County Commission also discusses importance of discussions with regulatory agencies to guide proposal before any permit applications submitted
Following an Oct. 10 presentation by Sarasota County’s Public Works Department Director Spencer Anderson, the County Commission voted unanimously to direct staff to initiate a new feasibility study that will produce options for restoring a tidal connection between the Gulf of Mexico and Little Sarasota Bay, in the general area where Midnight Pass once was located on south Siesta Key.
Commissioner Joe Neunder, who has championed efforts related to the reopening of Midnight Pass, made the motion, and Commissioner Neil Rainford seconded it.
“We want to measure twice and cut once,” Neunder said in offering caution about how best to move forward. “This is a passionate project for me and a lot of people in this community,” he added.
When Rainford asked how long it likely will take staff to complete the feasibility study, Spencer Anderson, the Public Works director, responded, “Conservatively, probably a year.”
“And if you’re being reckless?” Neunder asked, prompting laughter.
It would be “really hard,” Anderson replied, to provide the board members a more definitive answer. The timeline will depend on “what has to be done,” he said, including new studies related to seagrass coverage in Little Sarasota Bay and potential mangrove destruction and mitigation.
Some work may have to be accomplished during the height of tourist season, Anderson continued, which, he indicated, could lead to a longer timeline.
As for the expense: Based on the $14.5-million that the county paid for a design/permitting initiative from 2004 to 2008, to try to reopen the pass, Anderson told the board members that the expense of the new undertaking probably would range from $25 million to $40 million. That estimate does not include design and permitting costs, he continued, which he put at approximately $2 million, or the annual maintenance necessary to keep the waterway stable, which he anticipated would be slightly more than $1 million.
The feasibility itself probably would cost between $250,000 and $500,000, Anderson said.
When Rainford asked Anderson what he expected the county’s expense would be “to get this ball moving forward as fast as possible,” County Administrator Jonathan Lewis explained that, after the various scenarios have been created through the feasibility study, staff will come back to the commissioners with more refined estimates.
Coordination with ‘state and federal partners’ espoused
Additionally, Neunder asked whether board approval that day of a new feasibility study would send a signal to members of Congress and the Florida Legislature that the commissioners are “taking some buy-in for this project” and perhaps prompt those governmental bodies to provide financial support for it.
“Yes,” County Administrator Lewis responded, adding that he already had discussed that potential with Rob Lewis, the county’s governmental relations director.
“I think that it behooves us to coordinate with our state and federal partners,” in an effort to win funding for whatever initiative proves to be the best option, Rainford pointed out.
Anderson noted during his presentation that Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed a $1-million appropriation from the Legislature this year, which would have gone toward initial work related to creating a new tidal connection for Little Sarasota Bay.
Yet, Neunder noted that U.S. Rep. Greg Steube of Sarasota County has expressed support for that undertaking. (Steube has sought federal funding for the county for such work.)
Chair Ron Cutsinger added that discussions with representatives of the regulatory agencies that would have to sign off on the initiative would be a good step before any new permit applications were submitted to those agencies. Through such interaction, Cutsinger said, the agency representatives could provide their thoughts “on all the obstacles” the county staff needs to consider, along with offering recommendations about how the county should proceed with the best chance of winning approval.
Development of the feasibility study would include such discussions, Anderson indicated.
“One big problem” with that 2004-2008 initiative, Anderson noted, was the fact that “the regulatory agencies weren’t really on board with us.”
After the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) issued a Notice of Intent to deny a permit for the reopening of the pass, Anderson said, the County Commission agreed to withdraw that permit application, so the county would not have a permit denial on record with that agency.
Permits would be needed from FDEP, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and other federal agencies, primarily the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for any new proposal, Anderson pointed out.
Among the options that will be analyzed this time, he continued, would be installation of a pipeline between Little Sarasota Bay and the Gulf, instead of a full reopening of the pass.
However, he acknowledged, a “hardened” option, such as the jetty at Venice Inlet, could be considered. One facet of any undertaking would be to ensure that Casey Key ends up with neither too little sand nor too much, he told the commissioners. The goal, Anderson said, would be for the Midnight Pass plans to help stabilize the Casey Key shoreline.
He also alluded to the fact that some proposals involving restoration of a tidal connection could result in a sand source for future beach renourishment projects.
In April, David Tomasko, executive director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program (SBEP), talked of other tidal flow restoration options, such as the construction of a culvert between the bay and the Gulf, similar to a project he worked on in the Tampa Bay region.
Over the past couple of years, a group of county residents has been advocating for the reopening of Midnight Pass, which the County Commission seated in the early 1980s allowed two south Siesta homeowners to close in an effort to protect their homes from collapsing into the Gulf of Mexico. The property owners were to move the pass to another site on the barrier island, county staff has noted, but they never managed to do so.
Commissioner Neunder has told his colleagues that he recalled seeing Midnight Pass bumper stickers with the admonition “Let It Flow” when he was growing up. As he campaigned for County Commission in 2022, he touted his interest in a new effort to achieve that goal.
Commissioner Mark Smith, who lives on Siesta Key, also has been supportive of seeking the best option to restore the tidal flow.