Posted on January 15, 2024
A bipartisan trio of state legislators hope to resolve a longstanding impasse between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and property owners delaying the renourishment of critically eroded beaches.
Rep. Lindsay Cross (D-St. Petersburg), Rep. Kim Berfield (R-Clearwater) and Rep. Linda Chaney (R-St. Pete Beach) recently filed the House Memorial on shore protection. It urges their Congressional counterparts to enact legislation forcing the Corps to amend its overly broad and burdensome easement policy.
While the memorial, HM1411, is not a proposed law, it represents a state-sponsored escalation into a years-long conflict with no resolution on the horizon. Pinellas County officials have repeatedly stressed that millions of dollars of coastal property, and potentially lives, are at stake.
“It doesn’t matter what your political party is – I don’t know anyone who doesn’t enjoy spending a day at the beach,” Cross told the Catalyst. “It’s so much of our identity as a state and so much of our economy and way of life.”
The memorial notes that healthy beaches and dune systems protect upland property and infrastructure from storms, increase property values and provide a vital habitat for threatened or endangered sea life. A July 2023 county presentation showed storm damage reduction benefits top $10 billion.
The Corps has supported those efforts for decades. Federal funding typically covers about 60% of the cost, with local and state dollars splitting the balance.
Kelli Levy, public works director, previously explained that an issue arose in late 2017 when the Corps began enforcing a policy requiring all area property owners to sign “perpetual” easement documents. A staring contest ensued, and neither side has shown signs of blinking.
Pinellas officials consider 21.4 of the county’s 35 miles of beaches critically eroded. Long-awaited projects in several coastal communities have now paused indefinitely.
“It puts us in a very vulnerable position,” Cross said. “If our county can’t foot 100% of the bill and a major storm washes out large portions of our beach areas, and we can’t get federal emergency assistance, that just puts us further on the hook.”
That scenario unfolded in late August with Hurricane Idalia. County officials scrambled to implement a $37 million emergency dune restoration project, only for a December “no-name” storm to wash away nearly half of the new protective barriers.
The memorial chastises the Corps for retroactively applying “its inflexible interpretation of law” by requiring perpetual easements for 50-year projects, including from owners whose property would remain unaffected. It also states that periodic and emergency project delays contradict Congressional intent, leaving residents and coastal habitats susceptible to “catastrophic flooding and erosion.”
Like many of her colleagues, Cross, who’s also an environmental scientist, remains befuddled over the Corps’ stance. She noted that county officials could previously pay for construction in areas that lacked easements.
“Beach renourishment projects need to be done on a larger scale,” Cross explained. “You can’t do it piecemeal … that beach section is not going to function the way it’s supposed to.”
Cross is optimistic that the legislature will pass the memorial. She said the issue affects about half of the Florida House’s districts, and the peninsula’s livelihood intrinsically intertwines with its coastlines.
Cross also expects strong Congressional support. She said U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor and U.S. Rep. Anna Paulina Luna have championed the cause.
However, Cross believes state stakeholders need to seek additional solutions. “I think, when it comes to building in coastal high-hazard areas and barrier islands, we as a state have not been brave enough to have those bigger policy questions and discussions,” she said.
“It’s something that needs to happen.”
She elaborated that a storm should cause stakeholders to reexamine the delicate balance between a coastal area’s environmental needs, public access and future development plans. That includes discerning the beaches most appropriate for repeated, expensive renourishment projects.
“We’re not going to abandon all our beaches in the State of Florida because it’s too important to our local economies, as well as our quality of life and identity as Floridians,” Cross said. “But there may be places where we scale back on that and say, ‘It’s not worth this investment, and people’s lives and properties are already too much at risk …’”