarasota Pass to renourish South Lido Key Beach.
The Siesta Key Association (SKA) and three property owners had sought an extension through Jan. 31, but in an order released on Jan. 4, FDEP agreed to the county’s request that for a Jan. 16 deadline.
At the same time, two other organizations — Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2) and the Florida Wildlife Federation — have filed administrative challenges with FDEP. Because they did not seek extensions, their responses were due this week. (See the related story in this issue.)
Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin told the City Commission during its regular meeting on Jan. 3 that he had spoken with representatives of both the SKA SOSS2 and offered to meet with them with the hope that he could persuade them not to pursue lawsuits that could delay or stop the project. “I’m sorry to report that, up to this point, our offer … hasn’t been responded to in a positive way,” Barwin added. “I encourage these folks to take advantage of the offer and avoid a protracted litigation experience that will also consume a considerable amount of time.”
Both nonprofit organizations are opposed only to the dredging of Big Pass; their leaders have made it clear that they support the renourishment of Lido’s beach.
SKA Second Vice President Catherine Luckner told The Sarasota News Leader in a Jan. 4 telephone interview that she had spoken with Barwin during the holidays and that he had proposed a meeting that would include County Administrator Tom Harmer. However, she said, Barwin never was able to arrange the session. When Barwin called her, she added, “I listened a lot.”
Peter van Roekens, chair of SOSS2, declined to comment when the News Leader reached him on Jan. 4.
In a Dec 27, 2016 motion, Assistant County Attorney David Pearce pointed out that the draft permit FDEP issued shortly after 5 p.m. on Dec. 22 is 39 pages long, and that the conditions most in need of county evaluation regard the use of “staging and access areas for construction and storage of equipment.” Pearce added, “It is the County’s understanding that permittees seek to use the County’s [Ted Sperling Park on Lido Key] as a staging and access area.”
Pearce also noted that because of the holiday season, county staff would not have sufficient time to review the draft permit before the end of the 14-day challenge period required by FDEP protocol. He added that the county offices were closed on Dec. 23 and 26, 2016 and they would be closed on Jan. 2. He further pointed out that the County Commission was in recess and would not conduct regular meetings until Jan. 10 and 11.
The Jan. 4 FDEP order, signed by Francine M. Ffolkes, deputy general counsel of the department — on behalf of General Counsel Frederick L. Aschauer Jr. — says the county and the SKA will have until 5 p.m. on Jan. 16 “to file a petition in this matter … with the Agency Clerk in the Office of General Counsel” at FDEP’s offices in Tallahassee.
Luckner told the News Leader on Jan. 4 that she found it “extremely curious” that the county had asked for the Jan. 16 deadline, given that that date is a federal holiday, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Even in this age of digital filing, she pointed out, “who’s going to be there [in Tallahassee] to receive [any response] and stamp it?”
In its petition, filed with the state on Dec. 29, the SKA and north Siesta property owners Michael Holderness, William A. Bortz and David N. Patton said that providing the extension through Jan. 31 “will afford [them] additional time to review the Notice of Intent, Draft Permit, and Department files and may allow [them] to ultimately decide not to file a petition for [an] administrative hearing in this matter.”
Asked whether the County Commission has scheduled a discussion of the department’s Notice of Intent to issue the Lido project permit, county spokesman Jason Bartolone responded to the News Leader in an email on the morning of Jan. 4, “We do not have a final determination at this time.”
However, van Roekens of SOSS2 told the News Leader on Jan. 4 that members of his nonprofit organization “understand that there will be discussion on Jan. 10, and we hope the county takes forceful action.”
During the Jan. 3 City Commission meeting, Commissioner Suzanne Atwell also told her colleagues she had heard that the county board was planning a discussion on Jan. 10.
The agenda for the Jan. 10 County Commission meeting was released after the News Leader’s deadline for this issue.
Van Roekens also sent an email blast to SOSS2 members this week, announcing plans for a community meeting on the proposed $19-million Lido project. That has been scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 26, at St. Boniface Episcopal Church on Siesta Key. The session will begin at 5:30 p.m. and is set to end at 7:30 p.m.
Along with van Roekens, the speakers will be Jono Miller, retired director of the New College of Florida’s Environmental Studies Program; Rob Patten, former chief of Sarasota County’s Natural Resources Department; and Mark Smith, chair of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce. The email blast says the focal points of the discussion will be What Do You Need To Know? and What Can You Do?
Luckner of the SKA indicated to the News Leader that the FDEP Notice of Intent also will be a major focus of the Jan. 12 SKA meeting at St. Boniface, which will begin at 4:30 p.m.
The SKA has hired the Tallahassee law firm of Hopping Green & Sams to represent it in the matter, its FDEP petition showed. That same firm represented the organization in 1994 when the SKA ultimately defeated a City of Venice plan to dredge Big Pass for beach renourishment.
Urgency of the matter
City Manager Barwin brought up the FDEP Notice of Intent during his Jan. 3 report to the City Commission.
Calling it “the biggest news” that had happened while the board was on its holiday recess, Barwin pointed out, “As we know, many areas of the [Lido] beach are getting quite slender now.”
He continued, “There is a real threat. We are one tropical storm away — or perhaps a year or a season away — from being at risk that the Gulf of Mexico could breach the shoreline. And if that happens, especially during storm conditions, the Gulf then flows into our streets.”
The city’s stormwater sewer system would be inoperable, he said, because “no matter how furiously we pump,” the equipment would not be able to handle the Gulf surge. Depending on that surge and wave action, Barwin added, the streets could flood significantly, “because there’s nowhere for the rain to go. That means access by emergency vehicles … is very difficult, if not impossible.”
Next, he told the board, the city’s sanitary sewer system would shut down, meaning no flushing of toilets at businesses and residences. “Low-lying properties may back-flow. … It’s a very serious issue and a threat that shouldn’t be taken lightly.”
The project has been discussed for years, Barwin pointed out. “We’ve got the greatest technology, exceptional consultants on this.” The consensus, he noted, is that the city would be recycling sand that flowed south from Lido to Big Pass. Moreover, he said, “the permit is loaded with conditions to ensure that no harm will come. … Yet, the fear and the paranoia and the legal threats to tie this up for an extensive period of time remain.”
Both SOSS2 and the SKA have called for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the project, which would entail an in-depth review of all the potential effects. SOSS2, especially, has noted disastrous environmental consequences of a number of U.S. Army Corps of Engineer projects, including the dredging of PortMiami to clear the way for newer, bigger ships. That project “killed far more coral than [the agency] predicted,” the Miami Herald reported in late November.
Dr. Stephen Leatherman, director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University and a consultant worldwide on beach issues who is known as “Dr. Beach,” endorsed the demand for an EIS when he addressed SKA members on Dec. 1, 2016. The County Commission voted unanimously on Aug. 23, 2016 to ask the USACE to conduct an EIS, but the federal agency has declined to do so.
Even if FDEP does issue the permit soon, the federal funding for the project — about 62% of the total cost — has not been awarded to the USACE, spokeswoman Susan J. Jackson in the USACE District Office in Jacksonville confirmed for the News Leader late last year. The USACE has asked that the money be included in the 2018 federal fiscal year budget, she said.
The rest of the funding for the project is expected to come in the form of a $3,610,000 FDEP grant to the city and $3,610,000 in Tourist Development Tax revenue set aside for the city by the county for beach renourishment. Those figures are in the City of Sarasota’s 2017-2021 Capital Improvement Program budget.