Numerous issues would need to be analyzed prior to pursuing initiative, staff says, if commissioners wish to move forward
If the Sarasota County Commission wishes to move forward with an effort to reopen Siesta Key’s former Midnight Pass channel to the Gulf of Mexico, the project could cost about $84 million, based on the scope and design of such an initiative in 2009, adjusted for inflation, plus maintenance expenses for nine years, county staff has informed the commissioners.
And county staff would have to figure out how to pay for the undertaking, as “no funding [has been] identified for work associated with Midnight Pass,” an Oct. 27 report points out.
That report is the initial staff response to a request for which County Commissioner Christian Ziegler won his colleagues’ approval in the aftermath of a Sept. 13 board discussion.
Ziegler’s last meetings during the term he won in the November 2018 election will be conducted on Nov. 15 and Nov. 16. A Sarasota News Leader review of those agendas this week found no mention of the staff report. However, Ziegler routinely has brought up issues during the Reports section of meetings that have not been included on the published agendas.
In fact, during a recent session, acknowledging that he was coming to the end of his term, he said he had a number of issues to address before leaving county service. Ziegler chose not to seek re-election to the commission this year. (See the related election story in this issue.)
During the October meeting of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), Siesta architect Mark Smith, a candidate for County Commission, told attendees that, if he were elected, he would “do everything in my power” to support a new effort to reopen Midnight Pass. He pointed out, “I swam in that pass as a child.”
Smith added that District 4 commission candidate Joe Neunder of Nokomis also supports such an initiative.
Both Smith and Neunder won their races this week. (See the related article in this issue.)
On Sept. 13, Ziegler noted that he had been talking with advocates of opening Midnight Pass, which used to separate Siesta Key from Casey Key. On Oct. 4, 1983, as the staff report explains, the commissioners seated at that time approved an ordinance that allowed two property owners to relocate the waterway to its 1950 location. Both of those individuals had homes “threatened by the northern migration” of the pass,” the report added.
Although the two men — renowned artist Syd Solomon and Pasco Carter — “attempted to open [the waterway] farther to the south,” the Oct. 27 report said, “all attempts failed. The longest it remained open was throughout a few tidal cycles. The cost of reopening soon exceeded the owners’ financial resources,” the report continued, “and they made no further attempts to open it.”
A series of steps over the decades
The next date of note for Midnight Pass, the county report said, came in November 1984. That was when the County Commission “convened a Blue Ribbon Committee” to evaluate options for reopening the pass. The committee did offer several recommendations, the report added, “including one that called for a ‘one-time dredging of the Pass from the Gulf of Mexico to the Intracoastal Waterway,” which is on the east side of Siesta Key. That water body off the southern part of the Key also is known as Little Sarasota Bay.
Next, in March 1988, the report noted, county staff submitted a permit application “to the regulatory agencies,” seeking approval to reopen the pass. The county had contracted with Coastal Planning and Engineering for a survey, a feasibility analysis, and design and cost estimates for that undertaking, the report pointed out.
The county application called for dredging an inlet and two access channels, with the resulting soil to be disposed “on nearby beaches.”
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) denied the application in May 1990, the report added. Although the county appealed that decision, “a hearing officer” upheld it in February 1991, the report said.
“The most recent attempt to reopen Midnight Pass began in December 2003,” the report continued. That effort “yielded a design submitted to the FDEP and the [U.S.] Army Corps of Engineers [USACE] for review and approval, beginning with applications submitted in November 2004.”
That county application to FDEP said the project would “restore tidal flows to Little Sarasota Bay and provide a high-quality sand source and shoreline protection for south Siesta Key and Casey Key.” Among the goals of the initiative, the application added, would be the improvement of the water exchange between Little Sarasota Bay and the Gulf; restoration of productivity to the ecosystem in Little Sarasota Bay; stabilization of the adjacent beaches; and “improved recreational activities.”
During the Sept. 13 County Commission discussion that Ziegler launched, Commissioner Nancy Detert suggested that water quality should be the focus of any new efforts to reopen the pass. “You take away a lot of the fighting and controversy,” she explained, if the initiative is couched in that context.
However, during a Nov. 7 presentation to the Sarasota City Commission, David Tomasko, executive director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program (SBEP), pointed out, “Little Sarasota Bay’s not dead. There are more fish … in Little Sarasota Bay than any other part of Sarasota Bay.”He did note that those fish are small, because Little Sarasota Bay is a nursery.
Moreover, Tomasko said, the water quality in Little Sarasota Bay is better than it has been in the past five years or so, though “it’s not the way it used to be.”
