Pictured is an example of erosion that now exposes the roots of a dune area that has been hollowed out by intensified wave action, according to residents of Sandy Cove. (submitted photo)
By Rachel Brown Hackney, SarasotaNewsLeader.com
On Dec. 13, 2017, Todd Walton sat on the stand in a county courtroom in downtown Sarasota.
He explained that he had more than 40 years of full-time experience in the field of coastal engineering, 24 of which he spent with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Walton was testifying in a Florida Division of Administrative Hearings proceeding for which leaders of two nonprofit organizations on Siesta Key had petitioned. The Siesta Key Association and Save Our Siesta Sand 2 hoped the proceeding would result in the state deciding not to allow the removal of up to 1.3 million cubic yards of sand from Big Sarasota Pass to renourish about 1.6 miles of Lido Key Beach.
Under questioning, Walton talked about having reviewed materials produced by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of its planning for the Lido project.
“The diagrams that the Corps shows have at least 30 to 100% of cumulative wave energy increase along [Siesta Key’s north] shoreline,” Walton said. “And that’s average. If you actually consider the maximums rather than the average, that’s going to go way up.”
When the Siesta Key Association attorney asked whether it was Walton’s opinion “that the Army Corps of Engineers and the city [of Sarasota have] not provided reasonable scientific evidence to establish that no erosion will occur on Siesta Key as a result of this project?” Walton replied, “I would agree that is the case.”
The city of Sarasota was the local sponsor for the Lido initiative.
In the aftermath of that hearing, the administrative law judge recommended that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection issue the necessary permit to the Corps and the city for the Lido Key Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction Project. The department did so.
Just after mid-July of last year, a dredge began removing sand from Big Pass.
After that work began, residents of a homeowners association in Siesta’s Sandy Cove area began noticing changes in their shoreline, which faces Big Pass.
One resident, especially, observed a difference in the channeling of waves toward the beach.
Those waves began chewing out the lower part of the berm overlooking the water, Stephanie Jacobson, the association president, explained. That berm, she said, “has probably been sheared in half.”
Sandy Cove comprises four different homeowners groups, Jacobson noted. Residents in the one she represents live in 52 units that are 50 years old. That section of Sandy Cove is an historically significant development designed by renowned architect Frank Folsom Smith.
The dwellings on Big Pass are set back from a wide lawn, protected by a dune system covered with sea oats.
She does not know how long that dune system will remain intact.
“This is just since July. This is how dramatic [the situation] is,” she said.
Sea grapes on the beach have had their roots exposed, too, Jacobson noted.
As the situation worsened, Jacobson contacted Sarasota County Environmental Permitting staff, which provided her the names of companies that could truck in compatible sand to stabilize the dune.
One such load would cost $50,000, Jacobson said. “Sacrificial sand,” she added, is the phrase used for such fill. “It’s not inconceivable that two or three years down the road,” the association would need to truck in another load of sand, she pointed out, based on her research. “We don’t have a reserve system that has $50,000 every other year.”
A more expensive measure, Jacobson said, would be the construction of a wall adjacent to the lawn to try to protect the villas from flooding. That option carries a $100,000 estimate.
Jacobson also called leaders of the Siesta Key Association. President Catherine Luckner and her husband, Robert, a director of the nonprofit, came to Sandy Cove to survey the situation, Jacobson noted.
In July 2017, Robert Luckner presented slides to association members that showed facets of the predicted increase in wave energy on the northern part of Siesta Key, if Big Pass were dredged.
In the aftermath of the Luckners’ visit to Sandy Cove, Robert Luckner characterized the situation as “an amazing amount of erosion,” with the threat that the dune could collapse.
He suggested Jacobson talk with Risk Management personnel representing the city.
The ‘insurance policy’
Because of Siesta Key leaders’ concerns about potential damage to the island if the Big Pass project were to take place, then-Sarasota Manager Tom Barwin proposed years ago that funds be set aside as an “insurance policy” that could be used to address any problems.
In February 2017, the City Commission agreed to put $2.5 million into that reserve.
However, on Feb. 19, 2019, City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw asked the board members to free up the money to cover a short-term emergency renourishment project on Lido Key that was planned to stabilize the shoreline until the Florida Department of Environmental Protection-permitted undertaking with the Corps could begin.
“When the [insurance policy fund] was set up,” Barwin explained to the commissioners, “the final permit had not been issued [for the long-term renourishment project].”
He added that the project has “gone through a number of court reviews … [and it] does include extensive monitoring. … We voluntarily wanted to exceed the standards for monitoring. That is built into our permit.”
The commissioners finally voted 3-2 to remove $2.1 million from the reserve.
A little more than two years later, Jacobson reflected on the planning for the Lido project. “I think the most disturbing thing for me [is] that the Corps of Engineers actually admitted that there was going to be problems [with the wave energy].”
Yet, she continued, the city kept pressing for the Lido initiative.
Jacobson is eager to learn whether other properties along Big Pass have begun to experience the same level of erosion that she and her neighbors are seeing.
“It’s a great community,” Jacobson said of Sandy Cove. “We want to save every bit of it.”