Posted on December 18, 2023
A new $15 million state grant will help Pinellas County officials pay for an ongoing $37 million emergency dune restoration project.
However, some coastal communities refuse to sign temporary construction easement documents, placing adjacent public infrastructure and cooperating neighbors in peril.
County Commissioners unanimously approved the Florida Department of Environmental Protection grant agreement Dec. 12. They also voted, without comment, to transfer $16 million in tourist development tax reserves to the capital project fund for the Post-Idalia Emergency Shore Stabilization project.
At a Dec. 7 work session, County Administrator Barry Burton again credited the public works and purchasing departments for “making things happen overnight.” He also noted dangerous gaps between the ongoing and completed projects.
“There’s areas we do not have dunes because we don’t have easements,” Burton said. “The reality is water goes around it – it doesn’t care. If you have a gap, it … travels the path of least resistance, down the road.”
Hurricane Idalia’s storm surge washed massive amounts of beach sand into adjacent roadways. Photos: Pinellas County Government.
In August, Hurricane Idalia’s storm surge decimated protective dunes and washed away vital shorelines. The public works department implemented an emergency plan in less than a week.
Commissioners allocated $9 million in initial project funding in September. Total estimated costs have since soared from $21 million to $37 million.
Pinellas officials considered 21 of the county’s 35 miles of beaches critically eroded before Idalia. An impasse with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and property owners exacerbated the problem.
The agency now requires public easements before it approves and helps fund expensive projects. Many residents have refused due to language falsely suggesting they would permanently relinquish property rights.
Views over safety
However, public works director Kelli Levy noted emergency restoration efforts only require temporary construction easements. She said many home and business owners do not want the dunes blocking their views.
“What we have out there today, what we’ve built, is all they’re going to have between them and the Gulf of Mexico for the next two hurricane seasons,” Levy said. “And at least two winters. That’s it.”
County workers and contractors have rebuilt dunes in Treasure Island and Pass-a-Grille. The Madeira Beach project is close to completion, and restoration efforts will soon begin in Indian Shores.
Levy said the Indian Shores project is the most extensive, and federal funding stipulations will add to its scope and timeline. Residents and businesses in Redington Beach, North Redington Beach and Redington Shores will not receive any new natural barriers, which are also critical marine life habitats.
An overhead view of newly created dunes and freshly planted vegetation in Sunset Beach. Photo: Pinellas County Government.
Levy explained that healthy beaches are about five feet above sea level, and the “flat part people are walking on today is at one foot.” She said shorelines also lost hundreds of feet in width, causing the dunes to now look ill-proportioned.
“The fact is, we can’t get construction easements to protect their property … because they don’t want to block their view,” Burton said. “That’s a problem. It just is.”
Commissioner Dave Eggers said he understood concerns surrounding the Army Corps “permanent” easements. However, he noted temporary local emergency efforts are critical to protecting surrounding public infrastructure.
Chair Janet Long said county officials should adopt a clear policy stating they would not assist people “willing to let neighbors suffer from their selfishness” after a major storm. Burton reiterated that would not mitigate impacts to cooperative residents.
Incoming Chair Kathleen Peters asked if an Emergency Executive Order could force owners to allow construction. Burton said that would require “taking the property … and it would be very litigious.”
Levy noted that U.S. Sen. Rick Scott is working with Army Corps leadership to overcome the bureaucratic stalemate. She said discussions with county counterparts in the Carolinas are ongoing, as the issue extends up the East Coast.
“There are absolutely middle grounds … to find solutions that comply with the law,” Levy added. “Without giving up on the actual course mission.”