He did acknowledge that Little Sarasota Bay “no longer has the circulation it used to have.”
The Sarasota Bay Estuary Program is not opposed to discussions about reopening Midnight Pass, Tomasko told the city commissioners. However, he pointed out, any new effort “has to be based on science.”
In years past, he said, he had worked on three private projects of a similar nature, all of which were successful in securing the necessary permits.
FDEP’s denial of the 2004 effort and subsequent actions
The county initiative that began in November 2004 continued over four years, the county staff report said, with FDEP staff calling for eight “ ‘requests for additional information’ ” pertaining to the application. Finally, on Dec. 11, 2008, the report added, FDEP denied the application for the permit, citing “eight main points of concern …”
Those were as follows, the report noted:
- “Consistency with Policy and Eligibility Criteria for a Coastal Construction Permit.
- “Water Quality.
- “Outstanding Florida Waters Classification and Public Interest Criteria.
- “Adequacy of Geotechnical Data and Analysis.
- “Endangered and Threatened Species.
- “Determination of Appropriateness and Sufficiency of Proposed Mitigation.
- “Water Quality Variance.
- “Sovereign Submerged Lands.”
As Chapter 253 of the Florida Statutes explains, the state owns “[a]ll lands covered by shallow waters of the ocean or gulf, or bays or lagoons thereof, and all lands … covered by fresh water …”
On Feb. 13, 2009, as a result of the FDEP action, the county report said, the county withdrew its application to reopen Midnight Pass. It also withdrew its application to the USACE.
In the aftermath of that action, the report continued, the Midnight Pass Society Inc. was created to advocate for the reopening of the waterway. Although that organization and other affected parties filed a lawsuit against FDEP, the USACE and the county in 2012, that complaint was dismissed in July 2013, the report pointed out.
However, instead of filing an appeal, the report continued, members of the Society met with representatives of FDEP and the county to discuss the potential of a revised application. The county staff report then provided a summary of the primary points those persons discussed in August 2013:
- “Background history of the project, the key elements of the County’s application that was withdrawn in 2009, and the State rule changes that have been adopted since then. FDEP staff made no specific commitments regarding the outcome of a renewed application to re-open the pass. FDEP staff stated that if the County elected to proceed with a request, they were open to scheduling a formal pre-application meeting during which specific elements of a proposed project would be carefully vetted. Further, they provided a reminder that in addition to the FDEP approval, the project would need approval from the federal review agencies.
- “Recent changes to the portion of the Florida Administrative Code relating to the opening and maintenance of inlets. A range of changes was made to the statutory provisions cited by FDEP in its ‘Intent to Deny’ [the permit] letter to the County in 2008.
- “Should the [County Commission] seek to move forward with re-activating this project, the next step would be to schedule formal pre-application meetings with FDEP and the Federal review agencies, with a particular focus on the National Marine Fisheries and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.”
After reviewing all of the information during an August 2013 board meeting, the county commissioners took no action, the report added.
‘Unresolved issues’ and ‘Potential issues’
The next section of the county staff report focuses on what it cited as “several issues … identified that the County would be required to address to move forward successfully” with another effort to achieve the reopening of Midnight Pass.
Those were outlined in a letter dated May 21, 2009 from FDEP to the county, the report explained:
- “Inlet stability.
- “Beach erosion.
- “Storm surge flooding.
- “Financial capability.
- “Impacts to marine turtles.
- “Impacts to shorebirds.
- “Natural resources.
- “Turtle Beach access channel.”
Further, the report also noted that, in 2009, FDEP estimated that it would cost $13.9 million for the initial construction of the new pass, plus $37 million for a beach nourishment mitigation project and associated expenses, along with regular monitoring and dredging to keep the waterway open.
The report also emphasized that a “significant design component” of such a project would be the development of a plan to limit the negative impacts on “seagrasses and other natural resources” that would be affected by the construction. Additionally, a detailed analysis would have to be undertaken, the report said, in regard to impacts on wildlife, water quality and habitat.
Moreover, the report pointed out, even more mitigation “may be required” should the project result in negative effects on the adjacent beaches “or other natural resources, such as marine turtles and manatees.”
In the interim, the report continued, staff is at work on a water quality master plan for Little Sarasota Bay; it will be completed in 2023. The funding for that undertaking, the report said, will come out of revenue resulting from the new rate structure for the county’s Stormwater Environmental Utility, which proved controversial, as people who work in agriculture stressed to the county commissioners during their first public hearing for the 2023 fiscal year budget.