Incoming County Commission chair says his board will hear a presentation on the Lido project peer review

Al Maio says the board is awaiting responses from the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the Atkins report, but the News Leader finds no such responses will be forthcoming

Photos show Lido Key in the 1920s and this decade. Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Photos show Lido Key in the 1920s and this decade. Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The incoming chair of the Sarasota County Commission told members of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) this month that county staff is awaiting responses from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) on the county’s peer review of the Lido Beach Renourishment Project.

After county staff receives those comments, Commissioner Al Maio — who represents Siesta Key residents among his other District 4 constituents — said the board will have a public presentation of the report, which was completed in October. He made the remarks during the Dec. 3 SKA meeting.

Commission Vice Chair Al Maio. File photo
Commission Vice Chair Al Maio. File photo

“When we have that discussion,” Maio continued, “it’ll be half a day,” because the Commission Chambers will be filled with people from Siesta Key and Lido Key.

However, representatives of the FDEP and the USACE have told The Sarasota News Leader they have no plans to offer comments to the county on the document, which was prepared by the Atkins firm.

On Dec. 7, in response to a News Leader query, Dee Ann Miller of the FDEP press office wrote the following in an email: “The report was shared with the department as a courtesy, and will [be] reviewed as part of our overall permit application review.”

The City of Sarasota and the USACE applied in March of this year for the necessary permits to dredge Big Sarasota Pass for sufficient sand to renourish Lido Key’s eroded beach. The application also calls for the construction of two groins on Lido Key to help hold that sand in place between renourishment projects planned every five years over a 50-year period.

On Dec. 9, Lt. Col. Susan J. Jackson (U.S. Army Reserve), a spokeswoman for the USACE at its Jacksonville District Office, sent the following comments to the News Leader in response to a question about Maio’s remarks at the SKA meeting: “[Project Manager] Milan Mora says that we didn’t receive anything from the County‎ requesting information, or a request to review the Atkins report. Milan said he did receive a copy of the report from the City of Sarasota.”

Maio did not return calls this week from the News Leader, seeking his response to that information.

Approaches to the issue

In further discussion at the Dec. 3 SKA meeting, Maio said, “I won’t vote for anything that hurts Siesta, but that requires us to work with the other residents of Sarasota County — people on Lido — and figure out a way to help them with their problem.”

A number of organizations on Siesta Key took stands last year in opposition to the proposal of the city and the USACE to dredge Big Pass for the sand, citing concerns that the effort would disrupt the natural downdrift flow of sand that has helped make Siesta Public Beach among the county’s top tourist attractions. They also have voiced worries about potential damage to homeowners’ property, because past scientific studies of Big Pass have said its shoal protects the island in storm events. Yet another issue has been the potential for the dredging to disrupt navigation in the channel.

However, even past County Commissioner Nora Patterson — a longtime resident of Siesta Key — pointed to the need for sand on Lido before she stepped down from the board in November 2014.

In the city and USACE application to the FDEP for the project permit, they point out that the “Lido Key area provides significant public recreational opportunities, and is important to the State and local tourist economy.” The application also notes that the undertaking “will result in storm protection for both public and private interests … [as several hotels] and large condominium residences lie within the project limits ….”

“We’re not going to hurt Siesta,” Maio continued during the SKA meeting. “[There are] a lot of questions that need to be answered. … We need to energize folks to figure out how to get some sand for Lido.”

Maio reminded the approximately 30 people present that the project “is not going to happen in the next two weeks.”

Lido Key properties are easily visible across Big Pass from Siesta Key's north end. File photo
Lido Key properties are easily visible across Big Pass from Siesta Key’s north end. File photo

He added, “Nobody has forgotten you. … If I had a list in my office — secretly — of the things that are going to follow me in my career, this would be at the top of the list,” he said of the renourishment proposal.

Maio told the audience members they might be unaware that “I just met with your representatives for the fifth time” about the project, and that he had given them suggestions on how to approach the matter with his colleagues on the board.

He pointed out that Peter van Roekens, a former SKA board member, appeared before the County Commission during the Open to the Public portion of the board’s Nov. 17 meeting, and van Roekens was “crystal clear” about why the board “should be very, very concerned, and that’s the point of [those opportunities to address the commission in public sessions].”

