Bay Island Siesta Association continuing to work with FDOT on safety issues; county crews clear last of storm debris before Crystal Classic; Siesta breaks sea turtle nesting record; wastewater treatment plant project a bit behind schedule; the SKA’s attorney offers a break on legal bills for Big Pass dredging challenge; and a couple of corrections
Safety issues on Siesta Drive — from Osprey Avenue to the Shell Road intersection with Higel Avenue — have been the focus of a group of Bay Island Siesta Association members since April, the association’s vice president recently told Siesta Key Association (SKA) members.
Make Siesta Drive Safer has been working with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) in an effort to achieve improvements, Dee Reams explained during the Nov. 2 SKA meeting.
After three fatal incidents occurred this year on the 2-mile stretch of road, she pointed out, members of the Bay Island Siesta Association began undertaking research on the total number of traffic accidents that have occurred in that area. “We really wanted to get accurate information to try to do something about this.”
The group sought help from both the Sarasota Police Department and the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, she said — including requesting copies of accident reports. As a result, the members of Make Siesta Drive Safer learned that in the past five years, a total of 180 traffic accidents had occurred on the road segment. After plotting the accident locations on a map, she continued, the members contacted FDOT representatives. “We’ve since developed a really good relationship with them.”
The impact of consumption of alcoholic beverages was a factor in a number of the incidents, Reams indicated, but “that needs to be addressed separately.”
FDOT representatives ended up inviting members of the group to an on-site walk with them, she continued; that lasted “two-and-a-half hours on a 100-degree day … which was interesting.” Reams added, “I wanted them to actually see how fast the drivers were going” and how many of motorists swerve across the white lines at the sharp curve where Siesta Drive intersects with Higel Avenue.
The Make Siesta Drive Safer members also sought to help FDOT staff understand how dangerous the stretch of road is for pedestrians and bicyclists, she said.
During the walk, she continued, the FDOT representatives were able to determine that some signs are in the wrong places. They even took photos, she noted.
“Did you ask why FDOT put a radar sign behind [a] utility pole?” SKA Director Joe Volpe asked, eliciting laughter from some audience members. (That situation is on Higel Avenue just south of the Siesta Drive intersection.)
“That is being addressed,” Reams told him.
“How do people cross from one side to the other?” SKA member Katherine Zimmerman asked Reams, because no crosswalks exist on Siesta Drive.
FDOT staff members are considering the installation of crosswalks, among other suggestions from the Make Siesta Drive Safer group, Reams replied. “They really are looking closely at everything.”
Lourdes Ramirez asked Reams if she had heard any more about the possibility that Sarasota County might swap FDOT its roads on Siesta Key for River Road, as the county has failed thus far to win state support for improvements it wants to make to River Road before the Atlanta Braves begin Spring Training seasons in North Port in 2019.
County Administrator Tom Harmer explained to the County Commission on Sept. 13 that those discussions had begun. County staff has proposed that the county take over portions of Midnight Pass Road, Siesta Drive, Higel Avenue, Stickney Point Road, South Osprey Drive and Bay Road, which are county routes, while the state takes ownership of River Road between U.S. 41 and Interstate 75 in South County.
If River Road became a state road, Harmer pointed out, the improvements needed on it potentially could occur more quickly.
Reams told Ramirez she had no information to provide about that undertaking, so the News Leader posed the question to county staff. In a Nov. 6 email, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester reported that county representatives still are “in active negotiations with FDOT for the potential road swap and other funding initiatives [regarding River Road].”
“It’s just amazing what you’ve done in seven months,” SKA Vice President Catherine Luckner told Reams at the conclusion of Reams’ remarks on Nov. 2.
The SKA has invited Make Siesta Drive Safer to give a more complete presentation to SKA members about the group’s initiatives, Luckner noted. That could be on the agenda as early as December, she added.
In the meantime, Reams left business cards at the back of the meeting room in the event SKA members wanted to contact her.
Getting rid of the storm debris
Just a day before the Nov. 10 beginning of the annual Crystal Classic International Sand Sculpting Festival, email “chatter” circulated among Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce and Siesta Key Village Maintenance Corp. representatives about all the debris from Hurricane Irma that remained piled up along Ocean Boulevard and other Key streets.
