The Port St. Joe Port Authority last week approved the first baby steps in the lengthy process of achieving dredging of the deepwater shipping channel.

The Port St. Joe Port Authority last week approved the first baby steps in the lengthy process of achieving dredging of the deepwater shipping channel.

Port director Tommy Pitts said he and staff from state agencies had identified several hoops the Port Authority should leap through in the near future as a timeline and process for securing dredging becomes clearer.

“We have been working with the (Florida Department of Environmental Protection), the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) and others on the dredging,” Pitts said. “The DEP has been proactive in cooperating with us and is assisting us.”

Pitts said two urgent steps forward are a permit pre-application meeting with the stakeholding regulatory agencies and a seagrass survey of the channel and adjacent areas.

The pre-application meeting, tentatively planned for two weeks from now, would be to clearly define requirements for the dredge permit application.

Once requirements are defined, a contract for the permitting work can be negotiated, Pitts said.

“A lot of work goes into meeting with the agencies,” said Billy Perry with Hatch Mott MacDonald, the port’s engineering firm whose team is serving as point on the permitting effort. “What we hope to take away is identification of any specialized studies the agencies want.”

The goal, Perry said, would be to submit an application that is complete and does not require the agencies to come back with a request for additional information.

“Hatch Mott MacDonald worked on the permit for the canal dredging and got no (Requests for Additional Information), which caught the attention of the Florida Ports Council,” Pitts said, adding Ports Council staff was impressed with the quick permitting.

Receiving any RAIs, Perry said, is what would bog down the process, and the Port of Port St. Joe is attempting to permit and fund dredging within the next 18-24 months.

“This is a pretty significant endeavor,” Perry said. “It is a very aggressive (timeline). We want to be able to vet out issues and refine the scope (quickly).”

The urgency on the seagress study is that such studies must be completed between March and September and reviewed by a National Marine Fisheries Service field survey in September.

If the port misses that window a seagrass survey and in turn approval from the National Marine Fisheries Service could not be completed until 2014.

“If you miss those windows it pushes you a year off,” Perry said.

To move ahead with the pre-application meeting and seagrass survey, however, another agreement must be forthcoming; this from the St. Joe Company in the form of a pledge to pay the 25 percent for funding the permitting process, Pitts said.

St. Joe has indicated a willingness to handle that expense, which is estimated to run about $250,000, but establishing a process for the money transfers – the state would reimburse the Port Authority which would reimburse St. Joe for funds paid out on the front end – has taken time.

“Before we can move ahead with tasks we must have an agreement with St. Joe on cash up front,” Pitts said. “There is confidence everything is going to move forward.”

Port attorney Tom Gibson is to have an agreement with St. Joe in front of port commissioners for approval by the Sept. 11 bi-monthly meeting.

Hatch Mott MacDonald has agreed to move ahead with its tasks while the payment process is worked out, Perry said, adding that the company, which has long worked with the port, believes in the project and the positive change in dynamics for development since the Port Authority and St. Joe partnered last year.

The seagrass survey will cost $36,100 and the pre-application meeting will cost $50,000, which includes preparation of documents demonstrating the economic need for the project, documentation on channel location and depth, schematics and other materials.

“This is an extremely important part of the project and it will have a great deal of impact on whether you have success or you don’t have success,” Perry said.

“We won’t feel it will be successful unless this is permitted and we have ship traffic through the port.”

Foreclosure hearing

The issues pertaining to the foreclosure proceeding against the Port Authority pertaining to the barge terminal land along the Intracoastal Canal was heard last week by a Circuit Court judge.

Capital City Bank is attempting to foreclose on a $4.2 million mortgage on the 67-acre parcel.

The Port Authority is arguing that it lacked the authority to mortgage public land in the first place without a public referendum.

The judge will issue a ruling at a later date.

Capital City Bank officials turned down a late offer from the Port Authority, port attorney Tom Gibson said.

The port had offered to reinstate a full pledge to pay the outstanding loan – port commissioners have repeatedly voice their intent to fully pay the debt – in return for a promise from Capital City Bank to stop foreclosure and allow the port time to bring tenants and revenue.