County’s coastal initiatives manager is awaiting information from the Atkins team before staff decides how best to proceed, though he anticipates a discussion with the city engineer in the coming weeks
Almost exactly two weeks after the chairman of the Sarasota County Commission directed county staff to get answers to questions raised by a county-funded peer review of the City of Sarasota/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to dredge Big Sarasota Pass to renourish Lido Key Beach, no meetings have been scheduled yet between city and county staff, The Sarasota News Leader learned this week.
During an April 5 telephone interview, Laird Wreford, the county’s coastal initiatives manager, told the News Leader he has spoken informally with City of Sarasota Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw, who has been “very amenable” to working with county staff on making sure the questions are answered. One factor in planning the meetings, he added, is determining who the participants should be.
Nonetheless, he said, he anticipates a discussion with city staff within the next few weeks.
The county paid $49,620 for a team with the Atkins firm to undertake a review of the $19-million renourishment project proposal; the report was delivered in October 2015. The contract included a contingency line, Wreford said, that would allow for further “nominal tasks.” He added, “There is a small amount of money left in this contract we could tap” without having to hire another consultant. If the county were to seek more outside expertise, he noted, that would necessitate spending more money.
County staff has sent questions to the Atkins team and is awaiting its responses, which will guide the discussions with city staff, county spokesman Jason Bartolone explained to the News Leader on April 12. Wreford also told the News Leader that it is possible the county could attempt to seek more technical expertise in securing the information to fill in the gaps cited by the peer review.
Regarding the contract contingency, Wreford said he considered that a prospect if, for example, county staff wanted to have the Atkins team take a look at specific information the city or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) could provide as part of filling in the information gaps.
“I look at that Atkins report as being very valuable,” he said, in terms of pointing out those the gaps, which Atkins Senior Project Manager Charles Mopps discussed in a March 23 presentation to the County Commission.
As for DavisShaw, Wreford said, “She will also be our conduit to the Army Corps. I think [talking with her is] really going to end up providing us a wealth of information.”
During the March 23 County Commission discussion of the Atkins report, Commissioner Carolyn Mason told Wreford she also wanted to make certain that questions raised by “a group of citizens” are answered.
On April 5, as part of the monthly meeting of the Siesta Key Village Association (SKVA), the chair of the board of the nonprofit group Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2), reported that the day before the Atkins peer review discussion, Jono Miller, an SOSS2 advisory board member, submitted a list of questions to the County Commission. Miller is the retired director of the Environmental Studies Program at New College of Florida in Sarasota.
Peter van Roekens, the SOSS2 chair, explained to the 16 people at the SKVA meeting that a county staff member had responded to the organization, saying some of the questions would be answered, but that staff “felt these other questions didn’t need to be answered.” Van Roekens added, “I strongly disagree.” Some of the questions had been submitted before, he pointed out. “I think it’s important that the commission understands what the risks are [of dredging Big Pass], and [those risks are] substantial.”
Coastal scientists have made it clear, he continued, that the dredging plan put forth by the USACE and the city could lead to serious problems. Among those experts is Robert S. Young, professor of coastal geology at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, who is also director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, a joint Duke University/Western Carolina University venture. In May 2015, SOSS2 hosted a presentation on Siesta Key by Young about the proposed Lido project.
Miller told the County Commission March 22 that Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota also has offered the USACE data that could be helpful in its studies of potential effects of its plans, but the USACE has not asked for the material.
SOSS2 is one of several Siesta Key organizations opposed to the plans for dredging an initial 775,000 cubic yards of sand from the Big Pass ebb shoal for the first phase of the Lido renourishment project and for subsequent sand removal from the shoal over the 50-year life of the plan, as outlined by DavisShaw and the USACE project manager.
An April 4 email to SOSS2 from Matt Osterhoudt, senior manager in the county’s Planning and Development Services Department — a copy of which the News Leader obtained — says, “To clarify, staff continues to evaluate the smaller set of questions that was specifically mentioned by the Board of County Commissioners during the Atkins study. … At this time, staff is not preparing responses to the larger list of questions you provided in the email. … Ultimately, those questions and possible new ones should continue to be directed to the project sponsors for their consideration (Army Corps and the City).”
Regarding the “smaller set of questions,” Osterhoudt was referencing a list SOSS2 sent to the county in January.
Van Roekens responded to Osterhoudt with an April 5 email, pointing to the full list Miller provided the County Commission on March 22. The first 20 questions, van Roekens continued, went to the USACE in a letter from Miller dated July 23, 2014, “which the Corps never answered.”
Questions 21-39 are not new, either, van Roekens pointed out, as members of SOSS2 have discussed them with the county commissioners and sent them to city and county staff members.
He added in his April 5 email to Osterhoudt, “[W]e believe that County staff has a vested interest in ensuring these questions get answered so that the County Commissioners have the best set of information as to whether they should support or oppose this current Army Corps project. While the City is the sponsor, the County has both an overall responsibility and a jurisdictional duty to protect County entities such as Ted Sperling Park [on South Lido Key], North Siesta littoral rights and Siesta Beach.”
Among those on the original list Miller submitted to the USACE in 2014 were questions regarding why North Lido Beach “has been accreting significantly and South Lido has been relatively stable,” but the middle area of Lido Key has suffered far more erosion; what provision has been made for increased public access in the area of the planned renourishment, since the “vast majority of this project benefits beach in front of privately-owned property”; what figures the USACE has used to estimate sea level rise on Sarasota County’s coastline in the next 50 years; and whether the USACE has any mechanism to pay for remedial or compensatory actions if the project “can be demonstrated to have resulted in increased storm damage or erosion on Siesta Key.”
Among the new questions are those asking why the USACE has not been willing to discuss a smaller project similar to previous Lido renourishments; why the USACE chose to eliminate one of three groins from the proposal to hold sand in place on Lido between renourishments; and who is liable — and “do they have sufficient resources” — if damage results from the project.
One question also points out that the sand in Big Pass is expected to be replenished between periods of dredging. Yet, after a similar sand “borrow” area off Longboat Key was dredged in 1993, “only 10% of the sand was replenished 14 years later. Why will it be different at the Big Pass ‘Borrow’ area?”
On March 22, Jono Miller told the County Commission, “I believe that you’re the only group that can ask questions about this project and expect to get answers.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated with new information on April 12.