President of homeowners association searching for remedies as situation worsens
On the afternoon of Dec. 13, 2017, Todd Walton sat on the stand in a county courtroom on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota.
He explained to the court that he had more than 40 years of full-time experience in the field of coastal engineering, 24 of which he spent with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Walton was testifying in a Florida Division of Administrative Hearings proceeding for which leaders of two nonprofit organizations on Siesta Key had petitioned. The Siesta Key Association (SKA) and Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2) hoped the proceeding would lead to the state’s ruling out the removal of up to 1.3 million cubic yards of sand from Big Sarasota Pass to renourish about 1.6 miles of Lido Key Beach.
Under questioning by the SKA’s attorney, Kent Safriet of the Tallahassee firm Hopping Green & Sams, Walton talked about having reviewed materials produced by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) as part of its planning for the Lido project.
“[T]he diagrams that the Corps shows have at least 30 to 100% of cumulative wave energy increase along [Siesta Key’s north] shoreline,” Walton said. “And that’s average. If you … actually consider the maximums rather than the average, that’s going to go way up.”
Later, Safriet asked Walton whether it was his opinion “that the Army Corps of Engineers and the City [of Sarasota have] not provided reasonable scientific evidence to establish that no erosion will occur on Siesta Key as a result of this project?”
“I would agree that is the case,” Walton replied.
The City of Sarasota was the local sponsor for the USACE undertaking on Lido.
In the aftermath of that hearing, the administrative law judge recommended that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) issue the necessary permit to the USACE and the city for the Lido Key Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction Project. FDEP did so, in June 2018.
Just after mid-July 2020, a dredge owned by the contractor that won the USACE bid for the Lido initiative began removing sand from Big Pass. In all, about 683,000 cubic yards was placed on Lido Beach, the USACE told the News Leader in late December 2020.
After the dredging began, residents of a homeowners association in Siesta’s Sandy Cove area began noticing changes in their shoreline, which faces Big Pass.
One resident, especially, who lives in a two-story unit, observed changes in the way the waves were being channeled toward the shoreline.
The waves began chewing out the lower part of the berm overlooking the water, Stephanie Jacobson, president of that association, told The Sarasota News Leader during a March 1 telephone interview. That berm, she said, “has probably been sheared in half.”
Sandy Cove comprises four different homeowners groups, Jacobson explained. Residents in the one she represents, she added, live in 52 units that are 50 years old. That section of Sandy Cove is an historically significant development designed by Frank Folsom Smith, Jacobson pointed out. The Sarasota Architectural Foundation notes that Folsom won the Florida Association of the American Institute of Architects’ Honor Award for his Sandy Cove design.
The dwellings on Big Pass are set back from a wide lawn, she continued. A dune system covered with sea oats has protected the homes, Jacobson said.
Because of the change in the wave action in recent months, Jacobson pointed out, the water has been acting akin to a big scoop, pulling sand out “from under the dune.”
She does not know how long that dune system will remain intact, she added.
“This is just since July. This is how dramatic [the situation] is.”
Sea grapes on the beach have had their roots exposed, too, Jacobson noted.
“As a little community,” she said, “we didn’t anticipate something this dramatic.”
As the situation worsened, Jacobson contacted Sarasota County Environmental Permitting staff. Environmental Specialist Staci Tippins provided Jacobson with the names of companies that could truck in compatible sand to stabilize the dune, Jacobson explained to the News Leader.
One such load would cost $50,000, Jacobson added, which she learned through a call to one of those firms.
“Sacrificial sand,” she said, is the phrase used for such fill. “It’s not inconceivable that two or three years down the road,” the association would need to truck in another load of sand, she pointed out, based on her research. “We don’t have a reserve system that has $50,000 every other year.”
A more expensive measure that has been proposed, Jacobson said, would be the construction of a wall adjacent to the lawn to try to protect the villas from flooding. That option, she noted, carried a $100,000 estimate.
Further, Jacobson talked of her concerns about nesting sea turtles, which have laid eggs on the Sandy Cove shoreline over the years. “It’s not unusual for us to have a dozen every season,” she said.
“Last year,” Jacobson continued, “we had none. … It may have just been a fluke. … You begin to wonder. Did this have anything to do with the dredging?”
Jacobson also called leaders of the Siesta Key Association. President Catherine Luckner and her husband, Robert, a director of the nonprofit, came to Sandy Cove to survey the situation for themselves, Jacobson noted.
