The sole bid for the South Siesta renourishment project comes in at the level for which county staff had hoped

Barring any other unforeseen problems, staff says the work should begin in January and conclude in late April, before sea turtle nesting season starts

Laird Wreford. Rachel Hackney photo
Laird Wreford. Rachel Hackney photo

With permits already in hand, Sarasota County staff this week seemed to have cleared the final major hurdle in its years-long planning to renourish South Siesta Key, including Turtle Beach.

On Nov. 10, the single bid submitted for the project was right around the amount for which county staff was hoping, county spokesman told The Sarasota News Leader on Nov. 12: a little more than $18 million. Work is proceeding to get that contract recommendation ready for the County Commission, he added.

After a Nov. 5 presentation to the Siesta Key Association (SKA) about the project, Laird Wreford, the county’s coastal resources manager, told the News Leader the latest total estimate for the cost of the project — including construction — was about $21.5 million. That was almost double the original projection of $11.5 million, he said. Wreford characterized the recent number as “sticker shock.”

All around the state, he pointed out, expenses for beach renourishment projects “are skyrocketing.” For example, he continued, some communities have reported estimates of $5 million just to get a contractor on site.

In 2014, Wreford explained that increasing demand for beach renourishment projects, especially in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy’s 2012 assault on the northeastern U.S. shoreline, had led to the hike in expenses for all such projects.

The county has received a state grant of $2.75 million to assist with the cost of the South Siesta renourishment, he told the News Leader, and staff is optimistic as it seeks between $4 million and $4.5 million more.

County Tourist Development Tax (TDT) revenue set aside in a fund for beach renourishment will take care of about $15 million of the South Siesta cost, he added. Another segment of funding will come through an assessment of property owners in the affected area, Wreford told the approximately 30 people at the SKA meeting. Staff already is scheduled to appear before the County Commission on Dec. 9 — the board’s last meeting before the end of the year — to seek authorization of a commercial loan to cover interim costs until it collects all the assessments. Property owners also were assessed in conjunction with the initial South Siesta Beach nourishment completed in 2007. Former County Commissioner Nora Patterson, a Siesta resident, pointed out during a number of public meetings that county staff had planned for residents to complete payment of those earlier fees prior to the county’s pursuit of the renourishment and its associated assessments.

A diagram shows the area for the South Siesta renourishment project. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A diagram shows the site limits of the South Siesta renourishment project and sand borrow areas in the Gulf of Mexico. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Nov. 9, Laird told the SKA members last week, staff was expecting a report from its property appraisal expert regarding the assessments on property fronting the Gulf of Mexico in the affected area. That report, he said, is necessary for legal purposes to create the Municipal Service Benefit Unit (MSBU) program. Further, on Nov. 17, he noted, staff plans to bring to the County Commission a request to advertise the public hearing for the MSBU district.

The county already has scheduled a public meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 19, at St. Boniface Episcopal Church to provide the latest information on the renourishment project. The format will be that of an open house, according to a flyer County Commissioner Al Maio distributed at the SKA meeting.

The church is located at 5615 Midnight Pass Road; the session will be in the parish hall.

The flyer explains that the 2007 nourishment involved putting more than 900,000 cubic yards of sand on the beach, as well as the planting of native coastal vegetation on almost 6.5 acres.

After that Nov. 19 meeting, Wreford told the SKA members, staff plans informal outreach efforts to make certain all the condominium owners and residents in homeowners’ associations in the affected area know what to expect when the project begins. And if all goes as staff hopes, he noted, the renourishment will begin in January.

The history and the permits

During the SKA meeting, Wreford explained the background of the project.

Significant erosion was visible in late 2012 on Turtle Beach. Photo courtesy of Ron Flynn
Significant erosion was visible in late 2012 on Turtle Beach. Photo courtesy of Ron Flynn

While the Siesta Public Beach — “our tourist crown jewel,” as he put it — has been accreting for some time, “getting fatter and happier,” the geographical presence of Point of Rocks serves as a “very natural barrier for sand movement,” Wreford said. Areas to the south of Point of Rocks are “sand-starved,” he added.

The closing of Midnight Pass on south Siesta Key in 1983, to protect homeowners’ property, has exacerbated the situation for Turtle Beach and the shoreline on either side of that beach, Wreford continued. The pass acted as a natural barrier, too, he noted. Therefore, when it was open, “sand was still being somewhat held in” on the southern portion of the Key. “You didn’t have that same rate of erosion on Turtle Beach and south Siesta [as seen today],” he added, “but you did on Casey Key.”

After the pass was closed, its ebb shoal collapsed on the Casey Key shoreline, Wreford noted, making that barrier island “fat and happy” but starving south Siesta’s beach of sand.

The goal is to widen the South Siesta beach so it extends about 140 feet to 180 feet from the Gulf of Mexico, he said. Because the southernmost part of the project area tends to erode more quickly, he added, the plan is to build an underwater shelf containing additional sand, with the hope that that section of the beach will stay wider longer than it did after the 2007 project.

Because it took about three years to obtain a permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) for the first nourishment of South Siesta, Wreford continued, staff was pleased “to secure our state permits in amazing time” for the renourishment. Staff received the FDEP permits in December 2014, he noted, less than 18 months after the county submitted its application.

Generally, he explained, because of the traditional coordination of state and federal permitting efforts, staff expected to get its federal permit within two to four weeks after receipt of the FDEP approval. This time, however, the Federal Government raised the issue of South Siesta’s being a habitat for the threatened red knot, which is a beach-nesting bird, he continued. “Make no mistake,” he told the SKA board and members, “I am a big fan of the red knot.” Still, Wreford said, only one or two red knots ever had been recorded as having been seen in Sarasota County.

A red knot. Image from the Defenders of Wildlife website
A red knot. Image from Wikipedia

Along with that setback, Wreford noted, the documentation of county efforts to protect sea turtle nests on its beaches was declared to have expired right after the county received its state permits.

Between the turtles and the birds, he pointed out, the county suffered an unexpected 10-month delay in obtaining its federal permit.

“We are now under the gun,” he said, to renourish South Siesta Beach before the turtle-nesting season begins on May 1; that season runs through Oct. 31.

If “all the moving parts [of the project are] pulled together,” he continued, the renourishment could begin in January and conclude in late April.

His biggest concern, he said, was whether the construction bids would come in “unexpectedly way blown beyond our budget.”

Following the bid opening this week, Wreford added, staff planned to brief the County Commission on the status of the project and its likely costs.

The Dec. 9 County Commission agenda also is expected to include board votes on the hiring of a firm to handle oversight of the construction, he said.

In response to a question from an SKA member, Wreford explained that the project team located enough sand in borrow areas in the Gulf of Mexico to make this renourishment and a third placement of sand on South Siesta possible. The FDEP permit is good for 15 years, he pointed out, so the third project probably will take place eight to 10 years from now.

One of the borrow areas is 10 miles offshore, he said, while a second one is about 8-and-a-half miles from South Siesta. Those distances also had contributed to a rise in the expected expense, he noted. “There are only a certain number of these seagoing vessels [that can handle the work].”

An engineering drawing shows further details of the project. Image courtesy Sarasota County
An engineering drawing shows further details of the project. Image courtesy Sarasota County