Posted on July 31, 2023
City commissioners were surprised and confounded to learn the Army Corps of Engineers’ Jacksonville District told Pinellas County that none of its beach renourishment projects are moving forward, even though they were ready to go out to bid, because some beachfront property owners refuse to grant the federal government perpetual public access easements to come onto their sand.
After working for years with county Public Works to come to a compromise, federal officials decided to play hardball and tell Pinellas officials to either obtain the easements or the project is not moving forward.
This has left county officials to consider a worst-case scenario of going it alone and finding a way to fund expensive beach renourishment projects.
Traditionally, federal funds have covered about two-thirds of the cost of what is estimated to be a nearly $80 million overall project. The state and Pinellas County covered the rest.
“As you probably heard over the last few years, we have had challenges with the Sand Key nourishment project, which runs from Clearwater south to North Redington Beach, related to perpetual public access easements required for federal funding to support nourishment,” Pinellas Public Works Director Kelli Hammer Levy told city commissioners at a July 25 meeting.
She said that there are 27 different projects in the works across the state, and 10 counties are in the same boat as Pinellas — having projects without the public access easements, “which means their projects will not be going forward.”
Hammer Levy said the Corps also took another look at Treasure Island, Upham and Pass-a-Grille beaches. “They completed their review and called us yesterday (July 24) to tell us that none of these projects are moving forward, because we do not have the necessary perpetual public access easements in place.”
Property owners may object to signing a perpetual easement because they interpret it to protect public use such as recreation on the beach as well as construction on the beach.
“Pretty much where we are right now is none of our beach renourishment projects are moving forward with the Army Corps,” Hammer Levy said.
Noting that she has personally been working on this project since 2017, she told commissioners, “As you can imagine, this is incredibly disappointing and frustrating. … To go from having such a collaborative and participative relationship with the Corps to having essentially a stalemate here is very discouraging.”
Hammer Levy said when city officials spoke with the Corps last week, “they thought there was a path forward for St. Pete Beach.” That plan would be to decouple Treasure Island and St. Pete Beach into two different projects, because the easement issues in Treasure Island “are much more complicated than St. Pete Beach.”
The Corps “thought we had a path forward. … Unfortunately, yesterday we were told otherwise,” she said.
Pinellas County will coordinate with the other 10 affected Florida counties in a united effort to reach out to the federal government and the Army Corps through many channels, she said. “We are in a more dire state, we have beaches that are substantially eroded and need nourishment now. We need to find a path forward now.”
In a worst-case scenario of the county renourishing the beaches on its own, Pinellas does not have the funds to sustain such a project, Hammer Levy said. County Tourist Development Tax money goes to Pinellas’ portion of renourishment pot. The county currently has $36 million set aside for beach renourishment.
“We’re talking about $80 million worth of projects that need to be done. … The current allocation could not sustain something like that,” she said.
County and city officials are moving forward with the design of a county-driven project. That could take to 2025, but officials may have to undertake emergency renourishment at Pass-a-Grille and Sunset Beach, which would require trucking in material as an interim measure due to the extent of the erosion.