Seagrass mitigation agreement between City of Sarasota and Manatee County removed from May 20 agenda after U.S. Army Corps of Engineers asks for modifications

Siesta Key Association, one of its members and Suncoast Waterkeeper cite reasons city should refrain from destroying seagrass in Big Pass for Lido Renourishment Project

A graphic in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ July 2018 Finding of No Significant Impact for the Lido project, published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, includes this graphic showing facets of the seagrass mitigation plans. Image from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Because of modifications requested by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Friday, May 17, the Sarasota city engineer pulled from the City Commission’s May 20 agenda a proposed agreement with Manatee County involving a seagrass mitigation plan for the Lido Beach Renourishment Project.

As The Sarasota News Leader reported last week, the agreement calls for the mitigation in an area Manatee County created called Perico Preserve. The permit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the City of Sarasota received from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) in June 2018 calls for between 2.9 and 3.2 acres of mitigation for the 1.68 acres of seagrass expected to be destroyed in Big Sarasota Pass. The USACE and the city have proposed to dredge up to 1.3 million cubic yards of sand from the pass to renourish South Lido Key Beach.

In response to questions from the News Leader, Sarasota City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw wrote in May 20 emails that the USACE contacted her on May 17 to request a few changes in the agreement. Because the request came in too late for her to be able to comply with the Florida Sunshine Law regarding public notice prior to the May 20 commission meeting, she had to ask that the item be pulled from the agenda.

Asked what modifications the USACE was seeking, DavisShaw wrote, “There was a term for the survey work that wasn’t consistent throughout the agreement and they wanted that corrected. They wanted a few words added to another paragraph. Also, we had moved the cost into the agreement so the reference that was in an exhibit needs to be revised.”

Another graphic shows details about Perico Preserve and Big Pass in the context of the seagrass mitigation plans. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

In materials she had provided to the city commissioners in advance of the May 20 meeting, DavisShaw noted that the cost of the mitigation would be $351,512.45 per acre in Perico Preserve. Therefore, the total expense could be as high as $1,128,749.84, she added in a May 7 memo to the commissioners.

In her responses to the News Leader, DavisShaw explained that it probably would take a week to revise the agreement as the USACE has requested, which would make it impossible for her to get the item on the agenda for the commission’s June 3 regular meeting.

Given the work involved with the changes, and the necessary time for review by the USACE and the city, she continued, “I think it will probably be July 1 [before the item comes back to the City Commission].”

Opponents of the plan

On May 19, the Siesta Key Association (SKA) sent a letter to the city commissioners, asking them to “defer a decision” on the execution of the mitigation agreement.

The SKA is engaged in litigation against the city in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court, arguing that the city has not followed its own policies or Sarasota County regulations in its planning for the Lido Renourishment Project. The May 19 letter points out that the FDEP Joint Coastal Permit issued to the city and the USACE last summer “explicitly states that it does not relieve the City of compliance with local laws, plans and regulations.”

Michael Holderness attends a Siesta Key Association meeting in October 2016. File photo

Additionally, the letter says, “Our region recently faced severe water quality challenges,” referring to the environmental devastation of the red tide bloom last year. “It’s highly unlikely that destruction of healthy and species-dependent sea grass is recommended at this time by any of our environmental non-profit entities and merits further discussion.”

During public comments to the City Commission on May 20, Michael Holderness, an SKA member who joined the nonprofit in a Florida Division of Administrative Hearings challenge of the Lido project, voiced his disagreement with the mitigation plan. He added that Justin Bloom, who heads up the nonprofit Suncoast Waterkeeper organization, also has argued against the proposal.

Responding with more details in an email to the News Leader, Bloom wrote that he had authorized Holderness “to raise Suncoast Waterkeeper’s objection to the proposed seagrass mitigation plan.”

Bloom added in the email, “[W]e oppose the dredging project as planned and find that the mitigation proposal is not consistent with law and regulations.”

Further, Bloom wrote, “For the last several years we have been urging a full [Environmental Impact Statement] be performed and believe that moving forward based on the existing record of information and the finding of no significant impact by the Corps is arbitrary and capricious and a violation of [the National Environmental Policy Act].”

An Environmental Impact Statement is an in-depth analysis of all issues relating to a project such as the one the USACE has proposed for Lido Beach. The USACE has declined to undertake such a comprehensive review, asserting in the Final Environmental Assessment and Finding of No Significant Impact that it completed in July 2018 that no harm will come to Big Pass or Siesta Key, based on the modeling and other analysis it has pursued in preparation for the Lido Renourishment Project.

During the May 20 meeting, Holderness also gave Interim City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs a number of documents that he said underscored reasons why the city should not proceed with the seagrass mitigation plan. Among them, he told the commissioners, was a letter the USACE had sent him earlier this year. As he described it, the letter said that the USACE had had erred in its determination of the erosion rate on Lido Beach. That was all the more reason Holderness told the commissioners, that the mitigation agreement would not be needed. He indicated that the sand borrow areas of Big Pass with seagrass would not have to be dredged after all.

In response to a News Leader request, Susan J. Jackson, a public information officer in the USACE’s Jacksonville District Office, provided the News Leadera complete copy of the Jan. 24 letter that Holderness referenced during the May 20 meeting.

A permit sketch in the FDEP file shows facets of the Lido Renourishment Project on South Lido Key. Image courtesy FDEP

That letter explains that a USACE value engineering study undertaken in October 2013 took another look at the Lido erosion rate, using data reflecting the situation three years after an earlier renourishment project on Lido. As a result of that review, the letter explained, “the erosion rate was reduced from 122,900 cy/yr [cubic yards per year] to 65,000 cy/yr.

The long-range project for which FDEP has issued the city and the USACE a permit also calls for the construction of two groins on South Lido to try to hold sand in place between subsequent renourishments, the letter noted. With those groins in place, it said, the erosion rate “could be further reduced to 50,000 cy/yr.”

The letter further explained facets of a beach renourishment project, noting that the actual interval between each subsequent renourishment on Lido allowed under the 15-year FDEP permit “can vary based on the experienced erosion rate and storm occurrence.”

As of late January, the letter also pointed out, the USACE project team was “establishing the [sand] volumes that will be required for the design template,” along with what the letter called the “‘sacrificial’ advance fill, which is anticipated to erode prior to the next scheduled nourishment.”

Determination of the sand volumes is based on a number of factors, the letter continued, “including recent beach profile surveys.” (That refers to the amount of sand along the shoreline before the project begins.) “The volumes described in the FDEP permit are the maximum volumes authorized to be dredged,” the letter added.

“Exact volumes must be developed as close to construction as possible to minimize changes due to the dynamic nature of coastlines,” the letter pointed out. “After construction of the Lido Key project, engineers will monitor the placed fill and further relook at the renourishment cycle and amount of material to be needed at the next nourishment.”

The letter was signed by Trisston Brown, chief of the Florida Projects Section of the USACE Water Resources Branch.