Siesta Key Association urges FDEP to consider barge option, instead of just trucks, for transport of sand to southern part of island for 2023 beach repair project

County staff discusses ‘very, very tight’ timeline for undertaking, to keep FEMA grant for 75% of cost

In a formal comment sent to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), Catherine Luckner, president of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), has protested plans for the hauling of sand by truck to replenish a stretch of south Siesta Key shoreline damaged by Hurricane Hermine in 2016.

Curtis Smith, a member of Sarasota County’s Capital Projects Department and manager of the project, explained to SKA members on Dec. 1 that, to avoid losing federal grant funds for the undertaking, the initiative must be completed before sea-turtle nesting season begins on May 1, 2023. Plans call for about 100 trucks a day to deliver a total of 92,500 cubic yards of beach-compatible sand from an upland mine approved by FDEP. The access point to the shoreline will be the county’s Turtle Beach Park, he noted.

(In response to a Sarasota News Leader question, Smith said that the project specs do not call for a specific volume of sand per truck.)

The initiative is anticipated to get underway in March 2023, a county fact sheet notes.

However, SKA leaders and members of the nonprofit have protested that the trucks will exacerbate traffic congestion typical on the barrier island during the height of tourist season. The trucks would use the Stickney Point Road access to the Key, Smith explained during his Dec. 1 presentation. Yet, residents for years have posted photos on Facebook, showing long lines of traffic backed up at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road as visitors and island homeowners use that route to get onto the island.

During tourist season one year, an SKA director described having to wait through numerous traffic signal cycles at that intersection, with vehicles backed up well east of it.

Smith did note that staff had reviewed Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) traffic counts for the affected area, including Midnight Pass Road, which the trucks would use after coming onto Siesta Key. The data indicated that the trucks would raise the traffic count only about 1%, he said.

Further, Smith explained, county staff will hold the contractor responsible for “metering the truck traffic onto the island.” A staging area will be necessary, he continued, “so that [the trucks] can be released in an orderly fashion.”

Nonetheless, he acknowledged, on occasion, “Some trucks may bunch up.”

He also emphasized, “Those trucks are big, and they need to drive safely.”

Additionally, Smith told the SKA members, “If a dump truck chews up some of the asphalt,” that would be repaired.

The trucks will head to the county’s Turtle Beach Park, Smith said, where they will go onto the shore through the dune system just south of the first boat ramp. They will make a three-point turn, he continued, back onto the beach and deposit the sand. Then, he explained, off-road dump trucks will collect the sand and take it where it is needed as the project goes along. He added that the dump trucks likely will transport sand first to the southernmost point of the construction limits.

As Hermine’s damage was worse on the southern end of the beach area that was renourished in 2016, Smith said, more sand will be placed there than along the northern project limits.

The beach profile will be smoothed out, he added, after all the sand is in place.

After listening to Smith’s description of how the work is expected to proceed, South Siesta resident James P. Wallace III voiced doubt that the trucks would be able to move easily out of Turtle Beach Park onto Midnight Pass Road, to head back to the Stickney Point Road intersection.

“Your trucking company is going to have to analyze this site,” Wallace said. His estimate, Wallace noted, is that only six trucks per hour would be able to make the trip.

The project limits extend from “barely up into the Sanderling Club rock revetment system [to] about 250 feet or so south of the last house on the south part of the Key,” Smith further explained.

County staff will advertise for bids for the initiative no later than January 2023, Smith added. The design consultant with whom the Capital Projects staff has worked has been in touch with contractors, Smith pointed out; the consultant is aware of at least four companies that have availability in their schedules for early 2023. Thus, he indicated, staff feels confident that it will receive bids.

The design consultant listed on the county fact sheet is Geosyntech ATM, which has offices in Tampa, Clearwater and Boca Raton, among other Florida locations. The design expense was $373,248.60, the fact sheet says.

Nonetheless, Smith did acknowledge the “very, very tight” deadline to complete the work on the beach before May 1, 2023.

A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant the county received will cover 75% of the project cost, he pointed out. That grant will expire on June 30, 2023, Smith emphasized. “We were hoping for more time; we lobbied for more time, and this is what they were willing to give us.”

“Our understanding,” he said, “is that this is the last Hermine project in the nation. … It’s taken many years to have the grant discussion with FEMA.”

The remainder of the expense will be split evenly between the state and the county, Smith noted. The county will use designated revenue received through its “bed tax” program to pay for its share, he added.

