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Despite permit, Big Pass dredge remains contentious

The state has approved plans to renourish Lido Key with sand from Big Pass, but Siesta Key residents are still considering options for objecting.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. June 21, 2018
Despite a decision from the state, Siesta Key residents remain convinced dredging Big Pass will result in negative environmental side effects.
Despite a decision from the state, Siesta Key residents remain convinced dredging Big Pass will result in negative environmental side effects.
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City Manager Tom Barwin has spent years urging Siesta Key residents to drop their opposition to the city’s plans to renourish Lido Key with sand dredged from Big Pass.

For years, those efforts have been unsuccessful. Siesta residents maintain the project could harm their island and create more severe wave action in the waters between the two keys. They’ve consistently cast doubts on any studies designed to provide assurance that the dredging will not be problematic.

And yet, this week, Barwin made the same overtures following the latest sign of progress for the Big Pass dredging — the state’s decision to issue a permit for the project.

“I again urge the handful of people litigating this matter to forego additional litigation and work with us to become environmental and shoreline protection leaders in the state of Florida,” Barwin said Tuesday in a statement. “I remind all this permit requires unprecedented monitoring and future adjustments as warranted.”

Noah Valenstein, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, issued a final order Monday regarding the disputed renourishment project. The 37-page order states the permit is approved with minor exceptions, adopting the recommendations an administrative law judge made in May.

The Army Corps of Engineers and city of Sarasota plan to dredge Big Pass to replenish eroded segments of Lido’s shoreline. Last week, the Army Corps announced it had allocated $13.5 million toward the project, which is expected to cost about $22 million.

The permit authorizes the project team to take 1.3 million cubic yards of sand from Big Pass to place on the central and southern segments of Lido Key. The plans also include the installation of two sand-retaining groins along the island.

The final order makes two modifications to the permit. Dredging is prohibited in two segments of Big Pass from April through September, a change designed to protect spotted sea trout spawning. The order also states the project is allowed to remove no more than 1.3 million cubic yards of sand from Big Pass.

Two Siesta Key groups, the Siesta Key Association and Save Our Siesta Sand 2, objected to the FDEP’S 2016 announcement that it intended to issue a permit for the Big Pass dredge. In the final order, Valenstein wrote the Siesta groups generally did not provide substantive evidence the project would have adverse effects and needed to be modified.

Despite that ruling — and Barwin’s optimism the decision might bring an end to the dispute over the project — Siesta Key residents remain concerned about the prospect of dredging Big Pass.

Gene Kusekoski, president of the Siesta Key Association, said the group is considering its options for contesting the project. There is a 30-day window to appeal the DEP decision to a district appellate court.

Kusekoski said Siesta Key residents are aware that Lido needs sand, but they want the city and Army Corps to look for other sources. He suggested that could include New Pass to the north, which the city plans to use for a smaller renourishment project later this year.

“If people continue to want to try to dredge Big Pass, the people of Siesta Key are still very concerned about that,” Kusekoski said.

Beyond a potential appeal of the permit, Kusekoski said Siesta residents want to have a conversation with the county about contesting the plans. Siesta residents believe the project would violate the county’s comprehensive plan, although the county has not sought to prevent the dredging from going forward.

The city hopes to begin the Lido renourishment project before the 2019 hurricane season. Kusekoski said the project likely could not mobilize until the end of turtle season at the earliest,  which gives Siesta Key groups more than three months to determine their next options for opposing the dredge of Big Pass.

“All options are on the table,” Kusekoski said. “We need to figure out what makes the most sense going forward.”