U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to take 1.7 million cubic yards of sand from Big Pass, instead of 1.2 million, expert witness testifies during state hearing

Fisheries in the pass to be adversely affected by Lido Renourishment Project, another expert witness tells Division of Administrative Hearings judge

Condominiums are easily visible across Big Pass on the evening of July 6. File photo

Since the Lido Key Renourishment Project formally was unveiled to the public in September 2013, representatives of the City of Sarasota and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) routinely have referenced a range between 1.1 million and 1.3 million cubic yards of sand as the amount targeted for removal from Big Sarasota Pass and the pass’ ebb shoal.

In reality, the figure is 1.7 million cubic yards, based on documentation associated with the joint city/USACE permit application submitted to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), a coastal geology expert has told a Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) judge.

“The permitted amount would be a phenomenally large amount of sand,” Robert Young, a Western Carolina University professor and director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, testified on Dec. 14 during a hearing regarding challenges to DEP’s plan to issue the permit for the Lido project.

“That would be close to the largest project in Florida history,” Young added of the USACE’s design for the Lido renourishment; an even bigger initiative than a recent one undertaken by the City of Miami. “It would be significantly larger, by three times,” than any previous Lido renourishment, he said. Such initiatives date back to 1964, he noted.

The original figure he saw in the project files, Young told the court, called for slightly more than 900,000 cubic yards of sand from the pass and the shoal.

Robert S. Young. Photo courtesy Western Carolina University

As part of the work of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, Young explained, he and his staff track every beach renourishment project undertaken in the United States, including all of those in Florida. In fact, Young noted, the U.S. Geological Survey recently provided funding to the program to update its database on Florida initiatives.

The program Young heads is a collaboration between Western Carolina, in Cullowhee, N.C., and Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Yet another expert witness, Mark Edward Luther, president of Marine Science Associates in St. Petersburg, testified that the USACE relied on its proprietary, two-dimensional modeling in designing the Lido project. Yet, he explained, more modern technology called LIDAR produces vastly different numbers regarding the transportation of sediment in the coastal system that includes Big Pass. One USACE figure was off by 495%, he told the court.

Young and Luther were witnesses for the Siesta Key Association (SKA) and Save Our Sarasota Sand 2 (SOSS2), two nonprofit organizations that filed petitions with the DOAH in January to try to stop the dredging of Big Pass. Siesta residents Michael Holderness, a property owner and real estate manager, and Diane Erne are petitioners in the case, as well, with the SKA and SOSS2, respectively.

Along with the SKA and SOSS2 attorneys, counsel for the City of Sarasota, the USACE, DEP and the Lido Key Residents Association participated in the hearing that began on Dec. 12 in Sarasota. (Administrative Law Judge Bram D.E. Canter had agreed to allow the Lido residents’ group to participate as an Intervenor.)

An engineering sketch shows details of the borrow areas the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposes to use for renourishment of a 1.6-mile stretch of Lido Key Beach. Image courtesy FDEP

And while the parties had expressed worry in a pre-hearing motion that the six days set aside for testimony would not be sufficient, the proceeding concluded a day early, on Dec. 18.

Another concern the SKA members had going into the hearing was resolved in short order: their legal right to challenge the DEP Notice of Intent to issue the permit to the city and the USACE for the dredging of Big Pass. Testimony on the afternoon of Dec. 12 cleared up that issue for the record.

In a Dec. 19 email response to a Sarasota News Leader question, Kent Safriet of the Tallahassee firm Hopping Green & Sams, the attorney for the SKA, wrote that he has no idea when Canter will make his decision known. The parties “will submit proposed recommended orders around late January (this date is a moving target),” he added; then, he believes the judge will take up to 45 days to issue his order.

SKA Vice President Catherine Luckner. File photo

“I do feel very encouraged by the facts that we were able to produce, and that there are clearly some discrepancies in the [materials],” SKA Vice President Catherine Luckner told the News Leader in a Dec. 19 telephone interview. “We did not find any documents that [said the USACE and DEP] were evaluating Siesta Key as being at risk,” she added. Yet, research and expert testimony made it clear that not only is Lido Key critically eroded, she pointed out, but so are the northern and southern ends of Siesta Key.

In a Dec. 19 newsletter to members, SOSS2 Chair Peter van Roekens wrote that both the SOSS2 and SKA attorneys “presented what we believe is a very powerful case as to why the permit should not be granted.”

Carl Shoffstall, president of the Lido Key Residents Association, told the News Leader in a Dec. 19 telephone interview that he felt both sides acquitted themselves well in the hearing. “I thought we had some very good points,” he added. Nonetheless, Shoffstall said, “I won’t even begin to speculate on what’s going to happen.” He did indicate hopefulness that Canter’s ruling would come in about two months, noting that he found Canter to be “very savvy.”

Finally, Shoffstall said of the hearing, “It’s a shame that it had to go to that point.”

During opening statements on Dec. 12, the Lido Key Residents Association (LKRA) attorney, Kevin S. Hennessy of the Bradenton firm Lewis, Longman & Walker, told Canter that the organization encompasses 950 commercial and residential property owners on Lido Key, 678 of them with beachfront land or businesses.

Pointing out that the Lido Renourishment Project had been in the planning for years, Hennessy said, “The delay [in its start] is causing severe hardship to my clients … You have residences and residential buildings that are jutting, sticking out into the water on a daily basis that are affected by the tides.”

The next big storm to strike Lido Key could destroy a number of those structures, Hennessy added.

Christopher Lambert, the USACE lead attorney, representing the federal agency’s Jacksonville District Office, told the judge that the permit application process was consistent with established DEP practices. He added that the project first received federal authorization in 1970, noting that it is a hurricane and shore damage reduction initiative. The USACE, he continued, had dedicated “years, even decades of resources” to the project in an effort to protect upland structures on Lido Key.

