Siesta Key Association decides against challenging FEMA permit for South Siesta Key Beach Repair Project

County staff still waiting to learn whether FEMA will allow the initiative to take place next year

 Leaders of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) decided not to file a challenge after all to the modified permit that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) issued in late February for the South Siesta Beach Repair Project, in the area of Turtle Beach Park.

The SKA board and a number of the organization’s members have voiced strong opposition to Sarasota County plans to use trucks to bring sand to the Turtle Beach Park shoreline during the height of tourist season. Residents have complained during SKA meetings over the past months that the number of drivers who use the intersection of Stickney Point Road and Midnight Pass Road during the spring months each year — the same intersection the trucks would use — often produce gridlock. SKA members and leaders have stressed how much the truck traffic would exacerbate that situation.

However, because the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has stipulated that it will cover 87.5% of the expense of the beach repair initiative only if the work is completed by June 30, county staff has been proceeding with plans for the undertaking.

During their regular meeting on March 7, the County Commission unanimously approved an extra $7,709,200 in funding for the South Siesta Key Beach Repair Project.

Rachel Herman, manager of the county’s Environmental Protection Division, told the board members that day that staff had received two bids for the initiative — one for $8.3 million; the other, for $8.6 million. The county’s consultant on the South Siesta project, she added, had recommended that the county be prepared to pay more for the work than the consultant originally had expected. That was based on bids for renourishing Fort Myers Beach, which suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Ian, she said.

Herman also explained to the commissioners on March 7 that, even though the official start of sea turtle nesting season in the state is May 1, FDEP would allow the contractor for the South Siesta Project to work on the shoreline beyond that date. Nonetheless, she said, any nests discovered would have to be relocated.

Further, Herman reported that FDEP routinely provides a two-week window for permit challenges.

However, at the SKA’s request, FDEP allowed the nonprofit to wait until April 3 to decide whether to file a formal challenge.

In an April 3 letter to the department — which SKA Treasurer Robert Luckner provided to The Sarasota News Leader — President Catherine Luckner expressed appreciation for FDEP’s willingness to allow the nonprofit’s leaders a longer period in which to consider the potential challenge.

Then she asked that, as FDEP staff members work through the pre-construction steps included with the modified county permit, they “attempt to mitigate the Association’s concerns about traffic on Siesta Key associated with this project’s proposed sand truck hauls.”

Robert Luckner’s email to the News Leader, containing the copy of the letter, added, “I think we have done all we can for now.”

Curtis Smith, a member of the county’s Capital Projects Department, told SKA members in December 2022 that approximately 100 trucks a day would be expected to travel to Siesta Key with sand from an FDEP-approved inland mine.

FEMA encouraged the truck-haul project, county staff has explained, because only 92,500 cubic yards of sand is needed — compared to the 713,563 cubic yards of sand spread over approximately 2.1 miles of the south Siesta shoreline in the spring of 2016.

The goal of the South Siesta Beach Repair Project is to replenish sand that was lost when Hurricane Hermine traveled through the Gulf of Mexico close to the coast in September 2016, only four months after that 2016 renourishment initiative was completed.

In a late-afternoon, April 3 email, SKA President Catherine Luckner informed the other members of the SKA’s board of directors that she had sent her letter to FDEP, noting the decision “not to file for an expensive petition for Administrative Hearing of the South Siesta Key Repair Project, a.k.a Turtle Beach Repair. We consulted legal counsel and did not find any likely successful basis for an appeal.”

She added that her husband, Robert, had spoken earlier that day to Gregory Garris, administrator of FDEP’s Beaches, Inlets and Ports Program. Garris, she continued, had reported that “FDEP continues to assist the County in their schedule extension to FEMA.”

Still hoping for a change of heart at FEMA

Commissioner Nancy Detert reported during the March 7 meeting that she and Rob Lewis, director of the county’s Governmental Relations Department, had met in Washington, D.C., with Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott to seek their assistance in persuading FEMA to allow the county more time to use the grant funds.

Additionally, Detert said that the county’s federal lobbyist had been working with FEMA staff members “so that they understand we’re a little bit different than every other state. This is our busiest time [of year]. Maybe we’ll get some help.”

