Posted on July 17, 2023
CLEARWATER — Pinellas County and the Army Corps of Engineers remain locked in a years-long battle over the restoration of the county’s badly eroded beaches.
During a County Commission work session Thursday, commissioners repeatedly alluded to one project that could be a casualty of the conflict: the effort to build a new professional baseball stadium in St. Petersburg.
On its face, the process of pumping tons of fresh sand onto the beach — primarily to ensure it can remain a buffer against storm damage — has little to do with baseball. But in Pinellas County, where beaches are the cornerstone of the tourist economy, the two are inextricably bound.
The money that Pinellas puts toward beach nourishment, which has taken place every six years or so for decades, comes from tourist bed taxes. The money that the county will likely be asked to spend to help build a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium would also come from its tourist tax coffers.
With the Army Corps involved, the federal government historically has paid two-thirds of the cost for beach nourishment. But amid the Corps’ dispute with Pinellas County over access to private beachfront property, work set for 2024 has been postponed indefinitely. For the county to move forward, it may have to foot more of the bill.
In a policy change several years ago, the Corps required that Pinellas secure permanent easements for private property along the nourishment area — most notably an 8½-mile stretch of Sand Key, from North Redington Beach to north of Belleair Beach. Fewer than half of the property owners have signed off on those easements.
The Sand Key nourishment will cost about $57 million from design through construction. The county has historically covered the local share with help from the state. With the Corps and property owners refusing to budge, though, Pinellas officials have started looking at other ways to fund the project.
If the county took on the entire funding responsibility — one of several options county Public Works Director Kelli Levy presented Thursday — it could avoid the Corps’ constraints and move forward with the project. It would be costly, though: The county would rapidly blow through the money it has set aside for the work. It could be forced to use additional tourist tax dollars to finish that round, not to mention future nourishments.
That would complicate how the county approaches other tourist-tax projects, and the Rays’ stadium is the biggest one on the horizon.
“We’re going to have decisions, potentially in the next several weeks, months, that rely on a portion of the bed tax,” Commissioner Charlie Justice said. “We can’t make those in silos and then say, ‘Man, I wish we had that money to spend on beaches.’”
There are other drawbacks to the pay-it-all approach, Levy and County Administrator Barry Burton said, including the fact that county-funded restoration projects aren’t eligible for FEMA reimbursements. That would mean Pinellas would be on its own in the wake of hurricane damage there.
Still, the county is laying the groundwork for that path if commissioners decide to take it. Levy has started the design and engineering process for the nourishment project, which will take until next year to complete. By then, Burton said, commissioners will have more information.
Commissioner Chris Latvala floated the idea of suing the Corps. He also said the county should consider putting more of its tourism money into capital projects and less toward marketing, an idea he’s mentioned in the past.
“We have to do something about the beach and about our sand,” he said, “because there’s no more pressing need in Pinellas County than this.”