Effects on fisheries

R. Grant Gilmore Jr. Photo from his online biography

Yet another expert witness for SOSS2 and the SKA, R. Grant Gilmore Jr., president of the Vero Beach consulting firm Coastal and Ocean Science Inc., testified that the Lido permit application “basically ignored” three sections of the Florida Statutes that say the impacts of a proposed project on endangered and threatened species should be considered. “[Fish] were not mentioned at all or considered at all in the state [permitting] documents,” he added.

One species that would be affected by the dredging of Big Pass, he continued, is the smalltooth sawfish, which is listed as “critically endangered.”

Big Pass also is essential habitat for so-called “hard-bottom species,” he pointed out, such as grouper and snapper.

Further, Gilmore said he believes the destruction of seagrass, as a result of dredging in Big Pass, also would disrupt the spawning of the spotted sea trout. That is “a major fisheries species around the state of Florida … There is some concern for its decline in a number of areas around the state,” he added, as linked to loss of seagrass.

“If we don’t have the spawning and nursery sites,” Gilmore continued, “we don’t have the fishery. … There’s no question about it.”

Gilmore was a professor at various universities from 1972 to 2002, including the University of South Florida and the University of Miami. He told the court that research he has undertaken included “probably the most intensive single study done of seagrass fisheries in the state of Florida.”

Asked about the Perico Preserve seagrass mitigation site in Manatee County, Gilmore explained that that is affected by a freshwater source — the Manatee River. Research has shown that the spotted sea trout is far less likely to spawn in such areas, he said, and spawning sites are “critical for the survival of the species.”

The smalltooth sawfish. Image from the Florida Museum of the University of Florida

The same seagrass species may be grown at Perico Preserve as those that would be destroyed in Big Pass, Gilmore pointed out. “However, you didn’t ask the fish where they want to settle.”

The Perico Preserve is 16.6 miles north of Big Pass, according to documentation Martha Collins of the Collins Law Group in Tampa provided as exhibits in the case. Collins is the attorney for SOSS2.

“That’s a considerable distance for many of these organisms [in Big Pass],” Gilmore said. “If we’re talking about the very young stages of some of these … it’s like another planet to them.” A number of species in Big Pass will not make that migration, he pointed out.

Additionally, Gilmore reiterated a point SKA attorney Safriet made in his opening statement. “Big Sarasota Pass has never been dredged,” Safriet told the judge. “[That] is kind of amazing,” Gilmore said, given the fact that dredging has been commonplace in almost every other channel in Florida.

The cost factor

Kent Safriet. Image from the Hopping Green & Sams website

In his opening statement, Safriet also characterized the plan to remove sand from Big Pass to renourish about 1.6 miles of South Lido Key Beach as “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” noting that Siesta Public Beach twice has been named the No. 1 beach in the United States.

The USACE’s own modeling for the project shows substantial erosion will occur on Siesta Key, Safriet pointed out, if the dredging of Big Pass is allowed to take place as designed. “But DEP and the Corps don’t necessarily care,” he added. Their goal, he continued, is to allow the cheapest project to take place, and the sand in pass and ebb shoal is more readily accessible than any sand offshore.

Testifying as the first witness for the City of Sarasota, City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw told the court that the city has not planned to put any of its own money into the Lido project. About 62% of the expense is to come from the federal government, she said, with 19% coming from Tourist Development Tax revenue collected by Sarasota County and allocated to the city for beach maintenance.

If the city were to try to bring in sand from an inland area of the state — such as the Town of Longboat Key did last year for a renourishment project — DavisShaw estimated the cost could climb as high as $100 million.

Safriet asked whether the City of Sarasota had considered assessing the affected Lido Key residents, to help pay for the project. However, Kirk White, the DEP attorney, objected to that line of questioning because of lack of relevance to the issues at hand. Judge Canter sustained the objection.

Big Sarasota Pass separates Lido Key, to the north, from Siesta Key. Image from Google Earth in August

Although DavisShaw did not explain how the other 19% of the estimated $21.5-million expense of the project would be covered, city documents have made it clear the city is counting on that funding in the form of a DEP grant. The city has no plan to assess Lido Key residents for any part of the project cost.

In other testimony, DavisShaw told the court that, based on the USACE modeling, only about 6% of the Big Pass ebb shoal would be removed for the first renourishment over the 15-year life of the permit the city and the USACE have sought from DEP. The second sand-removal initiative probably would take sediment from New Pass, she added, as the City of Sarasota alternates with the Town of Longboat Key in using that sand source for projects.

Altogether, the USACE has designed the Lido project to take place over a 50-year period, she explained, with renourishments about every five years.

During his testimony, Young of Western Carolina told the court that offshore sand would be the best choice for the project, given the fact that the sea level is rising. “Fifty years down the road,” he said, “we will have experienced a significant amount of sea level rise. The best way to guard against that in the design of the Lido project, he continued, is to use offshore sand. “It’s not a crazy idea.”

Additionally, Young discussed the inclusion of two groins on South Lido to try to hold sand in place between renourishments. He pointed out that three groins initially had been planned, but that aspect of the project had been redesigned more than once as the USACE had worked on the permit application with DEP.

“I don’t think there’s any question,” he said, “that the groins are going to cause downdrift harm.” Young was referring to the natural flow of sand from north to south on the west coast of Florida.

Young predicted that Ted Sperling Park on the southernmost end of Lido Key would suffer the most from that interruption of the sediment flow. Sarasota County owns that park.

Special Correspondent Stewart Hackney contributed to this story.