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Sand Key renourishment project funding approved, could start by November

CLEARWATER — The renourishment of Sand Key beaches is back on schedule.

Once at risk, the rebuilding of the barrier island's beaches is now fully funded, federally approved and planned to begin as early as November.

Earlier this year, the fate of the $35 million project seemed uncertain. Gov. Rick Scott pledged to zero out renourishment funding. Federal planners on tight budgets said the work would need two phases. And state planners stalled on a permit because of a disagreement about how to monitor hard-bottom reefs in the Sand Key shallows.

Now planners say they have all they need to dump sand back onto 9 miles of the barrier island between Clearwater Pass and John's Pass, the first renourishment on Sand Key in five years. Work crews will finish by August 2012.

"It's great news," Pinellas County coastal manager Andy Squires said. "We're good to go."

A slurry of sand and saltwater will be pumped from a sandbar 11 miles offshore. About 800,000 cubic yards will be dumped from just south of Sand Key Park to North Redington Beach. The coast of Belleair Shore, closed to public access, will be excluded from the project.

The city to the north, Belleair Beach, could also lose out on a portion of its beachfront. State rules say communities must provide a certain number of public parking spaces close to public beach accesses before funds will be expended for renourishment. Belleair Beach is short 28 spaces for a 1,477-foot stretch of beach beginning just north of 25th Street and stretching south to the border with Belleair Shore.

Belleair Beach Mayor Kathy Mortensen and City Council member Leslie Notaro pleaded with the Pinellas County Commission last week to ask the state for a variance to the parking rules. But the commission refused. The reasons were varied, beginning with fears about potential county costs to frustration that Belleair Beach officials seem unwilling to accept county ideas for creating the needed parking spaces.

Renourishment is an expensive tradition in Florida, a state with 825 miles of beaches, nearly half of them critically eroded. Building back beaches helps protect the waterfront from erosion during storms, attracts tourists and restores habitats for shorebirds and sea turtles.

For more than a decade, the state paid out $30 million a year in real estate document stamps toward renourishment. Then the housing market crashed. Last year, beach officials asked for $80 million and received $15 million.

This year, officials asked for more than $100 million, but were rebuffed by Scott's pledge. He said the state Department of Environmental Protection's $75 million in savings was enough, though much of that money was already committed.

This month, Scott did not veto the Legislature's renourishment budget of $16 million. That money opened up tens of millions more in matching federal funds.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will run the project, said it has enough money budgeted for its share, about 60 percent of the cost. State funds and the county's tourist "bed tax" will cover the rest.

Soon after the Sand Key work ends next August, Squires said, dredge crews will likely move to Honeymoon Island.

Plans for the state park call for 2,000 feet of renourished beachfront and the installation of three rock "T-groins," used to combat erosion. That work will cost about $6 million in mostly state funds.

Drew Harwell can be reached at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

Sand Key renourishment project funding approved, could start by November 06/23/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 23, 2011 7:54pm]
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