Longboat Manager tackles traffic, Covid, sewage leaks

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To the casual and uninformed eye, one might be prone to believe that the job of Town Manager on Longboat Key is a gentle coast into retirement. For Town Manager Tom Harmer, whose previous position was Sarasota County Administrator, the last few years have been trying to say the least.

Harmer inherited the undergrounding project, the largest Public Works undertaking the town has embarked upon. Add to that, in his first year the red tide bloom was one of the most odiferous in decades. Then, last year the agreement to build a Cultural Arts Center with the Ringling College on Town property unraveled.

Fast forward to 2020 and Harmer’s Brave New World includes an unprecedented Covid-19 outbreak and most recently a rupturing of the pipe that carries all of the sewage off of Longboat Key.

Harmer took time out of his busy schedule to talk about just a couple of current and ongoing issues.


Trafficking solutions

The Longboat Commission has made a centerpiece of its activity trying to forge a comprehensive transportation plan to address the gridlock that occurs during the busy season as well as to offset and influence some of the roadway projects underway in Sarasota.

Harmer said the Town is always wanting and taking the position of ensuring that traffic flows with the least impediment to and from the island. On St. Armands Circle, the Town has not favored the speed bumps that the City of Sarasota requested. Harmer said they were supposed to be part of a pilot program to be evaluated.

The City has stressed the importance of pedestrian safety and movement and that is why the speed bumps were implemented. Harmer would like to see the speed bumps removed as well as several of the parking spaces on the section of St. Armands Circle that exits toward Lido Beach. Longboat has argued that cars pulling into and backing out of the parking spaces create significant bottlenecks.

“Part of the argument is now the parking garage is open and that needs to be taken into consideration since there are far more spaces available,” said Harmer.


In a roundabout way…

When asked if the roundabout that was advocated by the City of Sarasota and is being built by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) at Gulfstream Avenue and US 41 is a done deal, Harmer said it is due to soon go to bid.

The Town has retained counsel, but at this time Harme says it is not litigating the issue. He did say that the window to litigate is before the project starts.

Longboat Key has long fought against the construction of the roundabout arguing that FDOT should further study the effectiveness of the additional third left turn lane that now moves traffic north toward Fruitville Road.

Harmer says the project is due to go to bid this month, but the Town was given a commitment that construction on the project would not begin until after the next busy season. Harmer said the Town was successful in advocating for construction scheduling as well as the use of additional lane designations to help offset the impact when the project is under construction.

Harmer said in these issues he feels the town is advocating for Longboat and Lido Key since both regions share the roadway to and from the barrier islands.


Flushing out the details

Harmer says that testing of the Bay waters by the Town’s environmental consultants following the sewage spill that occurred last June in West Bradenton have been encouraging. The Town is coordinating its testing with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and the readings show an acceptable level of e-coli. Additionally, the FDEP recently suggested that the volume of sewage spilled may be less than the original 28 million gallon estimate.

Harmer said at some point the Town will receive a Notice of Violation by the FDEP and some of the mangroves in the vicinity of the spill will likely have to be restored. The mangroves had to be cleared in order for the town’s emergency work crews to fix the ruptured pipe.

When asked if he felt there was any negligence on the part of the Town because the pipe was originally installed in the 1970s and was due to be replaced in 2016 until a consultant extended its useful service life, Harmer said he did not believe so.

The Town discovered the leak on June 29 in the subaqueous wastewater pipe that sends all of the island’s sewer effluent to the mainland for treatment.

The leak was repaired on June 30.

This is the same pipe that was assessed back in 2016/2017 and found to be in good condition with a recommendation to reassess every 4-5 years.

Even though the pipe was determined to be in good condition, the Town was in the process of planning for and permitting a redundant pipe when the leak occurred.

The Town did notify the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) the day the leak was discovered and continues to cooperate with them on any required corrective action.

The leak did not occur in the section of the pipe under the Bay. The leak occurred on undeveloped land on the mainland side about 350-450’ from the shoreline.

The water quality testing in the area around the pipeline and shoreline has been favorable.

A third-party firm has been engaged to do forensic work to update the estimate and to investigate the cause of the leak.

“The Town was proactive in its testing of the pipe and was told that it was still in useful condition. We immediately investigated the situation and have been monitoring ever since the spill occurred. We do want to understand better how and why this happened,” said Harmer.


Policing the future

One of the more important decisions Harmer will soon make is the selection of the island’s next Police Chief. Veteran Police Chief Pete Cumming is stepping down in October and Harmer posted the position less than a month ago, and has received more than 50 resumes.

“Chief Cumming has 40 years of law enforcement experience and I think he represented the Town very well. He looks like a Chief and he acts like a Chief,” said Harmer.

Harmer added that Longboat Key is a very desirable place to work and he does not feel he is under any significant time pressure to make the decision. He says that the department functions well and does not see any structural changes needed. He did add that it would be good to be able to announce the hiring of a new chief by Oct. 1.

In closing, Harmer said that despite the Covid-19 and other issues, Longboat Key has been blessed with no red tide recently and he noted that “the traffic has not been bad at all recently.”

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