Upcoming cleaning of drainage ditch along Quay Sarasota property expected to alleviate flooding problems on U.S. 41 in downtown Sarasota

Problems at Gulfstream and Sunset Drive continue to plague residents, with questions raised about construction practices at The Vue

An aerial map shows Gulfstream Avenue, U.S. 41 and Sunset Drive in downtown Sarasota. Image from Google Maps

With Tropical Storm Emily having put downtown Sarasota flooding issues in the spotlight again, a two-pronged effort to improve the situation near Gulfstream Avenue and U.S. 41 is underway, a Sarasota County stormwater manager has told The Sarasota News Leader.

An appellate court decision this spring cleared the way for the unclogging of a drainage ditch on property being transformed into the Quay Sarasota project. County staff has been working with GreenPointe Communities LLC of Jacksonville on approval of a legal document that will give county workers multiple access points from which to tackle the clogged ditch, Ben Quartermaine, engineering and operations manager for the county’s Stormwater Division, told the News Leader on Aug. 10.

GreenPointe’s cooperation “will allow us to do a lot more” than staff originally expected, he pointed out. The final draft of the agreement has been sent to company representatives, he added. As soon as it has been signed, Quartermaine said, county workers will begin planning details of the project. That should take two to three weeks, he noted, and the actual undertaking is expected to last about a week.

“The ditch functions as it is,” he pointed out, “but the maintenance certainly will move a lot of sediment.”

At the same time, he said, staff has submitted a request to the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) to revise a permit that will enable it to lower a Florida Power & Light Co. (FPL) trunk line that runs across the ditch. “It’s like a little dam,” Quartermaine said of the line. “It would help drainage if we were able to lower the line.”

Quartermaine anticipates having the revised permit in hand in a week or so, he added.

In the meantime, the flooding issues could end up being part of a Sarasota City Commission discussion on Aug. 21. More than one commissioner asked for an item to be placed on the agenda regarding traffic flow on U.S. 41 between Gulfstream Avenue and Fruitville Road. Under New Business, that item is scheduled for the board’s evening session, which will begin at 6 p.m.

A diagram in the county’s 12th Judicial Circuit Court complaint regarding the drainage ditch along the Quay Sarasota property shows the segment whose ownership was disputed for years. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Along with the issues related to the drainage ditch, residents in the vicinity of the intersection of Gulfstream Avenue and Sunset Drive continue to contend with what they consider dangerous flooding.

On July 25, Eileen Normile, a past city commissioner who is a member of the City of Sarasota Planning Board and a founder of the nonprofit organization STOP!, wrote City Manager Tom Barwin and Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown, pointing out that the flooding at the Sunset intersection “has been growing steadily worse over the past 2 years. It has finally reached an untenable level.”

Normile added, “On July 18, 2017 we had a heavy rain for about 30 minutes. Since I live in the Sunset area, I was unable to return home for almost 3 hours because of the water levels at the two entrances from both Sunset and [U.S.] 41 [South]. I later learned that several residents of my building alone had their cars stall in deep water in the intersection of Sunset/Gulfstream creating a dangerous situation for themselves and anyone trying to get to the Ringling Bridge.”

Normile also noted the continuing problems at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Gulfstream.

In a July 26 Barwin wrote that after the county completes the cleaning of that ditch and the lowering of the FPL line, “city engineers believe the perpetual water on road issues following heavy rains will be alleviated, but for those times when heavy rains coincide with storm surge or king tides or very high tides.”

He further reported in his email, “As a result of the recent flooding problem on the Northwest corner of US 41 and Gulfstream, city staff has worked with FDOT to discover and clean out a storm drainage line that had become clogged. As you may have learned by now this particular drain had a significant amount of dirt in it which had to be vacuumed out,” Barwin noted. “That should alleviate that particular issue,” he continued, adding, “We will attempt to learn when the last time the storm drain that created a problem last week was cleaned out, as well as the others in the area.”

‘A need to improve’ the drainage ditch

Under the terms of a 1998 interlocal agreement between the city and Sarasota County, City Attorney Robert Fournier has explained to the city commissioners, the county handles stormwater management in the city limits.

