Big Pass seagrass mitigation plan wins City Commission’s unanimous approval

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By Rachel Brown Hackney

It took only about 15 minutes on July 15 for the Sarasota City Commission to unanimously approve an agreement with Manatee County that was a necessary step before the planned dredging of Big Sarasota Pass to renourish South Lido Key Beach.

The agreement calls for the creation of new seagrass populations to compensate for those expected to be killed during the removal of up to 1.3 million cubic yards of sand from Big Pass for use in stabilizing about 1.6 miles of South Lido.

The vote came after two members of the public urged the board not to vote on the proposed agreement that day. A third speaker offered full support of the plan.

Additionally, the Siesta Key Association sent a letter to the commissioners, dated July 11, urging them to defer action on the agreement pending outcome of a lawsuit the nonprofit filed against the city in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in March 2017. That complaint seeks to prevent any removal of sand from Big Pass.

The city was a co-applicant with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in obtaining a Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) permit for the Lido Renourishment Project.

The document the City Commission approved on July 15 calls for the city to pay for the creation of seagrass habitat covering up to 3.2 acres in Perico Preserve, which Manatee County created several years ago. The new habitat would serve as mitigation for the 1.68 acres of seagrass the USACE believes will be destroyed in Big Pass.

City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw explained to the commissioners on July 15 that the city’s projected expense of $1,124,839.84 for the Manatee County initiative already had been figured into the overall city expense for the Lido Renourishment Project.

A June 26 memo from DavisShaw to the commissioners put the total cost of dredging and placement of sand on South Lido at $19,205,073. The USACE has allocated $12,275,626 to that initiative, the memo said, with the city and the state evenly splitting the remaining $6,295,753.84.

The City Commission originally was scheduled to consider the seagrass mitigation agreement on May 20, just four days after the USACE published its bid package for the Lido project. However, the USACE asked DavisShaw to pull the item from the agenda so modifications could be made to the agreement.

In the bid package, the USACE eliminated approximately one-third of Borrow Area — or “Cut” — C in Big Pass, which contains about 105,000 cubic yards of sand, the USACE told SNL. One reason for the decision, USACE spoksesman Trisston Brown wrote in an email, was “[S]parse seagrasses exist adjacent to the dredge area with the potential to be impacted …”

Pleas for deferring a vote

The two speakers on July 15 who asked the City Commission to again hold off on the seagrass mitigation agreement were Michael Holderness, an owner and manager of property on Siesta Key, and Justin Bloom, a founder and member of the board of the Suncoast Waterkeeper.

Bloom talked about the decline in seagrass in area waterways. “You need to look at the larger picture of deteriorating water quality in our region,” he said.

Holderness pointed to a county ordinance — with which he contends the city must comply, based on a city policy — that calls for any mitigation of seagrass destroyed in Sarasota County to be undertaken in Sarasota County.

When Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie asked City Engineer DavisShaw about that seagrass policy, DavisShaw explained that the USACE’s biologists worked with city biologists but “were not able to find a sizable location for this [mitigation] … that was acceptable … in Sarasota County.”

Holderness also provided the commissioners detailed information from R. Grant Gilmore Jr., senior scientist with Estuarine, Coastal and Ocean Science Inc. of Vero Beach, who is an expert on spotted seatrout.

In issuing the state permit for the Lido project to the USACE and the city in June 2018, Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein specified that certain sand borrow areas in Big Pass would be off limits to dredging from April through September, when the spotted seatrout spawns in them, based on research Gilmore had undertaken.

Among the findings Gilmore provided to Holderness, which he presented to the City Commission, are the following:

• “The Perico seagrass is located at the mouth of a large freshwater river, the Manatee River, so [it] is influenced by freshwater flows from that river. The Sarasota Big Pass seagrass is located at a large opening to the Gulf of Mexico, a major saline ecosystem … These widely differing salinity environments mean that even though the seagrass species may be the same, the creatures that associate with these two different ecosystems will not be the same. It is like stating that apples and oranges are the same fruit.”

• “Spotted Seatrout do not spawn adjacent to the Perico site, but do spawn within Sarasota Big Pass. Spotted Seatrout spawn at the northwest mouth of Tampa Bay, avoiding the lower salinity waters at the mouth of the Manatee River.”

• “Post larval Spotted Seatrout settle in seagrass meadows close to the spawning site. Since there is no Spotted Seatrout spawning adjacent to the Perico mitigation site it will not serve as a Spotted Seatrout nursery in the same manner as the seagrass at Sarasota Big Pass.”

The third opponent of the Manatee County plan, the Siesta Key Association (SKA), pointed out in its July 11 letter to the City Commission that the proposed agreement with Manatee County “was initiated [in 2015] without public discussion and without City Commission oversight for permitting the sea grass destruction.”

SKA President Catherine Luckner added, “Our region is facing multiple sources of severe coastal water quality degradation. It’s unlikely any destruction of healthy and species-dependent sea grass is recommended at any time in the near future by our environmental non-profit entities and coastal partners.”

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