Trucks begin hauling sand to Turtle Beach Park for South Siesta Beach Repair Project

Commissioner Smith voices worries about potential for accidents on Midnight Pass Road

On April 24, trucks began hauling sand from an inland mine to Sarasota County’s Turtle Beach Park on the southern end of Siesta Key, county staff reported.

The goal is to place approximately 92,000 cubic yards of sand in an area that suffered significant erosion in September 2016 as a result of Hurricane Hermine’s passage through the Gulf of Mexico.

The County Commission and staff had tried to persuade the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to let the county’s Capital Projects Department delay the South Siesta Key Beach Repair Project until November. However, with no word from FEMA, and a June 30 deadline looming for completion of the undertaking, county staff has pointed out that it had no choice but to get the work underway.

In an April 26 update about the project, county Media Relations Officer Brianne Lorenz included a comment from Carolyn Eastwood, director of the county’s Capital Projects Department: “The South Siesta Beach repair project will add sand to the shoreline, providing improved storm protection to the upland properties and a wider beach for recreation and wildlife use, such as sea turtle and shorebird nesting.” Eastwood added, “Beach repair projects such as this help build resiliency and ensure our public beaches remain viable for residents and visitors.”

That advisory also included comments from Rachel Herman, manager of the Environmental Protection Division: “Sarasota County is committed to preserving natural environments and wildlife habitat. With the help of our conservation partners, Mote Marine Aquarium and the Sarasota Audubon Society, trained professionals are on the beach daily to ensure all the necessary precautions are in place for a successful project constructed consistent with the applicable wildlife regulations.”

Further, Lorenz’s April 26 update pointed out, “The county is working with a contracted coastal engineering firm to engage Mote Marine Laboratory and Sarasota Audubon Society for daily shorebird and sea turtle monitoring services in the project area once nesting season starts.”

The sea turtle nesting season traditionally begins on May 1; however, in recent years, some turtle nests have been found before that date.

In early December 2022, Curtis Smith of the Capital Projects Department, who is managing the South Siesta initiative, told Siesta Key Association (SKA) members that he believes this is the last beach repair project related to Hurricane Hermine damage for which FEMA has been willing to provide grant funds.

FEMA has agreed to pay for 87.5% of the total cost, Herman of Environmental Protection reminded the commissioners during a March 7 presentation.

As The Sarasota News Leader has reported, Ahtna Marine & Construction Co., which is based in Irvine, Calif., won the county bid to handle the project. The construction expense is $8,284,283.10.

During her March 7 update, Herman also pointed out that the rest of the expense would be covered by county revenue generated by the 6% tax on rentals of accommodations for six months or less time.

However, she pointed out, “After construction is complete, we could seek another 40% of our 12.5% as a reimbursement grant from [the state].”

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) agreed to a county request for a modification of the permit for the initiative so dump trucks can use two access paths through Turtle Beach Park.

In the county’s most recent, weekly News and Updates email — sent out on April 21 — staff wrote, “While work is underway, visitors to Turtle Beach can expect occasionally limited access to parking areas or beach access points and increased signage. Motorists should expect to encounter truck traffic along Midnight Pass Road and within the park.”

Residents and business owners have protested the timing of the initiative, as tourism in recent years has remained strong during the spring. In years past, the majority of snowbirds and visitors were gone after Easter.

Continuing concerns about the trucks’ route

During the regular meeting of the County Commission on April 25, Commissioner Mark Smith of Siesta Key joked about county staff’s publicizing plans for Big Truck Day at CoolToday Park in Wellen Park on April 29. “Well, it’s going to be ‘Big Truck Day’ on Siesta Key for 60 days, apparently,” he added.

Then Smith expressed concern about the fact that the trucks are coming onto the island via the Stickney Point Road drawbridge and heading south on Midnight Pass Road.

“In all seriousness,” Smith told his colleagues, “Midnight Pass Road is a narrow road, often with lawn crews and construction trucks parked along it.” Referencing a Siesta Key Association calculation, he said that 4,600 dump truck loads of sand would be transported on that road, with the trucks “about the width of the road.”

Last week, Smith of Capital Projects conveyed the following to the News Leader via county Media Relations Officer Brianne Lorenz: “The contractor has secured the services of about 60-65 trucks. Ideally, each truck can make two trips per day.”

During his April 25 remarks, Smith further stressed, “We as a commission, as a county, need to make sure that we do everything we can for public safety, with the bicyclists and the pedestrians and obviously, the folks driving.” He added, “It’s a bad, bad way to get sand to the beach, I’ll put it that way. Let’s hope to God nobody gets hurt.”

In late December 2022, Donald DeBerry, senior transportation manager in the county’s Public Works Department, told the News Leader that, given the much smaller volume of sand this time than the county placed on the beach in the spring of 2016 — during the county’s second renourishment of the south Siesta shoreline — the use of the trucks made more sense.

During that renourishment initiative, the contractor placed 713,563 cubic yards of sand on about 2.1 miles of the beach.

Although leaders of the Siesta Key Association had suggested that barges would be better than dump trucks to deliver sand for this undertaking, DeBerry explained that the vessels cannot transport as much sand at one time as trucks, and each barge would have to be guided by a tug. Therefore, logistically speaking, he said, barges were not an option.

In the April 21 News and Updates, county staff encouraged visitors “to take advantage of Sarasota County’s public transit system” while the repair project is underway.

“The Siesta Key Breeze trolley is free and travels from Siesta Village to Turtle Beach and back, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily,” the report pointed out. Additionally, it said, the county provides OnDemand services for Siesta Key Monday through Saturday, from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., and on Sundays, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.