HERNANDO BEACH — When county commissioners asked about the long-delayed Hernando Beach dredge project on Tuesday, assistant county engineer Gregg Sutton said he was making progress.
What he didn't mention is that just last week workers with the state Department of Environmental Protection made a discovery on the site that has forced the county once again to change directions on the project.
And while Sutton was confident Wednesday that the new changes will hasten obtaining a permit and won't cost the county any more, state officials said the project may be pushed back even more.
On Feb. 27, state regulators visited the site where the county plans to create a salt marsh as mitigation for filling in nearby wetlands with materials that would be dredged up during the project.
They were surprised to find a bed of sea grass in a canal the county planned to fill in as part of the salt marsh plan. Sea grass is state protected, and DEP told the county that the mitigation plan is unacceptable.
That sent county officials back to the drawing boards for the umpteenth time.
Before work to deepen, straighten and lengthen the dangerous channel can begin, the state must sign off on the county's plans to dump the sand, silt and shells dredged from the channel.
The county intends to put it on the nearby waterfront property of the prominent Manuel family on Eagle Nest Drive. The tons of material are to be dumped on the upland portion of the property, as well as on less than a half-acre of wetlands.
But after this new glitch, county officials have decided that instead of permanently filling the wetlands on the Manuel site, they will place some spoils there temporarily. After the dredging is done, they will remove the spoils and restore the wetlands, Sutton said, saving the county the cost of mitigation.
"From an environmental perspective, it's much more attractive and palatable,'' Sutton said.
He deflected questions about how the county could have been unaware of the sea grass, saying the old plan is moot now that a new proposal will be before the DEP. State officials said late Wednesday the paperwork has not arrived but did say that Sutton has notified the agency of the change in plan.
The DEP will respond by asking for more information, according to agency spokeswoman Pamala Vazquez.
While Sutton said no mitigation is needed if the filling of wetlands is temporary, Vazquez said DEP officials "don't necessarily agree on that.'' If mitigation is needed, that could drive up the cost of the project.
Sutton's optimism about the project is evident from the e-mail he sent to DEP officials last week. He notes that the change should allay the fears of the agency and the residents.
He goes so far as to ask the DEP to skip the formal process of issuing a notice of intent to issue the permit and to simply issue the permit.
The notice of intent step is important because it gives people 21 days to file objections to the DEP's intention to issue a permit. Homeowners near the Manuel site have signed petitions and announced plans to protest any permit.
In December, when the county pursued a different site to place the spoils, DEP official Albert A. Gagne Jr. warned Sutton that if the county insisted on using the Manuel site, there would be opponents.
"If you wish to keep the Manuel site, you will still have the objectors and the potential to have a petition filed on the permit which will just add a lot more time to the process,'' Gagne wrote in a Dec. 10 e-mail.
By Dec. 18, the county returned to seeking a permit for the Manuel site.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.