NORTH NAPLES — Paperwork could be filed by week's end to get a fast-track environmental permit to dredge a closed North Naples inlet following a vote Tuesday by Collier County commissioners.
Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the design plans for the dredging project at Clam Pass amid controversy over the amount of dredging at the pass, which has been at the center of a neighborhood turf war over navigation.
Sand has pinched off Clam Pass since late December, raising concerns that a lack of flushing into the back bays could harm the sensitive ecosystem that borders the neighborhoods of Pelican Bay, Seagate and Naples Cay. Neighbors have reported a foul smell, dead fish and dead birds.
Commissioners have declared an emergency at the pass, and a volunteer brigade of frustrated tourists and locals has been using shovels to try to reopen the inlet. It is unclear how quickly the permit could be issued, but planners want the work to be done by May 1, when sea turtle nesting season begins.
"Time is of the essence," Pelican Bay resident Diane Lustig told commissioners, urging them to approve the design plans presented to them Tuesday.
The plans call for a dredge cut at the inlet opening that would be 45 feet wide at the bottom, 55 feet wide at the surface at high tide and five feet deep at low tide. Some critics had pushed for a 30-foot-wide cut.
Dredging also would continue farther inside the pass, either with a hoe that would be driven onto the beach or with a dredge that would be floated into the pass on a barge.
The dredging plans have "widespread support" but "there does continue to be some opposition" to them, said Neil Dorrill, director of the Pelican Bay Services Division, an arm of county government that is seeking the dredging permit.
Critics of the plans say they come too close to the edge of a mangrove forest in Clam Bay and also risk damaging an emergent sea grass bed in the pass.
Conservancy of Southwest Florida biologist Kathy Worley told commissioners that the larger dredge area might be better for moving water through the pass but that doesn't mean it's best for the environment.
"You have to have a little balance in there," she said.
She said the proposed dredging could raise red flags that would delay the permit's issuance, much as the county's attempts to get a longer-term dredging permit have bogged down from opposition.
The project needs a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The state Department of Environmental Protection had issued a permit for a different version of the dredging, but now that permit must be revised.
The dredging could keep Clam Pass open for as long as two years, time that the Pelican Bay Services Division will spend writing a new management plan for Clam Pass with input from a variety of stakeholders.
Monitoring data during the past 10 years has shown that the optimal width for the dredge cut would be between 40 and 50 feet to help the pass keep itself open, engineering consultant Ken Humiston said.
He had proposed a 60-foot-wide dredge cut, building in what he called a "safety factor" to allow for sand to fill back into the pass from the steep beach that would be left on either side after the dredging.
Humiston said he's now proposing the 45-foot-wide dredge cut along with work to level out the beach on either side to lessen erosion back into the pass. He said the smaller cut wasn't a bow to political pressure from critics in Pelican Bay.
"We have not compromised what we think needs to be done from a technical standpoint," Humiston said.
Sand from the dredging would be put on the beach at the county's Clam Pass Park and would be used to repair erosion on Pelican Bay's beach, which was damaged when the pass swung northward last year as it began to close.
While there is no land-based public access to Pelican Bay's beach, plans show the sand would rebuild part of the beach that state law says is public because it is seaward of the high water line. State law also requires that sand from the pass be used to repair the erosion, Humiston said.
The project cost hasn't been estimated yet. Questions remained unresolved Tuesday about whether the project would qualify for tourist tax money or whether the money would have to come from the county's taxpayer-supported general fund.