Jeanne Ezcurra. News Leader photo
Jeanne Ezcurra. News Leader photo

During the Open to the Public portion of the County Commission’s Dec. 8 meeting, held in Venice, Siesta Key resident Jeanne Ezcurra stepped to the podium to voice her concern that no alternative to mining Big Pass has been discussed. “We have been told that there is no more sand offshore that ‘fits’ the profile for Lido Beach sand,” she told the board. “Yet, the present renourishment for South Siesta Key is coming from about 10 miles off shore, according Mr. Laird Wreford speaking at the SKA meeting last month.” (Wreford is the county’s coastal resources manager.)

Ezcurra continued, “There appears to be a large amount of sand on the northern end of Lido. What about moving sand, bulldozing it, along Lido shorelines to fill in the dangerously eroded areas?”

She added, “Also, there is a significant amount of erosion in front of beach areas with a sharper sand drop-off. Could filling in this area to a shallower drop-off slow the erosion process?”

Finally, she said, “The Army Corps modeling for dredging Big Sarasota Pass has been questioned by different professionals, most recently Atkins Engineering. Maybe another alternative could look at longer-range solutions to Lido’s erosion problem.”

During his remarks at the Dec. 3 SKA meeting, Maio said it was his understanding that van Roekens and other county residents — including Jono Miller, a retired professor of environmental studies at New College — had scheduled one-on-one meetings with the other commissioners at the County Administration Center in Sarasota.

“When you mention other folks that are working this,” SKA Vice President Catherine Luckner told Maio, “just remember that there are other people working in a different direction than our organization.”

She added, “I’ve never felt urgent about this project.” From the beginning, she continued, she expected “this would be four years down the road.”

Project documentation demands

SKA Vice President Catherine Luckner. File photo
SKA Vice President Catherine Luckner. File photo

Luckner also told the SKA audience that it will be “at least 2017 before [the city and the USACE] can do anything,” given the necessity of working around nesting seasons for sea turtles and migratory birds on Lido Beach.

For another example, she noted, it can take a year for an applicant to obtain the necessary “biological opinion” from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and/or the National Marine Fisheries Service regarding potential impacts on wildlife in an area targeted for beach renourishment, including the amount of time between projects it is estimated for the beach’s natural food supply for wildlife to return to the pre-construction level.

When the Town of Longboat Key submitted its application in August 2014 for its planned maintenance dredging and beach nourishment from the ebb shoal sections of the entrance to the channel at New Pass, the News Leader found, the FDEP staff issued a Request for Additional Information on Sept. 12, 2014, citing the need for a biological opinion, among other documents, FDEP documents show. The opinion was logged in the town’s response to the FDEP on Nov. 4, 2014.

The FDEP issued the permit to the City of Sarasota and the Town of Longboat Key on July 2 of this year, according to FDEP records.

In the FDEP’s first Request for Additional Information (RAI1) regarding the City of Sarasota/USACE Lido project — dated April 15 of this year — the FDEP staff wrote, “Please provide an updated Incidental Take and Biological Opinions from both the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The incidental take authorization should assess take due to construction of the [proposed groins] as well as potential impacts to nesting and nearshore foraging sea turtles. This Opinion should include potential impacts to nearshore hard bottom habitats as well as impacts due to fill placement.”

The FDEP letter added, “This authorization is not a completeness item, but will be required prior to issuance of a Notice to Proceed. Any necessary changes to the relevant specific conditions following the issuance of the final order would require a permit modification.” The RAI1 also noted that these documents are required by law.

A graphic submitted with the Lido renourishment application shows the infill plan. Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
A graphic submitted with the Lido renourishment application details the infill of Lido Key over the years. Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

In a Sept. 4 letter responding to the RAI1, CB&I Coastal Planning & Engineering Inc. of Boca Raton — the consulting firm working with the USACE on the Lido project — wrote to the FDEP that it acknowledged the need for those documents. “Copies of the Biological Opinions and consultation letters will be provided to FDEP,” the letter added.

During the SKA meeting, Luckner added that she is aware “that we are being listened to,” noting that the Atkins report “actually mirrored what we were saying all along.”

Among those assertions, she continued, is that the design of the Lido Renourishment Project is not the best one for the barrier island. For example, the addition of sand to the shore should not have to be undertaken every five years, she said — as the USACE has proposed — and the volume of sand should be decreased.

(The latest information the USACE has provided to the FDEP says it plans to dredge 775,000 cubic yards of sand from Big Pass instead of the 1.3 million cubic yards Project Manager Mora cited in early public presentations on the proposal.)

Finally, Luckner told the audience, “I’m not afraid. … I feel we’re on a good track with it right now.”