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In Pinellas beach erosion battle, Army Corps shows up but won’t budge

Col. James Booth, district commander for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District, speaks during a briefing Friday in Indian Shores. The Army Corps of Engineers worked to explain beach renourishment along some Pinellas County beaches as they fielded questions from elected officials and local residents.

Posted on September 11, 2023

Beach renourishment is a sort of give-and-take between humans and nature. Humans pump sand onto the beach; waves wash it away, little by little, until a storm takes a lot at once. The idea is that, when a storm does hit, the berm of sand will be enough to protect the homes and public infrastructure inland.

For the first time in nearly three years, officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came to Pinellas County on Friday to talk to the public and answer questions about the renourishment of the county’s coastline. That project has been put on hold amid a standoff between the county and Corps over the latter’s policies.

At Indian Shores Town Hall, a building that looms over some of the coastline battered last week by Hurricane Idalia, it became clear that, in the conflict over renourishment, there’s little room for give-and-take.

The Corps officials — Jacksonville District Commander Col. James Booth and a handful of civilian employees — doubled down on their position. For the project to work, they said, the Corps needs all property owners to provide permanent public access to part of their land before the project can move forward.

Indian Shores resident Diana Fuller interjects during Booth’s briefing. Dozens of residents and elected officials spoke during the meeting, the first time Army Corps officials had given a public update in Pinellas since 2020.

Getting everyone to sign off has proven all but impossible. The Sand Key renourishment project, which stretches from North Redington Beach to north of Belleair Beach, has secured fewer than half of the 461 needed easements. The two other Pinellas projects — Treasure Island and Long Key, which includes St. Pete Beach — have similar, if smaller, holdups.

Corps officials acknowledged that the agency’s policy has been more flexible in the past. But the Corps has learned that these projects, meant to turn beaches into a protective shield, only work to their potential if there are no gaps, Booth said.

Local residents, elected officials and others crowd into a standing-room-only briefing by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Indian Shores.

And the easements are perpetual for a good reason, he said: If a storm tears apart the coast, the Corps can come in and repair the beach, and the federal government will foot the bill, but only if all that land is public, because federal law forbids spending money on private beaches.

“If you’re not happy with us enforcing it, I’m the guy you need to look to,” Booth said. “We’re going to hold to that standard.”

While the Corps officials spoke of federal law and history and engineering principles, the subject was more emotional for residents. Some won’t provide easements, they said, because they don’t want to functionally cede their land to the beachgoing public. Others agreed to the easements years ago and now feel powerless, having seen how a glancing blow from Idalia wrecked beaches and fearing that the next storm could wipe out their homes and communities.

Pinellas County Commissioner René Flowers speaks during a briefing by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

A Clearwater Marine Aquarium employee urged people to think of the sea turtles that nest along the shore. A real estate broker from St. Pete Beach criticized the Corps officials for coming with a history lesson instead of solutions. Katrena Hale, who owns the six-unit Sand Glo Villas hotel across the street from town hall, said she’d be happy to sign for an easement as long as it clarifies that people can’t treat her business like a beach access point.

“Had it been written a little differently, I would have signed and probably brought you refreshments out while you’re working,” she said. “I have enough trouble keeping the public off my property already.”

County Commissioner Kathleen Peters pointed out that the Corps’ own policy calls for flexibility. René Flowers, another county commissioner, called on the Corps to more narrowly define the easements, so that it’s clear the only public access available is for renourishment work.

“We do it all the time, you guys,” she said. “When we write policies, we tweak the language to make it read the way we intend it to read.”

Booth said he’d take that request to higher-ranking Corps officials. Congress gave the Corps control over the nourishment projects in 1966, and the federal government covers two-thirds of the cost. Pinellas could tackle it on its own, but it would be expensive, and the county would be on its own in the event of a storm.

Storms came up again toward the end of the meeting, when an Indian Rocks Beach resident asked Booth if the event had been planned before or after Hurricane Idalia. It was already in place before, he said.

“Trust me,” he said, “after the storm, I was more worried about this meeting.”


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