A new voice has entered the ongoing Big Pass dredge debate— the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations, CONA, discussed the controversial topic at a meeting Monday night.
CONA, which comprises more than 70 area neighborhoods, had not yet officially addressed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineering project. But with the Army Corps pushing to advance the project's permitting process, area neighborhood groups, such as CONA, have started to push back against what they claim is inadequate public oversight and indepedent peer evaluaton of the Army's claims that the dredging project will not negatively impact Siesta Key.
Jono Miller, director of environmental studies at New College of Florida, led Monday night’s discussion.
Miller has been a vocal opponent of the project, calling on the Corps to subject its analysis of the dredge’s potential impact to Siesta Key beaches to an impartial peer review and more public scrutiny.
"There are a lot of people who should have been involved in this process to use local knowledge to find the best possible solution," Miller said Monday. "And to my knowledge they weren't."
Miller presented the approximately twenty residents attending Monday's meeting a brief synopsis of the Corps' plans, and then offered several key recommendations to make the project more acceptable to its critics, including more involvement of area stakeholders in the planning process, and abandoning several of the most controversial elements, such as three erosion-control jetties, know as groins, to be built on Lido Beach.
The groins, which are currently included in the Army’s plans, are intended to slow the beach’s erosion by limiting the southerly flow of sand off Lido Beach, and, according to Army modeling, extend the renourishment cycle from three years to five years, potentially saving millions of dollars over the 50-year lifespan of the project.
Opponents of the project claim the groins might negatively impact the natural southerly flow of sand that is neccesary to maintain the health of downstream Siesta Key beaches.
CONA’s entrance into the Big Pass debate comes just days after the Siesta Key Association took its first official stance on the project — coming out in opposition to the dredge in a Jan. 9 statement unanimously approved by the association's board.
The debate swirling around the project will likely intensify in the run-up to anticipated Sarasota County Commission discussions in March, and the upcoming election campaign for Sarasota County’s District 2 seat, which represents Siesta Key and will be open for a newcomer this November following the retirement of longtime County Commissioner Nora Patterson.
CONA President Lourdes Ramirez is running for the District 2 seat against Al Maio, vice president of design and engineering firm Kimley-Horn.
The proposed U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Big Pass dredging project will mine 1.3 million cubic yards of sand from the outer shoals of Big Pass to use on Lido Beach.
Area groups such as SKA have been calling for an independent peer review of the dredge since last summer, claiming the Army’s predictive models have not been properly vetted, leaving an unacceptable amount of uncertainty about the potentially harmful impacts of the dredge on the navigability of the pass and the health of Siesta beaches.
On Monday night, Miller echoed SKA's push for more public debate on the project and an independent review of the Army’s predictive models.
"Let's embark on a more public, transparent process," Miller said.
CONA, which was created in 1961, represents the interests of more than 70,000 area residents.
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