In his email July 26 email to Normile, Barwin also alluded to the court case, which Fournier discussed with the City Commission on Oct. 17, 2016. Fournier’s comments were part of the board’s first public hearings on the Quay Sarasota project and related city road segment vacations sought for that development just north of the Ritz-Carlton property.

Fournier pointed out that SRQUS LLC, whose principals are Erika and Achim Ginsberg-Klemmt, claimed ownership of the western 131 feet of the drainage ditch, as well as submerged lands. A case filed in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court revolving around that issue dated to early February 2013, when the city and the county filed a complaint against SRQUS.

In that complaint, the county pointed out that, in cooperation with the city and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), the county “has identified a need to improve a drainage ditch … that drains from a culvert under U.S. 41 approximately 635 feet westward toward a boat basin along Sarasota Bay.”

The complaint added, “The Ditch funnels the stormwater drainage from more than forty acres of downtown Sarasota, but periodically becomes overgrown and fills with sediment, impeding its function and exacerbating flooding in the area along U.S. 41. During its history, the City has periodically maintained the Ditch by removing accumulated silt, vegetation and debris.”

Traffic flows through the intersection of Gulfstream Avenue and U.S. 41 as storm clouds gather on an August afternoon. Rachel Hackney photo

However, the complaint continued, SRQUS challenged a proposed SWFWMD permit for the cleaning of the ditch.

Because of the litigation, Barwin pointed out in his email to Normile, the ditch had remained clogged, exacerbating the flooding on U.S. 41 in that vicinity whenever heavy rain events occurred.

During testimony that was part of the Oct. 17, 2016 public hearing on the Quay Sarasota proposal, Achim Ginsberg-Klemmts explained that, as a result of Division of Administrative Hearings mediation in 2013, the couple had offered to participate as joint applicants with the city and the county to allow the deepening of the ditch. However, the government attorneys refused to allow the couple to construct a dinghy dock on their submerged parcel “and insisted on spoiling this prime location with loads of riprap rocks.”

In a March 16 memo, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh reported to the County Commission that the Second District Court of Appeal had affirmed — without a written opinion — a ruling by the 12th Judicial Circuit Court judge in the case that the county and city own the disputed portion of the ditch. He noted in the memo that the Ginsberg-Klemmts claimed they acquired the 131-foot-portion of the ditch through a tax deed in 2010.

The Circuit Court judge’s ruling in the case — in 2015 — found that even if SRQUS owned the ditch segment, DeMarsh continued in the memo, “the public’s use of the ditch since 1960 had established a prescriptive easement sufficient to complete [the] stabilization project. The District Court’s [ruling] effectively ends this roadblock to the stabilization project.”

The Vue

In her July 25 email to Barwin and Brown, Normile, included photos she had taken of the Sunset/Gulfstream intersection “after a much shorter rainstorm [her emphasis]” than the one on July 18.

Water flows across one lane of Gulfstream Avenue at Sunset Drive about 7:30 a.m. on July 31, during Tropical Storm Emily’s strike on the city. Photo courtesy Eileen Normile

She pointed out, “While the more recent flooding at 41/Gulfstream could have been exacerbated by a closed drain, the damming effect of the recently built road separator or some other recent event, those issues are not the root cause of the Sunset flooding. I say that because the Sunset flooding has been occurring since at least last year.”

“We literally have to put on scuba gear to get out of here,” Normile told the News Leader, referring to the intersection during a rainstorm.

She included in her July 25 email photos that were taken on June 7, 2016, adding that they “clearly demonstrate that flooding has been a serious problem for the past 2 years at least. Simply put, it is not a coincidence that flooding in this location has vastly increased since the construction of The Vue on the last unpaved lot in this quadrant of the City. It’s important to note that this area now contains over 500 residential units (including The Vue but not The Grande) and 2 major hotels. The City’s traffic study for The Vue concluded that when completed, there would be an additional 220 cars PER PEAK P.M. HOUR [her emphasis]” — most of whom (80%) are expected to exit via Sunset Drive. Of course, the Sunset intersection is also crucial for the enormous numbers of people trying to access the barrier islands on Gulfstream.”

