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A $250 million plan to combat the effects of sea level rise is moving again in Key Biscayne after several Council members reversed course, abandoning opposition that had brought the project to a standstill since April. 

Critics had called into question the strategy of Manager Steve Williamson’s initiative, taking aim at critical components and even aspects of the science behind sea level rise.

But there was a decidedly different tune at Tuesday’s meeting.

Only Council Member Ed London – the resident budget hawk – was consistent when it came to opposing a $1.4 million work order for the engineering firm Black & Veatch that will serve as project manager. Nearly one-fourth of the money for this work order is coming through a grant. 

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The 6-1 vote – after much consternation in the last two Council meetings – was a victory for Williamson’s administration, which had been lobbying behind the scenes to let Black & Veatch finally start the process of integrating 100 or more projects needed to keep Nature at bay – instead of residents’ living rooms.

“We probably should have had these guys on board about a year ago,” Williamson said, saying that until now, the Village had been moving forward in what he said was a “disconnected” fashion without the central oversight and planning that is needed.

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 “Trying to build an airplane in flight,” he analogized. 

The vote follows through on the Council’s unanimous decision last year to hire Black and Veatch after a competitive bidding process. But until last night, the Council hadn’t released funds to actually start coordinating, planning and overseeing what is expected to to be a 15-year infrastructure project with a “dig once” strategy.

The set of projects will replace the island’s outdated stormwater system, burying utility lines, renourish the beach on the Atlantic side, while protecting the shoreline on the bay side. Some streets will be repitched or repaved to move water after a severe storm by no later than 24 hours.

Black & Veatch will manage the implementation of the program while another engineering firm – AECOM – will design it. 

In May, the Black & Veatch presentation surprisingly ground to halt amid criticism by Council members Brett Moss, Fernando Vazquez and Ed London. Moss and London had been part of the unanimous vote in July 2022 to hire the firm.

Both Moss and Vazquez talked about how the science wasn’t settled on sea-level rise at the June meeting. But the Council had already adopted NOAA’s “Intermediate High” sea level rise prediction, which forecasts up to 25 inches of sea level rise by 2050.

Vazquez, an engineer, said he wasn’t impressed by Black & Veatch’s presentation to the Council in May. London felt – and still does – that the managing of the project could be done by in-house staff.

In the meantime, Williamson and Roland Samimy – the chief resilience and sustainability officer –  went to work. They met with individual Council members – along with Black & Veatch – privately to explain exactly how the firm will manage the massive project. 

“To me, this is a no brainer,” Vazquez said before his “yes” vote. “We need to move forward with this. If we don’t move forward with this, we’re going to talk about it to death.”

Moss acknowledged he had been heavily critical of the work order “mostly because I didn’t understand it.”  Moss’ questioning of Williamson’s strategy was replaced with a statement that he had faith in the village manager. 

“I asked the question, what if we don’t do this,” Moss said. “And the answer was that we’re really not going to get anything done here. And it’s going to be very difficult. And we’re going to run into a lot of problems.”

Voters in 2020 gave the Council power to use general obligation bonds to borrow up to $100 million for resilience projects.

“It’s time to move forward. We’ve done great planning. It started with the bond,” said Council Member Oscar Sardiñas.

London, though, said he felt that the Village was going down a slippery slope with Black & Veatch – that this work order would lead to others that would lead to a black hole financially.

“So we’re signing a blank check in a sense,” he said, even though future work orders — like the one Tuesday — will periodically  come before  Council. 

The next step is an August workshop where AECOM will give more details on what the first phase of the project – the K-8 Basin south of the Community Center – will look like. 

Another reason stated for going with Black & Veatch is to free up staff to run the Village. Council member Allison McCormick said this means that residents’ concerns will be better addressed since staff isn’t splitting their focus.

“I think we’re saying to our residents, we’re now freeing up our staff,” she said.

JOHN PACENTI is the executive editor of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.

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JOHN PACENTI is the executive editor of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.