Dredging Up the Past…

| July 1, 2016

$425,000 later, residents along lower Matheny Creek schooled on intricacies of dredging process

By Robert Frederickson

Matheny Creek

Matheny Creek

Recent efforts by a group of Coral Cove and Buccaneer Bay homeowners to enlist county and regional support in reducing shoaling and sediment build up in lower Matheny Creek illustrate just how much has changed over the years when it comes to any sort of project impacting the coast.

Back in the late 1950s when the first lots were platted in the Coral Cove area, it didn’t take much effort for developers to literally reshape the lay of the land. In 1957, Matheny Creek was dredged to a depth of almost four feet near the bay, allowing navigable boat access to open water for new homeowners buying some of the recently developed lots adjacent to the creek along Upper Cove Terrace, Buccaneer Terrace, Buccaneer Lane, Captain Kidd Avenue, Captain Kidd Circle and Periwinkle Lane. 

The spoil from that dredging was actually used to add even more land to what is now the western end of Caribbean Drive, roughly doubling the land area at the end of the peninsula that juts out from the mainland across from Point Crisp Road on Siesta. The result? A dozen or so more lots for sale. Easy cash for those looking to meet the growing demand for waterfront lots in the early post war boom years.

Mangroves? Collateral damage back in those days. In fact ‘Mangrove Island’ was the name attached to the spit of land at the end of Caribbean Drive as seen on maps of the area dating back to the late 1940s and early ‘50s.

Not long after development began near Coral Cove, up the coast a bit near downtown Sarasota, Marie Selby planted a stand of bamboo trees that remains to this day. Now part of Selby Gardens the bamboo planting was originally an effort to block the view of workers filling in Sarasota Bay to enlarge Bird Key. That project – undertaken by what was then a small real estate development company named Arvida – infuriated Selby to the point where she just couldn’t stand to watch it proceed. Arvida went on to develop much of Longboat Key and other coastal areas of Florida, including portions of coastal Palm Beach and Broward counties. The Boca Raton Hotel and Club was one of the company’s many signature projects.

And then there are all the canals crisscrossing Siesta Key and those in the Country Club Shores neighborhood of Southern Longboat.

The first canal on Siesta Key was dredged by the namesake of Higel Avenue, Henry Higel shortly after 1912 when he and Captain Louis Roberts formed the Siesta Land Company and began developing the area around Hansen Bayou.

Later, around 1945, work began on what is now the 10-mile network of canals known as the Grand Canal. The first section completed in the late 1940s connected the heart shaped Palm Island area with Roberts Bay. The rest of the Grand Canal was finished in the late 1950s, around the same time neighborhoods like Coral Cove were taking shape on the mainland. It’s no exaggeration to say that without the dredging of canals on Siesta, the key would be a vastly different place than it is today.

But just try getting a permit for projects like the excavation of the Grand Canal or the dredging of Matheny Creek today.

Residents spend $425,000 to have creek dredged

Starting a little more than a decade ago, residents of Coral Cove and Buccaneer Bay learned just how much things have changed. And today they are getting a refresher course.

Their efforts began back in 2004 in response to shoaling from the west along the bay and sediment washing down from upland areas along Matheny Creek; the combined effect was that it was becoming increasingly difficult to maneuver a boat through the waterway. 

Jim Kenley has lived on Captain Kidd Avenue since 1997. In a recent interview he told Siesta Sand “You could barely get a boat in or out back then it had gotten so bad, especially in the winter months…even with a small boat like I have.”

He explained that one of his neighbors off Buccaneer Lane finally sold his boat in frustration, citing the increasing futility of reaching the bay, despite it being just a hundred or so yards away.

As a result, Kenley and a group of nearby residents embarked on a different type of navigational odyssey: charting a course to remove the accumulated sediment and return the main channel through the mouth of the creek to the depth that was in place when the waterway was first dredged back in 1957.

It would not be an easy or short journey, or as they would discover, one with a definitive end point. 

It began with a call to the county and a formal request for assistance.

But the first shoal blocking their progress came when the county informed the group that it doesn’t have direct responsibility for maintaining Matheny Creek downstream from US 41; that jurisdiction only extends upstream from 41 to the headwaters of the creek near the Gulf Gate Golf Course (itself in the news of late with plans for it to be developed into a new gated community with a higher density than that of surrounding neighborhoods, a plan that has prompted concerns from nearby residents about the potential for increased flooding within the Matheny Creek basin and more sediment washing downstream).

The lower portion of the creek is apparently regulated to varying degrees by an assortment of Federal, state and regional authorities including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Florida Inland Navigation District and Federal Intracoastal Waterway Authority; grants for projects in the public interest are provided in some cases by the West Coast Inland Navigation District (WCIND).

The qualifier ‘apparently’ is added above, because despite calls to various agencies, no definitive answer has been offered as to what agency has final responsibility for maintaining waterways or bayous like lower Matheny Creek.

