Sarasota County commissioners approve start-from-scratch feasibility study in quest to restore gulf-to-bay tidal flow
By ChrisAnn Allen
Sarasota County commissioners on Oct. 10 unanimously approved the initiation of a feasibility study for reopening Midnight Pass, which historically ran between Siesta Key and Casey Key to connect the Gulf of Mexico with Little Sarasota Bay.
“This was my No. 1 goal when elected,” District 4 Commissioner Joe Neunder wrote the Siesta Sand following the decision to commence with the study to possibly reopen the pass, which was filled-in in 1983 by two property owners concerned with erosion.
Spencer Anderson, the county’s public works director, gave a presentation to the Sarasota Board of County Commissioners regarding the options for Midnight Pass as part of an update on Little Sarasota Bay with reopening the pass as a consideration for improved water quality. He said there was a consultant putting together a scope of work for the Little Sarasota Bay Watershed Master Plan, which will be brought to the board for approval, including “an evaluation of what water quality benefits could occur if there was a gulf-to-bay tidal connection in that area.”
Of three options Anderson presented, including resuming a previous plan for a 300-square-meter inlet, or taking no action at all, the board went with option “B” which includes a new, internally initiated engineering feasibility study at a cost of $250,00 to $500,000.
“That will allow us to evaluate that more thoroughly, obtain updated information, and most importantly to develop a relationship with the regulators that are in place today in association with the political support we have at the state and federal levels,” Anderson said, reiterating, “so this will allow us, I think most importantly, to get the regulatory agencies on board and be partners in this effort.”
District 3 Commissioner Neil Rainford supported the option. “I think that it behooves us to coordinate with our state and federal partners, because obviously it’s going to be a big funding issue in the future — but with that being said, I also want to make sure we are moving forward with this as fast as possible to address this,” he said.
According to the presentation, the design/permitting costs for the project will be about $2 million, followed by $25 to $40 million for initial construction and mitigation.
Due to the efforts of the county and Midnight Pass Society II — the 501(c)(3) nonprofit group that two years ago resurrected the pursuit of a remedy for the pass — the Florida Legislature this spring granted $1 million for the project. However, this funding was vetoed in June when it reached Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.
Additionally, there was previous discussion regarding the $201 million federal grant which Sarasota County will receive via the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The funds will be awarded as part of its Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery Program to assist with Hurricane Ian recovery and mitigation efforts, which led to the creation of the Resilient SRQ program for restoration of infrastructure and mitigation.
The program was considered as a possible funding source, but the project does not meet federal guidelines, according to an Oct. 11 email from Neunder to the Siesta Sand.
So, the commission concurred the best course of action was to move forward with a renewed feasibility study to garner state and federal support.
“This is a situation where we want to measure twice and cut once,” Neunder said during the Oct. 10 meeting. “I think if we can start the internal process of doing some of the engineering studies and then show our state and federal legislators that we have some buy-in to this project, the fund allocation or process of getting fund allocation to support this process, I believe, would be easier.”
He added that U.S. Rep. Greg Steube of the 17th Congressional District that includes Sarasota County supports the project, along with some state legislators, because the project would be beneficial to water quality.
District 5 Commissioner Ron Cutsinger said a pre-application meeting for feedback from regulatory authorities, such as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, would be important before commencing. It might help determine the specifics on what method of allowing a tidal flow is best – ideas have included dredging to re-create what was once a navigable waterway, or installation of a pipe, or the building of a culvert.
“Do we have to look at a complete opening or if they’re not going to approve that, are we looking at some structure to allow flushing or something,” Cutsinger said. “Just so we go in with our eyes open.”
Rainford asked Anderson for a timeframe, to which he responded “conservatively, about a year,” but he would know more when they have a better understanding of what the project will entail.
County Administrator Jonathan Lewis added that Anderson and staff would have to define the scope, create a capital improvement plan, and bring this back before the commission.
Neunder asked Lewis if approving the feasibility study to move forward with the project would show the state and federal agencies proof of the county’s investment in the project, to which Lewis responded it would help.
“I’m completely on board,” Neunder said. “In fact, I’m hoping that does send a message to our colleagues in Tallahassee and in Washington that we’re certainly trying our darndest here to get this ball moving.”