A blog dealing with Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota.

Friday, April 4, 2008

If I were a Commissioner #2: Dredging Big Pass Shoals

The April first edition of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune featured a front page story about six possible strategies for dealing with the incredible accumulation of sand found in what is called the Big Pass shoal south of Lido Key. According to the article, “After four years of study, coastal engineers hired by the county say sand can be mined from one of the coast's biggest shoals without causing Siesta Key homes to slip into the sea or eroding any sand from nearby public beaches.

Pardon my paraphrasing, but the article goes on to say that the County will spend another $200,000 to get three second opinions and seems to suggest that the focus will be on providing reassurance that removing sand from the shoal (for some combination of beach nourishment and channel improvement) will not be likely to have a negative impact on Siesta Key, either by increasing erosion along the pass or somehow affecting the flow of sand to the Key’s beaches.

I like the “first, do no harm” aspect of the county’s approach and therefore support securing those second opinions. But I’m left wondering if there isn’t another side to the equation.

We can compute with some accuracy the value of the sand that might be used to nourish beaches and the savings that might accrue by finding it nearby rather than offshore. And some economist could no doubt take a stab at the value of getting boats in and out of Big Pass more reliably.

But who has been charged with calculating either the present or future value of the shoal as it is or may be in the future? What are those values?

The most obvious one probably will be taken into account and that is how the shoals function to dissipate wave energy. If the shoal didn’t exist the Siesta Key shoreline along Big Pass would be subjected to the full force of the Gulf’s waves. They’ll no doubt look into any potential reduction in that role.

And they will probably consider the potential for the void created by sand removal to intercept sand that might be moving southward – the risk that taking sand ‘upstream’ might starve, or at least reduce the amount of sand ‘downstream’.

But what about Sand Dollar Island – the somewhat ethereal, shape-shifting, seldom-mapped islet that has functioned as both bird hangout and boater destination? Boaters know that the shoal frequently sports supra-tidal sand. And even the sub-tidal portions of the pass area are noted boater destinations as described on the
Sarasota Coastal Watch website.

The value of Sand Dollar Island today is questionable – it probably couldn’t compare with the value of sand that is there more or less for the taking. But might it be worth asking: “Is that it? A tiny, sometimes sandbar? Or might the deck get reshuffled into a winning hand?”

The amount of sand tied up in the shoal south of South Lido is enormous. In fact, that long tongue of sand is actually the submerged portion of South Lido. Without it not only would Siesta’s Big Pass shoreline be under more direct attack, but South Lido as we know it would disappear. For this reason I'm more inclined to the think of the shoal as the southern submerged portion of South Lido.

Put another way, beaches are like icebergs; the emergent part that we notice is supported by a far larger mass upon which it is based. The above-tide sand evident on Sand Dollar Island is a truly miniscule fraction of the sand below the tides. Could some set of storm conditions result in more of the shoal becoming above tide? I don’t know, I’m not a coastal geomorphologist. But I do know comparable events have happened elsewhere with striking results.

Wild and popular Lover’s Key in the Fort Myers Beach area formed
in front of Black Island and Long Key, and the most impressive example locally is probably Johnson Shoals off Cayo Costa. Before that emergent shoal welded onto Cayo Costa it was a boater magnet and important bird habitat as well. Could something remotely comparable emerge on our shoal?  :::shrugs shoulders::: Who knows? But if it ever did the value to local boaters (and birds) would be enormous.

There is probably little percentage in waiting around wondering if some combination of events could lead to a more permanent or more extensive island or islands in Big Pass. 

But before this or future County Commissions vote on any action to deliberately change the shoal it might be prudent to not only consider avoiding future negative impacts to Siesta Key, but also to consider the positive existing (and potential?) values that may be ascribed to both the submerged and emergent shoal.