In July 2017, Robert Luckner presented slides to SKA members that showed facets of the predicted increase in wave energy not only on the northern part of Siesta but also on Bird Key and along the shoreline of Sarasota County’s Ted Sperling Park, which is at the southern end of Lido Key.
He explained facets of the testimony that would be part of the December 2017 Division of Administrative Hearings proceeding. Big Pass, the Luckners had emphasized for years, never had had sand removed from it.
Therefore, the Luckners were not surprised by what they saw at Sandy Cove, Jacobson told the News Leader.
Robert Luckner characterized the situation to the News Leader as “an amazing amount of erosion,” with the threat that the dune could collapse. The damage is exactly in the area where the USACE model predicted the increase in wave energy would occur, he added; the waves are just cutting right into the dune system.
“I’ve called [Sen. Marco] Rubio’s office. I called [Sen. Rick] Scott’s office,” Jacobson continued, referring to Florida’s two members of the U.S. Senate. She had heard nothing from Scott’s staff, she added, while Rubio’s staff did at least acknowledge her message.
“And I don’t know what the federal government has [as a potential remedy],” Jacobsen said.
Robert Luckner suggested she talk with Risk Management personnel representing the City of Sarasota, she added.
The ‘insurance policy’
Because of Siesta Key leaders’ concerns about potential damage to the island if the Big Pass project were to take place, then-City of Sarasota Manager Tom Barwin proposed years ago that funds be set aside as an “insurance policy” that could be used to address any problems that showed up on Siesta.
The total amount put into that fund was $2.5 million.
In February 2017, the City Commission agreed to the proposal.
However, almost exactly two years later — on Feb. 19, 2019 — City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw asked the board members to free up the funding to cover a short-term emergency renourishment project on Lido Key that was planned to stabilize the shoreline until the FDEP-permitted undertaking with the USACE could begin.
DavisShaw stressed that, because of the DOAH proceeding, the city was behind the schedule it had anticipated for the major Lido initiative. In the meantime, she said, “We want to put as much sand out there [on the Lido shoreline] as we can.”
“When the [insurance policy fund] was set up,” Barwin explained to the commissioners, “the final [FDEP] permit had not been issued [for the long-term renourishment project].” He added that the project has “gone through a number of court reviews … [and it] does include extensive monitoring. … We voluntarily wanted to exceed the standards for monitoring. That is built into our permit.”
It took more than 30 minutes of discussion, but the commissioners finally voted 3-2 to remove $2.1 million from the reserve. Then-Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie and now Mayor Hagen Brody were in the minority.
Brody’s primary concern, he pointed out, was the fact that the SKA still was engaged in litigation against the city to try to prevent the dredging of Big Pass. “I don’t want to give anybody any reason to think that we are somehow not … fulfilling the promises that we made …”
Although the SKA lost its case at the 12th Judicial Circuit Court level, it appealed the ruling to Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal. Oral arguments in the case were conducted in November 2020. As of the News Leader’s deadline for this issue, the court had yet to issue its opinion.
Back at Sandy Cove
As part of the USACE’s plans for the long-term Lido initiative, it noted in its December 2019 solicitation package for the Lido Key Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction Project that it would install cameras atop condominium towers on south Lido and north Siesta to facilitate a long-range study of the coastline dynamics involving both barrier islands.
However, the News Leader reported last year, while cameras were situated on the roof of Lido Harbor South, Siesta homeowner groups appeared reluctant to allow the USACE to install a camera system on any building on that Key.
When the News Leader contacted the USACE this month about the cameras, spokesman David Ruderman in the Jacksonville District Office reported that none ever was set up on Siesta.
Additionally, he wrote in a March 2 email, the cameras used on Lido “belong to a Corps regional sand management section, not the same as Jacksonville district, and are now on a project at Folly Beach, S.C. …” Therefore, he continued, no data from those cameras was available.
During the interview with the News Leader, Jacobson said, “I think the most disturbing thing for me [is] that the Corps of Engineers actually admitted that there was going to be problems [with the wave energy].” Yet, she continued, the City of Sarasota kept pressing for the Lido initiative.
Looking ahead to the 2021 hurricane season, she said, “It’s very scary,” with scientists already predicting that it could be worse than the one last year. “[The wave action] has destroyed so much in just a few months.”
Jacobson said she is eager to learn whether other properties along Big Pass have begun to experience the same level of erosion that she and her neighbors have been observing.
“It’s a great community,” Jacobson pointed out of Sandy Cove. “We want to save every bit of it.”