Watermain replacement project for Siesta, Casey keys wins variance from County Commission

A Sarasota County illustration shows the existing and proposed routes of a watermain line between Siesta and Casey keys.

With assurances from staff that the project should not impede any future initiative to re-open Midnight Pass, the Sarasota County Commission voted unanimously May 23 to approve a request for a variance so a new watermain pipeline could be constructed between Casey Key and Siesta Key to replace an aging, leaking pipeline.

A board vote on the construction project itself is expected to be sought on June 5, Utility Project Manager Seton Katz, who is handling the project, told The Sarasota News Leader May 23.

All of the proposed watermain construction is to be located a maximum of 148 feet seaward of the Gulf Coast Setback Line, Howard Berna, environmental supervisor in the county’s Conservation and Natural Resources Department, told the commission during its regular meeting in Sarasota.

The 972-foot-long pipeline will be positioned in a straight line between the two keys, Berna said; it will run across the county-owned Palmer Point Park.

In his presentation, Berna pointed out that the existing watermain has a leak. “It has outlived its life and needs to be replaced.”

Commissioner Nora Patterson, who lives on Siesta Key, noted that one leak had forced affected residents to deal with a shutdown of the water line for a couple of days while county workers repaired it.

Both Chairwoman Christine Robinson and Commissioner Jon Thaxton voiced worries about whether the pipeline could prove to be an impediment if the county tried again in the future to win state approval for a plan to re-open Midnight Pass. State and local officials allowed homeowners to close the pass after severe erosion threatened their property in December 1983.

The County Commission was unable to win regulatory approval about three years ago for a project that would have allowed water to flow again between Little Sarasota Bay and the Gulf of Mexico at the site of the old pass.

“I don’t think that there’s a conflict” with any future dredging initiative at the pass, Berna said, noting that the watermain would be placed between 30 and 35 feet below the existing grade of Little Sarasota Bay.

In other projects with which he was familiar, Berna said, dredging for pass openings had taken place at levels much shallower than that.

Patterson told her fellow board members that that was her understanding, as well.

When Thaxton reiterated his concerns, saying he knew environmental officials required a certain amount of buffer between a pipeline and an area being dredged, Katz replied that the route chosen for the watermain “was the one that was most compatible with any … potential opening of Midnight Pass.”

“Would this trigger any regulatory issues” relative to re-opening the pass, Robinson asked.

“I don’t believe it would,” Berna told her, adding that no problems had arisen regarding Big Pass when plans were developed to construct a water pipeline from Lido Key to Siesta Key in 2011.

During the discussion just prior to the vote, Patterson said of the watermain project, “There was quite a bit of concern expressed by the Siesta Key residents that somehow this was all to the benefit of Casey Key. It’s really to the benefit of both sides.”

Thaxton responded, “I wasn’t aware of that,” adding that many Casey Key residents had felt that only Siesta residents would benefit from the new watermain.

“This conversation’s been going on for, I think, a couple of years,” Patterson said, with county staff trying to obtain permission from residents of The Pointe Condominiums on the south end of Siesta Key, so the county could install the new watermain.

She commended staff for the effort to obtain cooperation from The Pointe. “I want to give compliments to Mr. Katz and others involved in that,” she said, “because it wasn’t a smooth negotiation.”

Berna pointed out that the site at The Pointe used for the pipeline work would be restored when the project was completed.

“So we’re going to restore the fertilized lawn, grass,” Thaxton said, prompting chuckles from some of the other board members.

“I believe [we] are going to restore the impacted areas,” Berna replied.