County administrator promises initial report within 30 days
This week, Sarasota County Commissioner Christian Ziegler brought up an issue that has been a topic of discussion among Siesta Key residents for decades — the potential reopening of Midnight Pass, on the southern portion of the barrier island.
“I know there’s a lot of interest,” he told his colleagues during their Sept. 13 meeting, “and it seems like every couple of months I have a meeting on it.”
Ziegler asked for support in directing County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to have staff research the relevant issues and report back to the commission in 30 days.
After checking with the rest of the board members, Chair Alan Maio confirmed consensus for the proposal before providing the formal direction to Lewis.
Although the basic research can be concluded within 30 days, Lewis responded, it likely would take longer for staff to provide additional information, including the potential expense the county would have to shoulder in trying to keep water flowing through the pass, if it were reopened, and how the county would pay for that.
In explaining his request, Ziegler said, “All the information I’ve gotten” is that the restoration of the pass would lead to “drastic improvement in water quality in that area.”
He added that he wanted “to be very clear with the public,” that the County Commission itself could not authorize the reopening of Midnight Pass. Ziegler said he believes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is the entity that would have to agree to such action.
The Sarasota News Leader had not received a response from the USACE on that point prior to the deadline for this issue.
One option he has heard, Ziegler continued on Sept. 13, is that a full jetty constructed at the site could keep the channel from closing.
Commissioner Ron Cutsinger offered support for the staff research and report. Perhaps the West Coast Inland Navigation District (WCIND) could become involved in the discussion, Cutsinger said, noting that the commissioners in late August approved an agreement with the WCIND for a survey and sediment analysis of the New Pass Inlet. The organization’s work will provide county staff a better idea of the cost of dredging New Pass again, a memo in the Aug. 30 board packet pointed out.
(As its website explains, the WCIND’s mission is “[t]o preserve and enhance the commercial, recreational, and ecological values of waterways within the District we serve.” Based in Venice, the district encompasses Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and Lee counties.)
During the Sept. 13 meeting, Commissioner Nancy Detert cautioned the other commissioners to “be very careful” with the phraseology they use in discussing Midnight Pass. “This can’t be an ‘Open Midnight Pass’ statement,” she added.
Water quality should be the focus, Detert said, pointing out that residents have reported how brackish the water is in Little Sarasota Bay — which is part of the Intracoastal Waterway — on the eastern side of Siesta Key. Part of the bay is opposite the location where Midnight Pass flowed decades ago.
“You take away a lot of the fighting and the controversy,” Detert said, in couching Midnight Pass discussions in the context of water quality. “I don’t want to go planting my flag on the wrong hill with the wrong opening salvo that’s going to set off a bomb,” she added.
Representatives of the Argus Foundation of Sarasota had discussed Midnight Pass with her the previous day, Detert continued. “They agreed that they’d rather see an overall plan for that area,” she said. Perhaps the Foundation would be willing to help pay for consulting work on the best ways to improve the water quality, she added.
“Perfect,” Chair Maio said in concluding the discussion.
During a Sept. 13 telephone interview with the News Leader, former County Commissioner Christine Robinson, who serves as the executive director of the Argus Foundation, explained that members of that nonprofit’s Executive Committee meet regularly one-on-one with the commissioners to discuss a gamut of community topics.
Referring to the sessions with commissioners this week, Robinson pointed out, “We weren’t meeting specifically on that issue,” referring to the potential reopening of Midnight Pass.
“We’ve had a water quality committee as part of Argus for five or six years now,” she said. Argus also was one of the organizations that participated in the development a couple of years ago of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation’s Community Playbook for Healthy Waterways, which offers a wide variety of initiatives that individuals, as well as local government bodies, can take to improve water quality in the county, Robinson noted.
The pass’s past and earlier legal action
The most recent group organized to advocate for the reopening of Midnight Pass is called Midnight Pass Society II. One of its leaders, Siesta Key native Scott Lewis, addressed members of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) in June.
The “II” in the group’s name is a nod, he said, to the work of another Siesta resident, Robert Waechter, a former chair of the Republican Party of Sarasota County.
During a January 2017 presentation to SKA members, Waechter explained that, in December 1983, two property owners on south Siesta — Pasco Carter and Syd Solomon, who was an internationally acclaimed artist — were alarmed at the erosion they were seeing. Fearing their houses would tumble into the Gulf of Mexico, they decided their only hope was to relocate Midnight Pass.
On Oct. 4, 1983, they won permission from the County Commission to take that action. Two months later, they brought in bulldozers and closed the channel. They did not end up creating a new one, historical documents point out.
