By John Morton
The crunch of time slipping away finally forced the hand of Sarasota County regarding its plans to provide sand renourishment to Turtle Beach, and on March 7 at the county commission meeting its representatives announced it would seek a year extension until April 30 of 2024.
Many factors played into the decision. The county is at the mercy of what it hopes is the approval of FEMA for the delay, which last fall suddenly and unexpectedly gave the county a June 30 deadline to complete the project, after noting it was the last entity in the nation to have yet to use FEMA grant funds (roughly $4 million in this case) to replace sand that was washed away during 2016’s Hurricane Hermine.
Basically, FEMA wanted to clear its books on the matter. Originally, the county believed it had as long as 2026 to complete the work on what is calling the South Siesta Beach Repair Project. It calls for the delivery by dump trucks of about 92,500 cubic yards of EPA-approved sand from an upland sand mine to be spread along a 2.1-mile southern portion of Turtle Beach, adding roughly 10 feet of width in that footprint.
Early March was the projected start time, with a 60-day work window that needed to be mostly completed by May 1 when sea turtle nesting season begins. The turtles are a protected species.
However, by a Feb. 15 deadline the county had received only one construction bid, prompting a two-week extension for submissions. Also, its permit from the state’s Department of Emergency Management did not arrive until Feb. 26, and by law is subject to potential opposition and subsequent review. The Siesta Key Association civic group inquired about doing just that, and was granted an early-April deadline for consideration.
The SKA’s main opposition was the idea that 100 trucks each weekday in the height of tourist season would travel the south bridge, then southward down Midnight Pass Road, before entering the county park at Turtle Beach to do their dumping. An increase of traffic and safety risks were inevitable, SKA leaders said in a written protest.
The task became even more formidable when the two bids that came in were for $8.3 million and $8.6 million. That’s more than double the project’s estimated cost of $4 million.
However, FEMA has increased its contribution from 75% to 87.5%, Rachel Herman, manager of the county’s Environmental Protection Division, told the commission, provided the work is done by June 30. The remaining $12.5% would be covered by bed-tax allocated for beach repair as part of the county’s tourism arm.
How that plays out with a possible delay is uncertain.
Nonetheless, faced with not knowing FEMA’s response, it was a move-forward mentality that county commissioners took March 7 by unanimously approving a budget amendment to appropriate funding this year in the amount of $7,709,200 for the project, and to award a bidder for a construction contract for a not-to-exceed amount of $11 million.
A late March start was the new backup plan in lieu of an extension. And instead of scrambling with more trucks per day to try and fit into the tight window of now five weeks with May 1 in mind, county employees said they’d stick with the original 60-day window and either move, or work around, turtle nests if needed. The June 30 grant deadline would be the new drop-dead completion deadline.
If a one-year extension does come through, county officials said they would target Nov. 1 as the start date (turtle nesting season ends Oct. 31) in order to avoid doing work during high season. Additional bids would likely be sought. Bids received as of now last 120 days, county staff reported, and they could likely be extended or go through a rebidding process.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Nancy Detert recently visited Washington, D.C. on several matters and met with U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott and asked them to contact FEMA on Sarasota County’s behalf in support of the the extension.
Mark Smith, a Siesta Key resident who represents the northern half of the island in his District 2 seat, reassured his fellow commissioners that the project was worth pursuing. The 92,505 cubic yards of sand would replace the 713,563 yards of sand that went into place as a renourishment measure in the spring of 2016 – just a couple of months before Hermine washed it away, and then some.
“What I’m hearing on Siesta Key is that this is not a critical repair, but we do want it to happen,” Smith said, noting it would benefit both residents and businesses.
Regardless of when the project occurs, he also added that he’d like to see more time between trucks. Smith reported that the projected interval between trucks doing the sand hauling is five minutes, and he hoped the firm that takes on the project could adjust that to 10 minutes to eliminate what could appear overwhelming to citizens.
Bob Luckner of the Siesta Key Association, who for months has said the odds of the project coming together this spring was a longshot, expressed some sympathy for the county officials’ scenario.
“They’re in a box – and it’s getting tighter and tighter,” he said. “They’ve been in handcuffs. I feel bad for them.”