Matheny Creek threeThe county did offer the Coral Cove/Buccaneer Bay group assistance through its Navigable Waterways Program however, according to County Project Manager Paul Semenec.

The program “conducts maintenance dredging of coastal streams and navigable canals,” according to the county. “The goal of this program is to improve navigation and boater safety, and provide environmental enhancements and channel realignment.”

But because the lower portion of the creek is not directly part of the county’s storm water system (though it is fed by the upper portion of the same creek that is part of that system), funding for any work would fall to the residents petitioning for the dredging of the lower creek.

Before work could get started, the county required a feasibility study to determine the pros and cons associated with the project.

Such a study for Matheny Creek was completed in 2004 by Post, Buckley, Schuh and Jernigan (PBS&J), a local engineering consulting firm retained by the county. That study’s executive summary included the following: “Residents in the area of Matheny Creek, representing waterfront property owners, requested the County initiate this investigation through the Waterways Maintenance Management Program (WMMP). Recent shoaling and increased use of the waterway for boating has made it necessary to perform maintenance dredging to ensure proper navigation. The Creek also serves an important role for conveyance of storm water in the area.”

The report went on to document the creek’s current and known historical water depth data dating back to the original dredging of the waterway in 1957; it also noted the more recent filling in of the channel with sediment both from the bay and from upstream areas of the creek bisecting the Gulf Gate area.

The initial estimated cost to dredge the lower creek? $353,900 for design and construction, according to the report.

According to Semenec, as a condition of the WMMP, two/thirds of the waterfront homeowners would have to agree to pick up the tab for the project in order to move forward, followed by approval of the county commission and the creation of a Municipal Services Taxing Unit (MSTU) that would levy the special assessment on the 55 participating taxpayers, a levy of just over $6,300 per home based on the original estimate.

Despite the cost, the two-thirds threshold was met, county approval granted and the MSTU established. And in 2007, three years after their efforts had begun, dredging to restore year round navigable access to the area got underway. But as is often the case with projects such as this, the final tally ballooned from the original estimate of $354,000 to over $425,000, or around $7,600 per homeowner, an assessment still showing up on annual tax bills for those who elected to pay the assessment over ten years.

Nonetheless, when completed residents were once again able to motor to the bay at their convenience without having to be overly concerned with the time of day or seasonal influences of the weather. That neighbor of Kenley who had sold his boat even went out and bought a new one. So all’s well that ends well, right? Money well spent?

Not quite. Now, less than nine years later that attitude has shifted like the tides. The reason? Today the creek is almost back to where it was before the 2007 dredging project began, much to the dismay of the homeowners who had footed the bill for what they assumed would be something more than a temporary fix.

While the county is sympathetic to those concerns, they point out that there was no guarantee made back in 2007 as to how long the depth would remain at consistently navigable levels.

Here they go again…

At a meeting with the homeowners at the Gulf Gate Library last month, representatives of the county’s storm water management department outlined steps under consideration to minimize the amount of sediment from upstream (where the county does have jurisdiction) that gets washed downstream to the impacted lower area outside the county system. With some estimates pointing to upwards of 60-65% of the downstream sediment coming from the upper portions of the creek, many in the audience clearly felt the county should shoulder a greater burden in keeping the lower creek open.

According to a presentation given by Sarasota County Storm Water Engineering & Operations Manager Ben Quartermaine at the recent meeting, there may be a least some positive movement in that direction. He outlined plans to increase street cleaning in the upstream areas to reduce the amount of soil and gravel washing into the creek. There was also a discussion of floatable net like devices suspended on the top of the water with buoys to catch debris, thus preventing such material from making its way over weirs upstream and being deposited along lower portions of the creek.

But as for more dredging work on the lower creek similar to the 2007 project? The homeowners are understandably gun shy about absorbing the cost of a second dredging project, especially with some still paying for the first.

“If we knew back then what we know now, I don’t think we would have gotten the support we did for the project,” said Kenley, adding it was a lot of money spent by homeowners for what amounted to a short-term fix. Add to that the higher participation threshold required today for any similar project. Project Manager Semenec notes 80 percent of the residents involved would have to agree according to new rules now in place

But ‘hope floats,’ as the saying goes. A meeting the homeowners have scheduled with the county and the WCIND for late June might just clarify who has jurisdiction over the lower reaches of Matheny Creek and what can be done to keep it navigable moving forward.

As for the issue of which governmental body is ultimately responsible for dealing with resident questions concerning keeping lower Matheny Creek open to recreational boating interests, one might be tempted to speculate that if a massive sewage flow or other contaminant spill was flowing downstream from an inland Sarasota County source, any similar questions of jurisdiction and responsibility would likely get sorted out fairly quickly…maybe even before breakfast.

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