On the morning of Nov. 9, the News Leader learned that all of the storm debris had been picked up on Ocean Boulevard except the towering pile at the entrance to the Sandy Cove condominium complex, just north of Siesta Village.
In response to a News Leader query about the situation, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester wrote in a Nov. 9 email, “Staff isn’t certain that the contractor will finish the entire [Key] by Friday, but they are working actively to remove debris and are in compliance with the contract specifications. They were also working on roads near Siesta Key Beach [on Nov. 8].”
Reports the News Leader received from island residents on Saturday, Nov. 11, confirmed that the storm debris was all gone, even the piles at Sandy Cove.
“It took ’em long enough,” Sandy Cove resident Joe Tinney told the News Leader. Nonetheless, he added, “The county did a wonderful job of cleaning everything up.”
A Nov. 9 county email blast regarding a variety of topics pointed out, “This week 1,804 loads of debris, totaling 49,911 cubic yards, were picked up, which equates to approximately 20 percent of the total debris.” The e-blast added, “An average of 71 debris collection trucks per day worked throughout the county this past week.”
After cleanup efforts began wrapping up in Texas — where contractors dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey — more contractors began arriving in Sarasota County, Rich Collins, the county’s emergency services director, reported to County Administrator Tom Harmer in October.
A News Leader Nov. 10 check of the county’s interactive storm debris collection map showed the latest date projected for crews to arrive in any part of the county was Nov. 20. The map noted that work began on the county’s part of Siesta Key on Oct. 23. Crews from the City of Sarasota already had picked up debris on the city’s part of the island during the city’s first pass.
Final sea turtle nesting numbers
Siesta was among three keys that broke their individual numbers this year for nesting sea turtles, Mote Marine has reported.
Siesta had a total of 636 this year, Mote said, compared to 476 in 2016. Four of those were green turtle nests.
Casey Key saw a drop year-over-year, however. The 2017 total was 1,853, compared to 2,114 last year. Fifty-four of those were green turtle nests.
The other barrier islands that broke individual records were Longboat and Lido, Mote noted in a news release.
Mote staff and volunteers documented 4,503 nests for all turtle species over the 35-mile length of Sarasota County’s shoreline, Mote reported; it released the final numbers on Oct. 31.
Out of all those nests, the news release said, 4,424 were laid by threatened loggerheads; 79, by seven threatened green sea turtles.
“Two nests in the loggerhead group were sampled for genetic testing to determine if they are hybrids from a loggerhead and green mating,” the release pointed out.
Although the total this year did not surpass the 2016 record of 4,588, the release said, the season did see the highest number ever of green sea turtle nests “in Mote’s 36-year history of local sea turtle conservation.”
The release also noted, “During this year’s night-time tagging effort on Casey Key, Mote scientists encountered sea turtles 591 times — identifying 380 distinct individuals. Of those individuals, 293 were ‘neophytes’ documented and tagged for the first time. It’s not clear whether these turtles are young females that recently matured or whether they’ve previously gone ‘under the radar,’ nesting on nearby beaches without tagging programs,” the release added.
“In any case,” the release said, “this year’s results continue an encouraging trend.”
Wastewater treatment plant work lagging a bit
It appears that it will be January 2018 before Sarasota County finishes the work on the new master pump station that is replacing the Siesta Key Wastewater Treatment Plant, Robert Luckner, a member of the SKA’s Environmental Committee, announced during the Nov. 2 SKA meeting.
The pump station was about 85% complete as of Nov. 2, Luckner reported, based on his communications that day with the county project manager, Jack Gibson. However, Gibson informed Luckner that the county’s Public Utilities Department had requested additional piping work at the site; that would delay the completion timeline beyond the original deadline, which was the end of this year. “They lost about three weeks with the hurricane and the power outage,” Luckner pointed out.
A new sewer pipeline has been run from the mainland, under the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), to the plant, so effluent can be treated on the mainland, Luckner explained.
The repaving of Shadow Lawn Way and Shadow Lawn Drive, down which the pipeline has been installed, was set to start Nov. 9, Luckner added.
