County Commission approves staff proposal, planned for 2024, in spite of Siesta Key Association pleas to put process on pause
With no comments, the Sarasota County commissioners on Feb. 23 unanimously approved a project planned to restore the Turtle Beach Park shoreline on Siesta Key, which Hurricane Hermine damaged in September 2016.
A county staff memo provided to the board members in advance of the meeting explained that, in May 2016, a county contractor completed the second renourishment of the south Siesta Key shoreline, placing more than 700,000 cubic yards of sand from Palmer Point Park to the 7900 block of Sanderling Road. That is a distance of 1.9 miles, the memo noted.
The last of the sand was spread on the beach on April 26, 2016, a staff member told the commissioners a day later, during a discussion of the initiative.
The work began on March 9, 2016; it had to be completed before sea turtle-nesting season officially started on May 1, as Commissioner Alan Maio pointed out.
The project cost about $21.5 million, with residents on the affected shoreline to be assessed for seven years for approximately 16.51% of the total county expense. The county also required that residents help cover the cost of the first south Siesta renourishment initiative, which was completed in 2007.
Yet, when Hermine made her way through the Gulf of Mexico approximately four months after the second undertaking, staff reported, she swept away a significant portion of the new sand.
As documented in a county staff report, an area of Turtle Beach suffered approximately 5 to 10 feet of dune erosion, and it lost a limited amount of the recently planted dune vegetation at the south end of the project area.
“The State of Florida and Sarasota County received a federal Presidential Disaster Declaration for the Hurricane Hermine event,” the Feb. 23 county staff memo pointed out. That cleared the way for county staff to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) on a project to restore the beach, the memo continued.
“[B]ecause of the high cost” to mobilize sea-going dredging vessels, the memo explained, FEMA, FDEM and county staff “agreed to defer the repairs until the next planned [renourishment] in 2026.”
Then, in November 2019, the memo continued, FEMA and FDEM representatives “introduced the concept of an interim repair project using sand transported via dump truck from an upland source. Such a ‘truck-haul’ project would allow the agencies to ‘close’ the Hurricane Hermine disaster before 2026,” the memo said.
In 2016, the Town of Longboat Key used sand brought in by trucks to renourish a 5-mile section of its beach. As then-Town Manager Dave Bullock explained to Siesta Key Association members in May 2016, “The best sand is inland in Florida.” It comes from Immokalee and from the easternmost part of Lee County or Hendry County, he added.
The Feb. 23 county staff memo pointed out that, for a variety of reasons, FEMA “neither fully obligated the funds for a complete project [on south Siesta],” nor did it guarantee sufficient time to finish such an undertaking, which led to delays in the planning for the truck-haul project.
Finally, in June 2021, FEMA and FDEM agreed to approve a “Time Extension Request” from county staff, the memo said. However, FEMA stipulated that the extended period would end in June 2022.
County staff was reluctant to commit to spending money on the work without a guarantee of reimbursement, the memo added, especially given the time constraint.
Staff has estimated that the total project cost would be $4,110,700, the memo noted. Yet, with FEMA and FDEM still having refrained from obligating themselves to full funding of the work, the memo said, staff proffered a phased approach, beginning with the design, engineering and permitting work, at an anticipated cost of $454,471.
The memo then explained that the county would need to provide the initial funding for the full project, but FEMA would reimburse the county 75% of the money, or $3,083,025. FDEM would cover 12.5% of the expense, or $513,838, the memo added. Thus, the final expense for the county would be the remaining 12%, or $513,838.
Further, the memo said, about 40% of the county’s expense “would be eligible for state Beach Management Funding Assistance,” which would be in the form of a reimbursement grant.
“With all the state and federal funding potential for this project,” the memo continued, “the County’s cost may be as low as $310,000.”
Therefore, the memo said, staff would proceed with planning for the truck-haul project with the initial funding of $454,471 coming out of Tourist Development Tax — or, “bed tax” — revenue set aside for county beach renourishment initiatives. Additionally, staff would submit another Time Extension Request to FEMA and FDEM, to carry through May 2024, when staff expects to finish the truck-haul project.
Already, the memo pointed out, U.S. Congressman Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, had written to FEMA on the county’s behalf, advocating for that third time extension.
In that Dec. 21, 2021 letter to FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, Buchanan wrote, “Limiting further erosion and maintaining a healthy Siesta Key Beach is essential to the county’s residents, tourism and economy.”
He added that the beach “has been in need of repair for over five years.” Moreover, Buchanan pointed out, by the time FEMA granted the second time extension, “[I]t was June 2021, leaving only one year to plan, finalize, and execute the project before the [June 2022] deadline. Amidst this,” he continued, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Michael accelerated beach damage and further impeded project completion. The county now needs a third extension to finish the project …”
If the county commissioners agreed on Feb. 23 to appropriate the money for the Turtle Beach Park project, the memo said, that would “demonstrate that the County continues to make a good-faith effort toward maintaining the beach, mindful of the wise use of public funds.”
Siesta Key Association concerns
With the agenda item classified as “Presentation Upon Request” — meaning no staff remarks would be offered unless a commissioner decided to request them on Feb. 23 — Chair Alan Maio ended up giving Siesta Key Association (SKA) Director Robert Luckner time during the Open to the Public comment period that morning to address concerns of the nonprofit related to the south Siesta plans.
“I think a lot has changed on that project,” Luckner told the commissioners. The SKA board would like for them to pause the approval process, he added, to consider new facts and to accept comments from island residents.
The plans, as described, Luckner noted, appeared to call for a “large convoy of dump trucks” hauling sand across the Stickney Point Road bridge and then down South Midnight Pass Road to reach Turtle Beach Park.
Yet, he stressed, traffic already is a problem on that stretch of road, and the 2024 timeline for the project could mean drivers on the Key would have to contend with extra construction traffic associated with two or more of the large new hotels planned on the island, not to mention the potential that work would be underway on Benderson Development Co.’s Siesta Promenade mixed-use project. The latter is planned on about 24 acres in the northwest quadrant of Stickney Point Road and U.S. 41.
The commissioners voted 3-2 in December 2018 to approve Siesta Promenade as designed — with 414 apartments/condominiums, a 130-room hotel, 133,000 square feet of retail space, and 7,000 square feet of office space. However, legal challenges and then Benderson’s request to add to the site plan two single-family home parcels in the Pine Shores Estates neighborhood, which a company affiliate finally was able to purchase, have led to delays in construction getting underway.
The prospect of cumulative traffic impacts underscores the necessity of further studies, Luckner told the commissioners. Perhaps a landing craft or barge could be used to convey the sand to the beach, instead of trucks, he added.
Moreover, the Feb. 23 staff memo acknowledged that no recent outreach had been made to the SKA, he said. Luckner pointed out that residents are unaware that plans for the beach restoration have resurfaced.
He invited commissioners to the March 3 or April 7 SKA meeting for a discussion of the truck-haul proposal.
Typically, commissioners do not respond to speakers during the Open to the Public period. In this case, they adhered to that policy.
Likewise, during the public hearing later that morning, none of them mentioned Luckner’s remarks or his invitation to upcoming SKA meetings.
In a Feb. 28 email blast reminding SKA members about the March 3 meeting, SKA leaders noted that a discussion of the “Turtle Beach Repair Project” was on that agenda. (The meeting took place too late in the day on March 3 for The Sarasota News Leader to include any details of the discussion in this issue.)