State agency’s Nov. 30 open house on the proposed renourishment project draws about 115 members of the public
Carl Shoffstall, president of the Lido Key Residents Association, stood at one end of the second-floor meeting room on the evening of Nov. 30 at Fire Station No. 2 located on Waldemere Street in Sarasota. At the other was Kay Paquette, president of the board of the Whispering Sands Condominium Association on Siesta Key.
Physically, they might have been just 50 feet apart. They were much further apart, however, when it came to their views of the issue that had brought them to the room that night. They were among close to 150 people — including representatives of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the City of Sarasota, along with local elected leaders — all focused on the effort of the city and the USACE to renourish the critically eroded South Lido Key Beach. That proposed $19-million project calls for removing about 1.2 million cubic yards from the waterway that separates Lido from Siesta Key, and that body of water, Big Sarasota Pass, never has been dredged.
With two tropical storms having chewed up more of their beach during the summer, Lido residents have grown increasingly anxious about the future of two condominium towers that are precariously close to the Gulf of Mexico. Just across Big Pass, Siesta residents are equally anxious. Scientific research over the years has shown that the ebbs shoal in the pass protects the island from storm damage. Moreover, boaters fear that any dredging will damage the channel and lead to a never-ending series of navigational problems.
On the evening of Nov. 30, FDEP was holding an open house as one final effort to answer residents’ questions and accept comments about the proposed project. The state agency announced in late September that by Dec. 27 it would make public its intention to issue or deny the permit the City of Sarasota and the USACE need to pursue the renourishment of South Lido.
Brandon Burch, the project manager for the USACE, told the audience of about 115 people that those plans call for 900,000 cubic yards of sand to come from an area dubbed “Borrow Area C,” while the remaining 300,000 cubic yards would be removed from “Borrow Area B.”
Additionally, Burch explained, two groins to help hold the sand in place on Lido between renourishments would be constructed on the southern end of Lido. One would be 170 feet long; the other, 345 feet.
“I’ve lived out there 14 years,” Shoffstall told The Sarasota News Leader in an interview during the open house. When he first moved to Sarasota County, he continued, residents were warring over the plans for the construction of the Ringling Bridge. “‘It’s going to be the death of the city,’” was the feeling of the opponents, he said. “What is it now? It’s the showplace of the city.”
Shoffstall added that all Lido residents want is to see a portion of the sand removed from Big Pass’ big ebb shoal and placed on their beach. “There’s a natural amount of sand that’s going to drift down [to Siesta Key] no matter what.”
Siesta’s Beach has continued to grow as South Lido’s has continued to shrink, he pointed out. Yet, Visit Sarasota County statistics have shown, he noted, that Lido is a vital component of the community’s tourism economy.
Paquette has lived in the county one year longer than Shoffstall, she told the News Leader. This is the third fight she has experienced during that time, as Siesta residents have rallied to prevent dredging of Big Pass. “We won every [other] time,” she pointed out.
Her concern, Paquette continued, is whether people will put up enough money if the nonprofit organization Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2) has to go to court to challenge an FDEP permit for the Lido project.
“Whispering Sands stands to lose the most because we are on the northern end [of Siesta],” she noted, referring to potential damage to the ebb shoal and the protection it provides to property on that part of the island. Newer residents do not seem to understand the gravity of the prospect, Paquette added. “The waves are plowing into the shoal,” she said, but it keeps the shoreline secure.
“How many times can you talk about something?” Shoffstall counters. “Everything’s been discussed; everything’s been vetted. It’s time to move forward.”
Taking the issue to court
Yet, SOSS2 is not the only entity considering legal action if the permit is approved. Catherine Luckner, second vice president of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), told the News Leader prior to the open house that that representatives of that nonprofit organization also have been speaking with an attorney. Luckner has advocated for almost three years for the city and the USACE to find a different source of sand for the Lido project. The USACE has remained steadfast in its assertion that no offshore source offers sand that will meet FDEP’s criteria for the project, and city staff has pointed to the fact that if a suitable borrow area could be found far out in the Gulf of Mexico, the cost of the project would grow considerably from its current $19-million estimate.
Should no alternative to Big Pass be found, Luckner told the News Leader, the best course to protect Siesta Key would be to challenge the project in federal court.
Shoffstall said the Lido Key Residents Association and property owners on St. Armands have had no choice but to investigate legal representation, too. “We’re in the process right now of looking into that,” he added during the open house.
Referring to SOSS2, Shoffstall pointed out, “They’re putting us as homeowners and taxpayers in jeopardy.”
A mix of attendees and views
Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin estimated on Nov. 30, at the News Leader’s request, that more than 60% of the attendees at the open house were Lido residents. He joined Shoffstall in emphasizing the critical need for the project and stressed that city staff is fully prepared to undertake intensive monitoring to make certain Siesta Key is protected.
During brief comments at the outset of the event, Shannon N. Herbon of FDEP’s Legislative & External Affairs Division in its Southwest District Office in Temple Terrace told everyone that the deadline for comments is Dec. 15. She invited the attendees to provide written or oral statements at a table at the rear of the room. After that evening, she added, comments still could be provided online prior to the deadline. According to the comment sheet, the email address for that action is BIPP@dep.state.fl.us.
Approximately 15 minutes after people were invited to begin asking their questions at the five stations in the room, Terry Cerullo, environmental administrator, ombudsman and community outreach representative for FDEP’s South District — in Fort Myers — told the News Leader that he had run out of the comment forms. When the News Leader later conveyed that information to Greg Garis, the FDEP project manager overseeing the Lido permit application, his eyes widened. “We thought we had overprinted [the sheets],” he said.
As the crowd dwindled around 7 p.m. — an hour after the session began — Herbon and Garis both told the News Leader they were pleased with the turnout. “An engaged community is terrific,” Herbon added.
During her opening remarks, Herbon told the audience, “Public comment is how we are able to determine what direction we go with our permits.”
Nonetheless, Luckner of the SKA and Peter van Roekens, chair of SOSS2, saw limited to no real benefits of the forum.
“It’s probably not useful for people who have been really, highly involved in the project all along,” Luckner said. Still, “it’s nice to put faces to the people we talk to,” she added. “It actually makes us human to them, too.”
Luckner noted that the SKA had submitted additional written questions to FDEP.
After the event, van Roekens issued a statement on behalf of SOSS2, during which he continued to criticize the studies the USACE and its consultant had undertaken to assert that Big Pass and Siesta would suffer no harmful effects from the dredging.
Van Roekens added, “It is reckless to proceed without better understanding the risks inherently associated with the unprecedented scale of this proposed project. It is worth noting that this mammoth project has never been subject to a public hearing, and that the [USACE] apparently is unwilling to conduct the Environmental Impact Study called for by both the Sarasota County Commission and the leaders of Siesta Key.” (See the related story in this issue.)
“The [USACE] and the City of Sarasota seem intent on initiating a process the results of which no one can predict and which may be irreversible,” he continued. “If the intent to permit is issued in its present form, consider this our notice of intent to challenge.
“Once Pandora’s Box has been opened,” van Roekens concluded the statement, “there is no going back.”