The continuing saga of Midnight Pass

By Jono Miller
Guest Columnist

Six weeks after 241 American service members were killed in a bombing in Beirut, Midnight Pass was closed. I had just turned 32. Now I’m familiarizing myself with the age 72 required minimum IRA distribution.

The pass that was closed by two beachfront homeowners was not the pass I had known for more than a decade. Instead of staying where people preferred it to be (more or less opposite the Bird Keys), Midnight Pass was on the move — a new spit was growing northward and eroding the southern tip of Siesta Key in the process. And with each week, the pass grew more feeble. The inlet that had once allowed boat traffic into the Gulf was now so shallow people could wade across it. Many, including some county staff members, thought the pass would soon close on its own.

Pasco Carter Jr. and Syd Solomon were probably surprised that the pass was coming for their homes, but history buffs understood they shouldn’t have been. After all, the southern tip of Siesta, where the two homes stood, had itself once been a prior migrating sand spit. The pass that connected Little Sarasota Bay to the Gulf had once opened just south of Point of Rocks. Part of it remains as Heron Lagoon, tucked away in the Sanderling Club, and the remainder is where boats put in at Turtle Beach Park.

I was sorry to see the pass go. As a coordinator of New College’s Environmental Studies Program, I had taken students camping there to explain barrier island dynamics. And two of the most magical things I’ve ever experienced in Sarasota were there. The first was watching people dip shrimp at night — their lights reflecting off the water as the silhouettes of boats slid around in the blackness; conversations and exclamations drifting in the night. The second was long after the pass had closed, watching the sunset at Midnight Beach and seeing the illusive green flash.

As we approach the 40th anniversary of the closing, there is renewed interest in the former pass. And not just interest — numerous politicians have apparently sworn allegiance to the prospect of trying to create a new inlet and are actively seeking funds — all without a public hearing or any real analysis about how Little Sarasota Bay works now (hydrodynamically), how it would change with an inlet, how a new inlet would affect Big Pass and Venice Inlet, where the areas of poor tidal exchange would be shifted, what aspects of bay health are unrelated to tidal exchange, how much seagrass and mangrove mitigation would be needed, the effects on sea turtle nesting, or even the likelihood of securing permits that have been denied twice before.

In 1983, when we were able to testify at hearings, I was just one of many opposing the closing. This was before there was any Midnight Pass Society. As you may know, the homeowners got permission for their ill-fated experiment. They succeeded in closing the pass but failed to reopen it back where it had been. After they had tried a few times with inadequate equipment, county leaders took pity on them. In response to the loss of the pass, the County Commission created a Blue Ribbon Panel. I was the young guy. We ended up recommending reopening it in a big way and then stepping back, letting the pass do its thing. What people wanted was a return to a natural pass, not a mini Venice Inlet. The County Commission approved our proposal, only to see it thwarted by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. So, the county has tried twice and been denied both times (1991 and 2008).

The current successor to the Midnight Pass Society (Restore Midnight Pass) is well-organized and has a thriving social media presence. Its members say they also want a natural, unstabilized pass, apparently similar to what was suggested in 1984. They face numerous challenges, including a state rule that prohibits new inlets and allows only the re-opening of former passes that “closed due to recent human activity” — forcing the county to argue that a closure that happened before the advent of the internet, the creation of the MacIntosh computer (or Chicken McNuggets) is a recent event. I’m curious to see how this unfolds.

Jono Miller has been a reliable voice for the local environment for nearly 50 years and is a former member of the Sarasota Bay National Estuary Program’s Citizen Advisory Committee.