CLEARWATER — The bulldozer swooped in on a Saturday, when the watchful eyes of code enforcement officers weren't around.
Neighbors were, though.
Cameras flashed and video cameras rolled as members of the Clearwater Beach Association witnessed a backhoe scoop up sand from a dune at a beach access in the 700 block of Eldorado Avenue, at Mango Avenue.
The fine grains of sand were then dumped atop sea oats and grass covering another nearby dune.
"It was pretty disheartening," said association president Wendy Hutkin. "All the protective vegetation was destroyed. … Now it doesn't look like a dune. It's a big, heaping mound of sand."
But members hope that there is a silver lining.
The beach association turned over its information about the destruction to Clearwater police, who responded and, after determining the homeowner didn't have a permit for dune excavation work, contacted state officials.
Investigations are under way by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which will determine whether to order fines or file criminal charges against the homeowner or machinery company.
And so, it might come to pass that last Saturday's battle represents the first victory in a years-long war against lawbreakers, who repeatedly destroy sand dunes in violation of state law, and city officials, who association members say don't do enough to keep the protected dune habitats safe.
"We want the city to have a protocol," Hutkin said, "not only internally but so the public can have an awareness and there's less destruction."
Sand dunes help to protect coastal properties from the damaging effects of high tides and storm surge. They also provide sheltered habitat for shorebirds and other creatures. State law protects them from destruction.
Hutkin was among 15 beach association members who attended the Clearwater City Council meeting Thursday to express their outrage over last weekend's bulldozing by a Clearwater Beach property owner.
Speaking on the group's behalf, Hutkin alleged that the same beach residents had also broken the law in 2011, when they brought in a Bobcat and exceeded the scope of a permit they had for some beach excavation. She said nothing happened to them.
"If the property … was cited appropriately in April of 2011," Hutkin wrote in an email ahead of Thursday's meeting to City Manager Bill Horne, "… we would probably not have to now deal with this loss of a full dune."
Police records confirm that the homeowner, Rosemary DeJoy, had a permit for the 2011 work. And this week's Department of Environmental Protection violation report said the agency had issued two permits to DeJoy in the "recent past which authorized minor sand re-location from the area of the patio/seawall to a more seaward location."
While the state said Saturday's "unauthorized" excavation resulted in the removal of 450 to 500 cubic yards of vegetated sand dune without a permit, neither agency indicated that the homeowner's past work resulted in violations.
Attempts Friday to reach DeJoy were unsuccessful.
Saying this represented one of many dune destruction cases that had gone unenforced, Hutkin asked council members for clarification on who has jurisdiction to enforce laws and said she wanted the city to put a protocol in place for future problems.
She told a Tampa Bay Times reporter that the beach association learned during Thursday's council meeting that two prior sea oat destruction cases had been closed satisfactorily. But, she said, the community members who make dozens of calls rarely learn the outcome of cases.
The response this past weekend was the way it should go, Mayor George Cretekos told Hutkin.
"The protocols are there," he said. "The problem is that some of our neighbors, some of your neighbors, don't like rules."
Cretekos said the state has jurisdiction over this issue, since it is state law that protects sand dunes. But he urged residents who see dune destruction "to call the police department right away and take photographs."
Added City Manager Bill Horne: "You can count on us responding to your complaints."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.