Normile questioned whether city staff had worked to ensure the construction of The Vue condominium complex at the intersection of Gulfstream Avenue and U.S. 41 was complying with the appropriate construction standards.

As a result of a follow-up city inspection, Kast — the firm building The Vue — was fined $400, Jan Thornburg, the city’s senior communications manager, told the News Leader. That was the maximum amount, under city regulations, that could be imposed against the firm, Thornburg added.

In his Aug. 4 newsletter, City Manager Barwin wrote, “After talking directly with my counterpart at the County last week [before Tropical Storm Emily moved through the county on July 31] and seeking immediate assistance and relief from the State of Florida, FDOT coordinated with the Vue construction contractor to clean the stormwater pipe at the intersection with a powerful vacuum truck. The pipe was clogged with silt and debris. FDOT inspected and cleaned the inlets last year.”

Barwin added, “The Vue contractor was fined for failing to have adequate erosion control measures in place, which has been remedied.

“With the pipe cleared out just days before [Tropical Storm] Emily hit,” Barwin added, “the water flowed much better at the northwest corner of the intersection,”

A vehicle negotiates the Sunset Drive/Gulfstream Avenue intersection on July 31. Photo courtesy Eileen Normile

Nonetheless, Barwin continued, “The Gulfstream-Sunset Drive intersection is still experiencing flooding during heavy rain events. FDOT and the County are responding by making it a priority to clean the pipes and storm inlets in the U.S. 41-Gulfstream-Sunset-Cocoanut-Palm Ave. vicinity. This should happen soon.”

He also noted, “During recent inspections, thick layers of barnacles and oyster growth were discovered on the outfalls, which may be obstructing the stormwater flow. The County is looking into ways to prevent this growth and potential blockage from reoccurring.”

Who is monitoring what?

In her July 25 email, Normile had asked the following questions:

  • “Who monitors construction sites for safety and adherence to city requirements? The Vue, for instance, allowed uncovered piles of topsoil to sit at the corner of [U.S.] 41/Gulfstream despite the constant threat of daily rain. That topsoil was washed by flood waters all along Gulfstream to Sunset, where the residue sits today. … At one point, a [2-foot by 4-foot board] floated onto Gulfstream so that cars were dodging muddy water and construction debris at the same time.
  • “Who monitors the construction storm drain erosion control devices? The green rolls that block the storm drains (to prevent debris from flowing into the bay) also block storm waters [that] then just flow downhill. (It would seem to be a better deterrent to erosion, if the construction site covered their topsoil piles and managed other debris on site.)

3) “What water retention mitigation was required before the permits for The Vue were issued? Has that mitigation been monitored for sufficiency? Are water mitigation measures being updated frequently so that as we pave more green space, the greater volumes of runoff can be handled?”

An aerial view shows The Vue Sarasota Bay under construction in downtown Sarasota. Image from vuesarasotabay.com

In response, Assistant City Engineer Daniel Ohrenstein wrote in a July 26 email to Timothy Litchet, director of the city’s Neighborhood and Development Services Department, that city engineering staff “gave The Vue a failed inspection [on July 25] with a maximum fine on their staging permit for the dirt running off into the street and to the drains.” Ohrenstein added that a city inspector would be returning to the site on July 27 “to investigate the dirt piles and to make sure they have cleaned up the site.”

Ohrenstein continued, “Engineering [staff] permits and monitors erosion control devices on construction sites. Our inspector had the contractor pull the filter sock from the inlet and re-set the filter fence around the inlet to intercept runoff while allowing more drainage into the inlet.”

Ohrenstein also explained that “new developments must ensure that post-development runoff must not be greater than pre-existing conditions. For this, the site engineer prepared a Stormwater Management Plan which includes calculations for water attenuation for the 25-year storm. For The Vue, attenuation is achieved through 4 underground stormwater vaults. The contractor is required to install the vaults per plans. Final inspection of the drainage system by Engineering, certification from the site engineer, and approval for operational status by SWFWMD is required before Engineering signs off on a Certificate of Occupancy. Each individual development must meet their drainage requirements on their site as they come in for review.”