During an earlier commission meeting, Detert indicated that she had heard from numerous Siesta residents about their displeasure with the project timeline.

In light of the SKA decision this week, the News Leader contacted county staff to check on the status of the South Siesta Project.

County Media Relations Officer Brianne Lorenz provided the News Leader the following statement on April 4 from Project Manager Curtis Smith: “Yesterday, the county received a copy of a letter from the Siesta Key Association to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection stating they would not petition the project’s State permit authorization.

“The project has not stopped. Trucks did not run last month, because we are still pursuing final contracts and authorizations.”

Smith added, “The County has applied for an additional time extension, but it has not been granted yet. Therefore, we are continuing to pursue construction in time to meet the current deadline of June 30, 2023.

The current target is to start construction in mid-April.”

In response to a public records request this week, the News Leader received copies of emails that Smith; Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Department; and Herman of Environmental Protection had exchanged in the afternoon of April 3, regarding the South Siesta initiative.

Before that day — on March 30 — Herman had written to Annie Ford, a FEMA employee, to inquire about the status of the county’s latest time extension request for the grant.

Gina Battle, recovery specialist with FEMA, responded at 9:53 a.m. on April 3, on Ford’s behalf, saying both she and Ford were out of the office the previous week. Battle added that she would check on the status of the extension request and that she was scheduling a meeting later that day with Smith.

Then, at 2:51 p.m. on April 3, Smith wrote Herman that he had learned during the afternoon meeting with Battle that staff of the Florida Division of Environmental Management (FDEM) had recommended that FEMA approve the extension. However, he noted, “[N]o word on a timeline.”

Next, at 4:17, in an email to Smith, Osterhoudt wrote, “When do we need to know by whether to pause the project or not?”

Smith replied at 5:36 p.m.: “I can’t put it to a date yet. We don’t have the fourth time extension … “Smith cautioned, “Pausing without a time extension in place … puts the primary funding at risk.

“However,” he continued, “if we get past mid-April without starting construction, the risk of not completing on time gets pretty high.”

Smith added, “If we don’t hear from FEMA in a day or two, I’ll ask for a timeframe for deciding on the time extension.”

Further, the News Leader learned through its public records request that U.S. Rep. Greg Steube, a Sarasota County Republican, wrote a letter on March 22 to FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell. In that correspondence, he pointed out that state Emergency Management officials had forwarded to her the county’s request for another extension of the timeline for use of the grant funds. “The requested time extension is approximately ten months from the FEMA-approved 3rd Time Extension completion deadline of June 30, 2023, to April 30, 2024,” he pointed out.

“While the County has continued to make considerable progress toward the project’s construction,” Steube continued, “I’d ask that you grant them this additional requested time to due to the following circumstances:

  • “Private development of an over 24-acre parcel at the nearest major intersection to the access point to Siesta Key is currently underway. This development includes roadwork, associated new traffic signals, and the construction of a mixed-use, open-air retail center, hotel, and multi-family residential project.” He was referring to the mixed-use development Siesta Promenade.” (See the related article in this issue.)
  • “The Florida Department of Transportation [FDOT] is initiating a project to mill and resurface Midnight Pass Road, the schedule of which will overlap with the [South Siesta Key Beach Repair Project] by several weeks.” (In its transportation project update for the period of April 2-8, FDOT noted, with emphasis, that, beginning on the night of Monday, April 17, “overnight milling and resurfacing will begin on …  Midnight Pass Road [from the intersection of Stickney Point Road to Shadow Lawn Way]. This work will start approximately 8 p.m. depending on traffic levels and go until approximately 5 a.m. Traffic will be reduced to one lane with flagging operations. Expect noise or lights from construction equipment through the duration,” FDOT added.)
  • “The months of March and April are historically the most active part of Sarasota County’s tourist season, which corresponds to the highest traffic volume throughout the area, especially on roads that lead to and from the barrier islands.”

Steube concluded his letter thus: “I appreciate your consideration of this request for an extension and ask that you grant it. Should you have any questions or concerns regarding this request, please feel free to reach out to my office.”