By Rachel Brown Hackney
Midnight Pass flooding was in the proverbial spotlight on Sept. 26, as the Sarasota County commissioners debated the hiring of consultants to assist with stormwater projects. As discussion ensued, it finally became clear that county staff feels the use of eminent domain in obtaining land for a Siesta project ultimately may be necessary.
The agenda item called for the County Commission to review the proposed ranking of projects for which the county will seek funding from the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD).
In reading through the list staff had provided to the board, Chair Paul Caragiulo noted the Midnight Pass Road item and asked, “This is a study to do a project, right?”
Ben Quartermaine, interim stormwater utility manager for the county, responded that the item proposed for ranking as No. 4 out of seven on the county list does not include the construction phase. The total expense would be $300,000, the list said, with the funding split 50/50 between the county and SWFWMD — if the board of the water management district agrees to the grant.
“I know we have tried mightily several times to fix a lot of [the problems on Midnight Pass Road],” Commissioner Alan Maio said, “and we’ve been somewhat successful.” However, the average “layman out there [on Siesta Key],” Maio continued, does not understand the complexity of the potential solutions. “People say, ‘Pipe the water to the [Gulf].’ It’s just not that easy. The water has to be contained, attenuated, treated. It’s just not that easy,” Maio stressed.
Part of the difficulty in dealing with the Midnight Pass Road issues, Quartermaine responded, “is that we are going to have to condemn … to acquire property.” Therefore, part of the study for which staff has proposed seeking SWFMD funding assistance would help identify the most appropriate solution. “So when we do have to go in front of a judge and condemn, we have the backup to say, ‘This is the most cost-effective project,’” Quartermaine added.
“I’ve looked at the area ad nauseam,” Quartermaine continued. “There’s just no route from Midnight Pass to the bay or to the Heron’s Lagoon without acquiring some property.” (Heron Lagoon is an enclosed body of water south of Point of Rocks.)
Flashing a bit of his well-known sense of humor, Maio told Quartermaine, “What you’ve achieved there is a massive shift.”
Earlier, Caragiulo had talked of the increasing numbers of emails he has received from constituents about flooding issues since he has been on the board. Maio was referring to the fact that the Midnight Pass Road discussion was going to lead to many people contacting him instead of Caragiulo, as Maio represents Siesta Key as part of his District 4 territory.
As explained in the detailed project information in the SWFWMD grant application, the Midnight Pass Road project “will develop a stormwater management plan to address the coastal, barrier island flooding on Midnight Pass Road and meet the adopted flood protection level of service for the evacuation route.” Midnight Pass Road from the Stickney Point Road bridge to the road’s southern terminus — a distance of approximately 3 miles — was designed as an evacuation route, the application adds, but the road has been reconstructed over the past 80-plus years without a “cohesive, engineered stormwater management system” that can handle the drainage from adjacent lands.
“Redevelopment over the past 20 years,” the report continues, has increased the stormwater runoff volume directed to and stored in the Midnight Pass Road right of way “to the extent that the roadway is not passable during [the] more frequent rainfall events.”
The application points out that the county’s flood protection level of service for evacuation routes calls for no water to stand on a roadway during a 24-hour rainfall event that produces a level of flooding expected once every 100 years.
The project staff envisions for the road will evaluate alternatives such as pumping stations; easement acquisitions, so construction could be undertaken over land; “potential land acquisitions for stormwater runoff storage with potential reuse opportunities; potential land acquisitions for stormwater treatment; modification to the existing Midnight Pass Road right-of-way for [a] stormwater management system”; and horizontal and vertical alignment changes to the road.