Our county's past is strewn with projects that seemed like a good idea at the time and now, in retrospect, we're left wondering how our predecessors could have been so reckless. We blithely flattened Indian Mounds for road base, diverted and straightened Cowpen Slough, connected the Myakka River to Robert's Bay and removed unique geologic formations and archaeological treasures from Warm Mineral Springs. Some of these hindsight-inspired errors are irreversible, others are now demanding large sums of money to partially rectify. There is no small measure of humbling irony in the fact that many of today's problems were yesterday's solutions.

Past decisions made about how our coastal areas should be managed and developed are beginning to vex us and in an era of shrinking dollars and expanding expectations we need to be looking for solutions that 'run downhill' -- approaches working in concert with natural systems instead of, as they say, 'bucking the tide'.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Five things to Improve Downtown Sarasota

Joe Moraca asked for five things we'd like to see happen downtown.  I'm posting mine here:

1) Water taxi to South Lido so people who live downtown could get to the beach without either a car or a bike ride.

2) A regularly updated (tabloid format?) downtown map that used color coding to identify most of the major retail themes, which I would list as Restaurants, Galleries, Antique/Resale, Bookstores. This would be sponsored by advertisers and help downtown retail business.

3) A more flexible Saturday Farmer's Market format that would let four people share one space so that each was only there one weekend a month

4) Greening of walls with creeping fig (Ficus pumila). See Bay Plaza, the west wall of Sarasota News and Books and a previous blog of mine from January 7th. 

5) Inexorable, but not necessarily immediate, conversion of most non-retail ground floor space on Main Street to retail. 

Oh, and 6) general recanting of the decision to banish the Rosemary Community Garden. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Times Obit Triggers High School Memories of the Cambodian Invasion

Attempts by candidates to link present virtues to early indications sometimes fall flat and I like to think I've changed a lot since I was a teenager. But an obituary in the New York Times today connected me to a man I had forgotten and also to an early action of mine that, it could be argued, presaged some of my present style . 

The man was Robert Goheen and he was the President of Princeton from 1957 until 1972. I called him as an eighteen year old high school student to solicit his help. Actually, prep school student would be more accurate.

I grew up in suburban New Jersey and nothing about my family approached being wealthy. If there was any inherited money it wasn't evident to me and my father commuted to New York City to work as traffic manager for a steamship line. Our garage had a dirt floor, we had a one-bathroom house (on  the second floor) and our garden and chickens were both indulgences and a lingering habits from my parent's Great Depression experiences. 

But I was an only child and not doing well in school. School officials thought I 'tested well' but my grades usually didn't reflect my potential so my parents tried a private day school and, when that didn't work, a boarding school in Princeton, the Hun School. I repeated my junior year of high school there, and by senior year I had been elected to the student council.

Somewhere in the spring of 1970, the American public found out about the invasion of Cambodia and many colleges and some high schools were shut down by student protests and strikes. The Hun student leadership decided to stage a teach-in rather than a protest. I'm not claiming it was my idea, but it might have been and I supported it. It fell to me to call President Goheen to ask his assistance. It was with some trepidation that I called, but I made the call anyway and found President Goheen to be gracious and helpful. I believe he actually spoke at our teach-in, but that may be wishful memory. 

The NYT obit says of Goheen: "He weathered the protests, the rebellion, and the confusion that swept higher education in the 1960's, using humor and urging civilized debate. He had little use for angry protest, even when he agreed with the protesters, as he ultimately did with critics of the Vietnam War."

Although popular sentiment on the Princeton campus was opposed to the invasion, we found an articulate, confident, conservative student willing to come speak in support of the conduct of the war and, as I recall, mounted a balanced assembly that was an alternative to classes for one day. 

So is my flashback significant? What character traits do I chose to extract? Trepidation and not living up to potential? No. Hey, this is a campaign. 

I prefer to emphasize the reaching out to others not like myself, and the quest for balance, education and civilized debate. Oh, and using humor to defuse tension. And, in retrospect, I appreciate my brief, tangential interaction with one of Princeton's great President's who chose to listen to me and, in doing so, taught me one great life lesson, which is usually formulated as something like "the worst he can do is say 'no'". Fortunately for me, President Goheen said 'yes'.