History and coastal geology cited as a Siesta nonprofit makes its case against the dredging of Big Pass

Residents urged to contact U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan with the hope Congress would tell the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study alternative means of renourishing Lido Key

This image illustrates the argument that permitting entities erred when they allowed building on land that was either open Gulf of Mexico waters or bare sand in 1948. Jono Miller told The Sarasota News Leader that, in retrospect, Key Towers South should have been included with the ‘Vast Majority’ group. Graphic analysis by Jono Miller. 2016 Google Earth image with 1948 vegetation line superimposed (in pink). 1948 image from PALMM (Publication of Archival Library and Museum Materials, State University Libraries of Florida)

It was one part history lesson, one part pep rally and one part fundraiser.

Facing about 115 people in the Community Room at St. Boniface Episcopal Church on Siesta Key, the retired director of the Environmental Studies Program at New College of Florida presented a series of slides showing the residential structures on land seaward of the Feb. 2, 1948 vegetation line on South Lido Key. “They all should never have been built there,” Jono Miller pointed out. “The City of Sarasota allowed that to happen, and we’re paying the price now, because this is where a lot of the impetus for the dredging and nourishment is coming from.”

A second graphic shows a 2016 Google Earth image of South Lido with the Feb. 2, 1948 vegetation line (in pink) superimposed on it. Graphic analysis by Jono Miller, using a 1948 image from PALMM (Publication of Archival Library and Museum Materials, State University Libraries of Florida)

Miller was one of two speakers during a Jan. 26 meeting hosted by Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2), a nonprofit organization that has been battling the proposal of the City of Sarasota and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to dredge about 1.2 million cubic yards of sand from Big Sarasota Pass to renourish an approximately 1.6-mile stretch of South Lido — principally the area depicted on Miller’s slide.

An aerial image depicts naturally formed beach ridges on either side of the Lido Casino and extensive remnant cabbage palm hammock on St. Armands Key in 1948. There is evidence of minor dredge and fill activity, but the majority of the land shown predates John Ringling’s modifications. Graphic analysis by Jono Miller; 1948 image from PALMM (Publication of Archival Library and Museum Materials, State University Libraries of Florida)

Rob Patten, Sarasota County’s first marine biologist and the founder of the county government’s Natural Resources Department in the 1980s, told the audience that the City of Sarasota originally asked the USACE for help with shoring up Lido’s beach in 1998. It took four years — until 2002 — for the USACE to seek congressional approval for a feasibility study, Patten continued. Then, after using data dating to 2002 — with no reference to reports or peer reviews completed past that year — the USACE unveiled the facets of its Lido Key Renourishment Project during a September 2013 county advisory council meeting, he said. The federal agency never offered a “Plan B,” Patten added. “I think of this [proposal] as a ‘trust me project.’”

Sarasota County residents are being asked to trust the USACE when it says that removing between 6 million and 7 million cubic yards of sand from Big Pass over 50 years will have no negative impacts on Siesta Key, Lido Key, the pass itself or Sarasota Bay, he said.

That volume of sand, Patten emphasized, is the equivalent of four Empire State Buildings. People are being asked to trust “that a desktop computer in Jacksonville will … predict our future,” he said, referring to the USACE District Office whose staff has been working with the City of Sarasota.

Attendees at the Jan. 26 meeting listen as an audience member asks a question. Rachel Hackney photo

City staff and Lido residents did not design the proposed project, Patten stressed. “It was given to them.”

During a question-and-answer session, audience members asked what they could do to prevent the dredging of Big Pass. Martha Collins, the attorney for SOSS2, advised them to contact U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Longboat Key. He is chair of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, one of the most powerful in Congress, Patten noted.

The only way the USACE would develop alternatives to its proposal for Lido in a relatively short time frame, Collins added, would be if Congress insisted it do so.

Martha Collins. Image from her Facebook page

Referring to the USACE’s beach renourishment initiatives, she continued, “It’s the biggest public works scam going in our country.” She reminded the attendees that the agency would be using “your taxpayer money” for the majority of the expense of the Lido project. (Of the estimated $19-million cost, City of Sarasota staff has noted that the federal share would be about 62%; the city has committed no funding to the project. The rest of the money is anticipated to come from the state and from Sarasota County Tourist Development Tax revenue set aside for city beach renourishment projects.)

The federal funding, Miller said, “[is] part of why the city has hitched its wagon to the Corps.”

Collins told the audience she has handled a number of cases involving beach renourishment. If Siesta’s beaches were damaged by the Lido undertaking, she continued, Siesta then would want sand. Therefore, she said, the USACE’s thinking is that it would have an opportunity for more work, because it would be asked to design a project for Siesta.

Mark Smith, chair of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce and a member of the SOSS2 board, explained that the only recourse Siesta residents have had at this point has been the administrative challenge of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s (FDEP) Dec. 22, 2016 Notice of Intent that it plans to issue a permit to the city and the USACE for the Lido project. Additionally, the Siesta Key Association (SKA) on Jan. 19 gave the city, the USACE and FDEP 30 days’ notice that it plans to file a complaint in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in Sarasota, seeking an injunction to stop the state from issuing the permit.