No work will be done at night, Smith continued. Typically, county solicitations for vendors call for crews to handle their job responsibilities on weekdays between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., he noted.

However, he said, the contractor may undertake some of the work on the shoreline on Saturdays, though the company would have to have county permission to do so.

A county informational meeting on the project plans will be held in early January 2023, Smith added.

A road ‘already heavily used during the Springtime’

Writing on behalf of the nonprofit’s board of directors in a Dec. 15 letter to Rachel Grundl in FDEP’s Office of Resiliency and Coastal Protection, SKA President Luckner pointed out that FEMA did not study an alternative to the truck-haul project. Specifically, SKA leaders have suggested that the final leg of the trip to the south Siesta shoreline be made by barge. That would prevent “intense truck traffic on the small two-lane roads of South Midnight Pass on Siesta Key and in Sarasota County’s Turtle Beach Park,” Luckner noted.

When asked about such a scenario during the Dec. 1 meeting, Smith of Capital Projects reported that staff did not consider the use of barges. The truck-haul project is what FEMA will fund, he stressed. “There’s not time for us to go back and argue [a barge proposal].”

During a Dec. 20 telephone interview, Donald DeBerry, senior transportation manager in the county’s Public Works Department, explained, “Working with barges is difficult.” Moreover, he noted of the south Siesta undertaking, “This is actually a fairly small project.”

A county document issued after the 2016 renourishment was completed said that the total quantity of new sand was 713,563 cubic yards; it was spread over 2.1 miles of the south Siesta shoreline. The document added that the sand came from three borrow areas that were approximately 8 to 10 miles offshore.

(In response to an SKA member’s question on Dec. 1, Project Manager Smith pointed out that it made no financial sense to use an offshore dredge to bring the sand to the shoreline, given the fact that less than 100,000 cubic yards of sand would be used. Just mobilizing a dredge costs approximately $4 million to $5 million, he said.)

“I would not have considered a barge, either,” DeBerry told the News Leader on Dec. 20. “We’re not getting the material out of the [Gulf]. … The best match was the inland sand.”

Therefore, he continued, the cost was not the only factor.

DeBerry also pointed out that, whereas trucks could take 100 loads a day to the project site, the best estimate for barges would be 10 loads a day, and each barge would need to be guided by a tugboat.

Using barges, he said, is “pretty doggone difficult, too,” DeBerry added, and “it would take a lot longer.”

However, in her letter to FDEP, SKA President Luckner wrote that, based on details of the undertaking provided by county staff, SKA leaders anticipated that 4,600 dump truck loads would be brought onto the island during March and April 2023. She also pointed out, “Stickney Point Road is a relatively narrow two-lane road [that] is already heavily used during the Springtime by residents, tourists, service workers, pedestrians, cyclists, and emergency vehicles. This incremental traffic, in SKA’s opinion, will result in a significant temporary degradation in traffic flow and create unacceptable, if not unsafe, delays of traffic.”

Further, Luckner explained, the Florida Department of Transportation plans to resurface about 1.6 miles of Midnight Pass Road from the Stickney Point Road intersection to Shadow Lawn Way, which is one entrance to the Siesta Isles community on the island. That initiative will be underway concurrent with the South Siesta Beach Repair Project, she pointed out. Therefore, traffic on both the southbound and northbound lanes of Midnight Pass Road “will be unacceptably, if not unsafely, disrupted.”

Since learning of the plans for the South Siesta Beach Repair Project in February, Luckner added, SKA leaders had attempted to work with the county commissioners and county staff to achieve modifications in either the FDOT project or the beach repair initiative. “We have been unsuccessful,” she wrote.

“Turtle Beach has a history (and a permit) [enabling use of] barges to bring sand from offshore dredge sites,” she continued. Moreover, she wrote, “SKA believes that there are nearby but off Siesta Key barge unloading sites for trucks [with] inland mined sand to be [placed] on barges for final delivery to Turtle Beach.”

Thus, she added, the SKA was requesting that FDEP call for an analysis of the combined truck-haul/barge option.

Further, Luckner noted that SKA leaders were unaware of the plans for the beach repair initiative until they learned from the Feb. 23 County Commission agenda that a staff update on it was scheduled that day. She contended that that situation violated “the spirit if not the requirements” of the National Environmental Policy Act in regard to public notice of such projects.