By Roger Drouin
After rising project costs and an unexpected permit delay, Sarasota County is finally moving towards a January 2016 construction start date for the long-planned Turtle Beach renourishment.
That’s because some recent good news out of Tallahassee and progress with a federal environmental permit application will ensure the county can complete the project, Laird Wreford, Sarasota County Coastal Resources Manager, told Siesta Sand.
The cost of the South Siesta Renourishment Project—which will buffer two miles of beach including Turtle Beach—has been rising, from $19.8 million just a year ago to a current price estimate of close to $22 million. That’s almost twice as much as initial project estimates of $11.5 million. The rising cost of mobilizing a giant ocean-going dredge vessel is a major contributor for the “skyrocketing” cost of beach nourishments, Wreford said.
But county officials say a $2.75 million state award approved by the legislature in June will provide the financial boost needed to move ahead with the South Siesta project.
For some time, it appeared that the project might not get any funding from the state. Back in April, at the Siesta Key Association meeting, where County Commissioner Hines was the guest speaker, the commissioner said this regarding Turtle Beach’s renourishment; “If we don’t get state money this year, Turtle Beach probably won’t happen.”
“We are happy about it,” Wreford said about the state award, “that it was more than zero.”
Following a tumultuous regular legislative session, state legislators wrapped up the budget session in June, in the process setting aside almost $8 million for beach renourishment efforts on Venice, Siesta Key, Longboat Key, and Anna Maria Island. But the award earmarked for South Siesta project—which, if completed, will widen the Turtle Beach public park and areas directly to the north and south—was of note. It was the largest state award for local beach projects.
The county, however, originally requested $7 million in state funding, and it is still seeking another $4.25 million from the state. “We will be back with a follow up request in the subsequent year or years,” Wreford said.
But Wreford said the $2.75 million-award is enough for the county to move ahead with the project’s January 2016 start date.
The coastal resources manager is hopeful that a request for follow-up funding is more likely to be fulfilled now that the state has made an initial investment in the project. That’s important because the closer the county gets to securing the $7-million amount, the less Tourist Development Tax dollars it will have to spend on the project. “The state funding [of $2.75 million] is certainly a significant help. If we failed to get any state funding, we would be able to do the project, but that would really cut into TDT funding,” Wreford said. “That would have limited the county’s ability to do more projects and additional South Siesta renourishments.”
In addition to the state money, funding options include options include: Tourist Development Tax, Municipal Services Benefit Unit (MSBU), and commercial borrow.
Another crucial element of the beach project is securing a federal permit—a process that was delayed in spring because of the potential presence of a recently-listed shorebird during its annual migration.
In March, county officials let residents know the scheduled start date for the project had been delayed, because of the potential presence of the Rufa Red Knot, a threatened species protected by the Endangered Species Act in 2014. The potential stopover of the Red Knot during migration delayed the permitting process, and since spring the county has been working to put specific safeguards in place to protect the Red Knot and Loggerhead sea turtles.
“The Red Knot is not very common in our area but it can potentially use our gulf shoreline during its trip,” Wreford said.
Similar beach renourishment projects elsewhere in Florida also faced temporary delays because of the federal permitting process.
“If a nesting pair [of Red Knots] were documented, there are things we have to do,” Wreford said. County officials are accustomed to looking out for threatened and endangered wildlife during coastal projects. “We are constantly vigilant and make sure the upmost safeguards are in place to not impact any listed species, from plovers to loggerhead turtles,” Wreford told Siesta Sand.
Since the Red Knot was recently listed as endangered, the county had to file paperwork with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The county hopes to receive a final federal permit no later than mid-August, which would allow for the January 2016 start date, with plenty of time for renourishment work prior to the start of sea turtle nesting season in May.
It also had to file new paperwork for its safeguards regarding the Loggerhead Sea Turtle because a former biological opinion had expired. “That was more of a technical delay,” Wreford said.
800,000 cubic yards of sand
The county will continue to push for additional state funding.
But for now county officials will continue to work towards the final federal permit and ready for the January 2016 start date.
The project will add 800,000 cubic yards of sand to two miles of beach. It will buffer the eroded shoreline that was initially nourished with a million cubic yards of sand in 2007.
During construction, sand will be harvested from a borrow area eight to ten miles offshore. The sand will be loaded into a hopper dredge that once full will navigate to an offloading point about a quarter-mile from the beach. “A pump will push the sand slurry from that point to a point on the beach, where bulldozers will shape the sand on the beach,” Wreford explained.