SKA presses County Commission to continue to seek Environmental Impact Statement on Lido project

The organization has established a nonprofit committee to help with its legal challenge of the dredging of Big Pass

A satellite image shows Big Pass and Lido Key (to the north) in December 2004. Image from FDEP via Google Earth

The Siesta Key Association (SKA) has renewed its request for the Sarasota County Commission to press for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the proposed $19-million Lido Renourishment Project.

The nonprofit this week also announced the establishment of the Siesta Key Environmental Defense Fund (SKEDF) “to further educate and advocate for the protection and preservation of environmentally sensitive structures and areas of Siesta Key.”

The SKA, which represents more than 1,300 households and property owners on the barrier island, has been advocating for a sand source for the Lido project other than Big Sarasota Pass. It is expected to file a petition for an administrative hearing on the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Dec. 22, 2016 Notice of Intent to issue a permit to the City of Sarasota and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) for the Lido project. The SKA had filed for an extension of the deadline for submitting a petition, and the state gave it until Jan. 16.

Two other organizations — Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2) and the Florida Wildlife Federation (FWF) — already have requested an administrative hearing.

The County Commission sits in session in November 2016. Rachel Hackney photo

In response to a question from The Sarasota News Leader, Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller explained in a Jan. 9 email, “Petitions filed with the department are first reviewed for sufficiency. If deemed sufficient, the petition is forwarded to the Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) for a judge to be assigned. The assigned judge then sets a hearing date based on availability of the parties and his schedule.”

Asked whether all the petitions would be consolidated for a hearing, Miller added, “[T]hat is something that varies from case to case and is a decision made at the discretion of the judge based on filings by the parties in the case and the unique characteristics and facts of each case.”

She pointed out that the SOSS2 and FWF petitions “are still currently under review for sufficiency.”

The SKA letter

In a Jan. 10 letter to the County Commission, Acting President Bob Stein and Vice President Catherine Luckner pointed out that, at the SKA’s request, the board voted on Aug. 23, 2016 to send a letter to the USACE, requesting the EIS. However, on Nov. 29, 2016, the USACE notified the board by letter that it would not be pursuing that type of intensive study of the potential effects of its proposal for the dredging of Big Pass and the construction of two groins on South Lido Key, near the county’s Ted Sperling Park.

(From left) Stephen Leatherman talks with SKA Vice President Catherine Luckner and SKA Director Daniel Lundy. File photo

Referencing the USACE’s response, the Jan. 10 SKA letter says, “There are two categories in which USACE comments are incorrect, minimizing two elements which support the need for an EIS.” First, the SKA says, the USACE “stated that no significant local disagreement or conflict existed specific to the plan …” Second, Stein and Luckner wrote that the USACE “stated Big Pass is not a natural water body. They declared it a ‘man made inlet,’ removing unique qualification for protection despite its classification as an [Outstanding Florida Water].”

The USACE’s Nov. 29, 2016 letter to the County Commission said that Big Pass was “created during extensive dredging in the early 1900s …” However, research has shown that Big Pass was marked on maps of the region dating to the 1800s.

Furthermore, Stein and Luckner wrote, “There is well known conflict and science-based disagreement regarding potentially adverse outcomes of this project.”

They added, “The purpose of an EIS is not only to evaluate these risks, but to develop alternative project designs [their emphasis] which may eliminate or at least reduce environmental impact [their emphasis again].”

Their letter points out that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) “process is designed to evaluate the ‘entire range of feasible, environmentally-enhancing alternatives compared with proposals which involve potentially significant environmental impacts.’”

SKA Acting President Bob Stein. File photo

Stein and Luckner asked the commissioners to affirm their commitment to the NEPA process and an EIS and to give county staff direction “regarding elements of the project governed by the County Comprehensive Plan and Environmental Policy. This may include water degradation, … dredging of inlets, beach and residential property protection, Manatee Protection Plan, and County Seagrass Restoration Policy.”

During public comments to the board on Jan. 10, Robert Luckner — Catherine Luckner’s husband and a member of the SKA’s Environmental Committee — pointed to an environmental policy in the county’s Comprehensive Plan that prohibits dredging of county waters. According to the SKA’s research, he said, one of the sand borrow areas in Big Pass is county territory. (See the related story in this issue.)

The new committee

In its Jan. 10 announcement about its new committee, the SKA quoted Catherine Luckner, who pointed out that the organization until recently had not required legal counsel on the Lido matter, because no intention to issue a permit had been announced. However, she noted, that all changed on Dec. 22, 2016, with the FDEP Notice of Intent.

She added, “SKA has retained an outstanding law firm in Tallahassee, with substantial experience in environmental permitting and regulatory matters. Legal actions are expensive and lengthy for complex environmental challenges.”

Luckner told the News Leader earlier this month that the SKA had retained the law firm of Hopping Green & Sams to represent it. That same firm worked with the SKA to fight the City of Venice’s proposal in the early 1990s to dredge Big Pass for a beach renourishment project, and the SKA defeated that initiative.

Prior to the SKA’s most recent hiring of the Tallahassee firm, Luckner continued in the release, SKA directors and volunteers undertook all the research into the city/USACE proposal for the Lido project, studied all the documents filed with FDEP and provided responses on behalf of the organization’s members as FDEP notched the necessary steps along the path that led to the December 2016 notice. “We’ve provided engineering and environmental comments, challenged draft plans and offered alternatives based on research, data, history and environmental regulations,” Luckner said in the press release.

The storm on Jan. 7 brought waves high on the Lido shoreline. Photo contributed by Rob Wright

“We asked for alternatives that would ‘do no harm’ to Siesta Key’s beaches and our sensitive coastal environment. While several SKA recommendations and comments were incorporated into the updated [FDEP] Draft Permit,” she added, neither FDEP nor the USACE and the City of Sarasota “directly addressed significant problems further highlighted by Dr. Stephen L. Leatherman during our December SKA meeting.”

On Dec. 1, 2016, Leatherman, a professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University, advocated for an EIS when he addressed about 110 people during the SKA’s monthly meeting. Known as “Dr. Beach” for his Top 10 U.S. beaches lists, he is renowned worldwide as a consultant on coastal issues.

Luckner noted in the release that the SKEDF has been established as a Florida nonprofit. Therefore, people may make tax-deductible contributions to it. She continued, “Initially, SKEDF will use 100% of the contributions it receives to help pay the cost of SKA’s opposition to the Big Sarasota Pass dredging proposal.” She added, “There will be no [fundraising] costs or administrative costs.”

“The exciting thing about SKEDF,” she pointed out, “is that, once the Big Pass battle is won, SKEDF will forever exist to fight for the protection and preservation of Siesta Key’s environment.”