“We need to raise money,” Smith continued. “We need about $100,000 to $150,000 more in our coffers to battle this all the way up through the court system.”

When Chris C. Kofler, a Siesta Key Circle resident, asked why SOSS2 was not cooperating with the SKA, Peter van Roekens, chair of SOSS2, responded, “There is no competition” between the two nonprofits in their efforts to stop the dredging of Big Pass. “The attorneys are talking to each other,” van Roekens added, “and that has been a very positive thing.”

History of an island and a project

“We want Lido [residents] to have all the sand they need, but not at the expense of damaging Siesta Key,” van Roekens told the audience at the beginning of the meeting.

Miller — who, Mark Smith noted, remains an environmental educator and activist — explained, “There’s a lot of myth and misinformation about this [coastal] system.”

The Cerol Isles are shown in an 1883 U.S. coast and geodetic survey, from the collection of John B. Morrill

For example, Miller continued, John Ringling, the eponymous circus entrepreneur and Sarasota resident, did not create Lido Key. In September 1848, Miller pointed out, the so-called “Great Gale” struck near Tampa as a major hurricane. Considered one of the most significant storms to have affected the area, he added, it created Stump Pass at Englewood, Casey’s Pass at Venice and New Pass between Sarasota Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. That gale “changed the whole region,” Miller said. “Ringling just sort of neatened [the islands] up.”
Miller added, “I think there’s probably more sand on Lido Key than there ever has been. … It’s just not where people want it, and that’s unfortunate.”
Miller showed the audience a wide array of slides to illustrate his argument; one featured an 1883 map of the Cerol Isles, including Lido.

A graphic illustrates the argument that more sand exists on Lido Key than in the past. 1948 shoreline superimposed on 2016 Google Earth image. Graphic analysis by Jono Miller; 1948 image from PALMM (Publication of Archival Library and Museum Materials, State University Libraries of Florida)

“Developing [Lido Key] south of the Ritz Carlton was a tremendous mistake,” he continued.

As for Big Pass: “It’s a really big pass for the volume of water that’s in Sarasota Bay,” Miller pointed out, but “it’s been viewed as sort of a waste place.”

The distance between the southernmost point of Lido and the north end of Siesta is about 1 mile, he added.

In the 1950s, he continued, Sarasota leaders devised a plan to create a manmade island between Lido and Siesta keys as a place where African Americans could enjoy the beach and swim — away from white residents. The idea, Miller said, was “to ferry Newtown residents out to the island.”

Graphic analysis by Jon Miller, using 2016 Google Earth image

Furthermore, Miller noted, “North Siesta Key used to be much bigger.” When barrier islands grow, he explained, they do so because of sand accreting parallel to the shore. He added, “I would argue that the current growth … on Siesta is coming from the shoal.”

The beach in 2016 was twice the width it was in 1989, he said. Last year, the distance from the Gulf of Mexico to Beach Road was 800 feet, Miller told the audience.

However, serious erosion is evident on the portion of Siesta right across the pass from Lido. “I’m not sure the city government is treating you all even-handedly,” Miller added, showing slides comparing the eroded areas of Siesta to those on South Lido where the city and the USACE propose the renourishment project.

This graphic suggests Siesta Public Beach doubled in width from 1989 — the year Dr. Stephen Leatherman started his Top 10 beach ratings — till the present. The implication is that the beach was not the nation’s best — as Leatherman named it in 2011 — until sand from the Big Pass shoal had significantly widened it. (The short, perpendicular pink lines represent groins that are mostly gone.) Graphic analysis by Jono Miller, using a 1948 photograph of Siesta Key from PALMM (Publication of Archival Library and Museum Materials, State University Libraries of Florida)

“The shoal helps define the pass, the navigable channel,” Miller continued, and it protects portions of South Lido as well as parts of Siesta Key. Additionally, Miller said, it is habitat for dolphins and spotted eagle rays, among other creatures. Mote Marine has been studying the rays for years, Miller added.

Nonetheless, Miller and Rob Patten both noted that the USACE never even consulted Mote when the federal agency’s staff was working on the Lido Renourishment Project. As Patten pointed out, a July 31, 2014 letter from Mote’s CEO to the USACE included the comment, “The project is literally in our backyard … yet … Mote has not been consulted in the preparation of any of the Project’s environmental assessment.”

Miller also showed the audience a 1998 quote from coastal geologist Robert Dolan, who taught at the University of Virginia for 49 years and wrote more than 200 articles about his research: “The problem is that the coupling of Siesta Key and Big Pass Shoal is so direct, but unfortunately not understood, that even a 10 percent error in the estimate of the amount of sand that could be removed could very easily lead to a significant response along Siesta Key.”