The only problem reported in Siesta Isles, Luckner continued, was that the electrical connection and irrigation equipment in the median on Shadow Lawn Way were damaged because the crew that checked for utility lines found no traditional markers for them in advance of the project. The contractor would reconnect the electricity, he added, and the company would work with the homeowners’ association to ensure the irrigation equipment was repaired.
The Siesta Isles Association won a Sarasota County Neighborhood Grant Initiative Program award in 2015 that enabled it to undertake the beautification work on that median.
The entire buried pipeline in Siesta Isles had been pressure-tested, Luckner noted. The master pump station testing would take place in phases, Gibson told Luckner, with most of the work scheduled in December and early January.
The very last phase of the project, Luckner pointed out, will be the decommissioning of the wastewater treatment facilities on the plant site, with the termination of treated wastewater outfall to the Grand Canal. All the old tanks will be cleaned out, he added.
In response to a question, Luckner said county leaders have not decided yet what to do with the property after all the work has been completed. One consideration, he continued, will be the underground pipes. “It’s better not to dig down and find out what’s there,” he joked, referring to infrastructure that could date back to the early days of the Siesta Key Utility Authority (SKUA). The county took ownership of the plant in 2006.
Still, Luckner said, “I think it could easily be some type of park facility.”
Continuing the fight to preserve Big Pass
During the Nov. 2 SKA meeting, Vice President Catherine Luckner provided a brief summary of activities over the past 12 months as the organization has continued its efforts to prevent the dredging of Big Sarasota Pass to renourish a 1.6-mile stretch of South Lido Key.
It was almost exactly a year ago, she told the approximately 60 audience members, that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) held an open house in Sarasota to allow the public to ask questions and offer formal comments about the proposed project of the City of Sarasota and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).
“I heard from many people that it wasn’t as satisfactory as they would have liked,” she added of that session.
Various state agencies that had had a part in FDEP’s permit application review had personnel present, along with representatives of FDEP and the USACE.
At least it was a good opportunity for the SKA directors to put faces to the names of people with whom they had been corresponding, Luckner said.
After FDEP on Dec. 22, 2016 released its Notice of Intent to issue the permit for the project to the city and the USACE, she continued, a number of people told her they believed the open house was just pro forma.
“That was disappointing,” Luckner said of the FDEP decision, which the SKA, Save Our Siesta Sand 2 and the Florida Wildlife Federation have challenged. She had felt that, given all the research the SKA had undertaken to show flaws in the USACE modeling for the project, FDEP would realize that it should make the federal agency redesign its plans. “Maybe that’s my Pollyanna [approach] to many things,” Luckner conceded.
As the SKA prepared for both a December Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) challenge of the FDEP action, as well as a 12th Judicial Circuit Court case — if necessary — Luckner said the nonprofit’s attorney ended up waiving $23,000 in legal fees in midsummer. The Tallahassee firm of Hopping Green & Sams had exceeded the cap the SKA had set for what it could spend, she explained. “They actually reduced their hourly fees for us.”
The $23,000, she pointed out, was only half of what the SKA would have owed the firm for one month.
Readers have pointed out that the News Leader made a mistake in a September report on the changes the U.S. Coast Guard implemented on Oct. 5 for the Siesta Drive drawbridge.
After taking public comments and reviewing concerns about traffic backups on the bridges to the Key, especially during high tourist season, the Coast Guard adjusted the schedule so the Siesta Drive drawbridge opens only on the hour and on the half-hour between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. daily. It will open on signal at other times. The rule is in effect year-round.
A reader also pointed out to the News Leader last week that an item in the Oct. 13 Siesta Seen had the wrong address for a Beach Road house.
The Siesta Seen report was about a new initiative among Key residents to fight a petition, submitted to Sarasota County in late spring, seeking a Coastal Setback Variance for construction completely seaward of the county’s Gulf Beach Setback Line.
The plans call for a three-story house and pool west of the house at 654 Beach Road. The petitioner, Saba Sands II, wants to use Beach Access 10 as the means of entry to the property.
The principal of Saba Sands II is attorney William A. Saba of Sarasota.
We apologize for the confusion about the house number.