Before Midnight Pass was closed, Waechter told the SKA members, “We had all the assurances as a community from the permitting agencies: ‘This is going to work just fine.’ We didn’t know that there was a knife in their hand when they said that.”
Almost two years before Waechter made his presentation, Laird Wreford, then the county’s coastal initiatives manager, addressed SKA members about the renourishment projects the County Commission had approved in recent years on south Siesta Key. He explained that when Midnight Pass was open, “Sand was still being somewhat held in” on the southern portion of the island. “You didn’t have that same rate of erosion on Turtle Beach and south Siesta [as seen in subsequent years].”
In January 2017, Waechter pointed out to SKA members that the scouring of the channel in Venice had been another result of the closing of Midnight Pass, with between 80% and 90% of Snake Island having disappeared.
“Most people don’t know that Midnight Pass had a greater volume of water flow through it” than either of the passes on each end of Siesta Key, Waechter added, referring to Roberts Bay and Blackburn Bay.
A Jan. 29, 1990 position paper of the original Midnight Pass Society explained that the waterway “was both strong and stable” as a naturally formed inlet. However, the paper continued, the dredging of the Intracoastal Waterway in the 1960s — “and especially the improper deposition of the resulting spoil” — resulted in significant changes in the equilibrium of Midnight Pass. “Tidal flow problems were exacerbated by Australian Pine trees falling into and clogging the northern channel,” the paper said. “Midnight Pass was caused to become unstable.”
Waechter also pointed out that Sarasota County spent $1 million in a fight for state permits to reopen Midnight Pass. State environmental officials required the county to undertake “all the studies and the engineering reports that they didn’t do [before the pass was closed],” he said. The state agency that was the predecessor of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) even insisted that the county undertake an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), Waechter added. “Unfortunately, we were fought to a standstill.”
The state ultimately refused to grant the county permission to reopen the pass, he noted.
In June 2012, the Midnight Pass Society, along with three Siesta businesses and four individuals, filed a lawsuit in federal court, seeking a judgment that would require the appropriate county, state and federal officials to issue permits necessary for the reopening of the waterway. The complaint contended that “acts and omissions of federal, state and local governmental officials are keeping Midnight Pass artificially closed, which is causing ongoing harm to the environment, the Florida manatee, and residents of the Siesta Key area in continuing violation of the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act …”
The lawsuit noted that the pass first appeared on navigation charts in 1883.
Following a 2008 effort of county leaders and the Midnight Pass Society to win a Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) permit to reopen the pass, the complaint said, FDEP officials “determined that opening a new inlet would cause significant adverse impact to the existing (post-closure) coastal structure,” and that they “did not consider whether the closure of the original Pass was having an adverse impact on the natural coastal system.”
On March 26, 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich granted Sarasota County’s motion to dismiss the case in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, in Tampa. She did note in her order that the permission to close the pass in 1983 “was allegedly conditioned on reopening the inlet pass once Messrs. Solomon and Carter stabilized their properties.”
The Society leaders appealed the decision to the United States 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. However, a May 2013 Entry of Dismissal filed with that court says that the plaintiffs “failed to file a Civil Appeal Statement form within the time affixed by the rules.”
The work of Midnight Pass Society II
In June, when Lewis, one of the organizers of Midnight Pass Society II, addressed SKA members, he talked of growing up on Siesta Key. He recalled that when he was a child, he used to try to swim the Midnight Pass channel.
Not only did the pass have plenty of seagrass, he continued, but “There were acres of [oyster beds].”
In reviewing historical photos of that area of the island, Lewis said, he remembered, too, that “Midnight Pass was just so beautiful,” and it was an estuary.
When he was 6 or 7, Lewis added, he enjoyed spotting seahorses in the waterway.
“It’s a shame what happened,” he said, referring to the 1983 closing of the pass.
Lewis has created a Facebook page called Restore Midnight Pass Now!!
The “About” statement on that page points out that after the pass was closed, “a dead zone of 2-4 miles” was created. Little Sarasota Bay is dead, the statement adds.
If Midnight Pass were reopened, the Facebook page says, “The new currents would improve water circulation, reduce pollution, and increase the amount of breeding areas for shrimp, clam, and oysters (currently all gone) as well as sea grass that would permit an incredible number of new fish varieties and birds in the immediate vicinity.”
The group also has a website: https://restoremidnightpass.org.
The Midnight Pass Society II is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Lewis pointed out to SKA members. The group welcomes donations, which are tax-deductible.