BELLEAIR — Just as town leaders were poised to vote on a bid to prevent erosion on a bluff overlooking Clearwater Harbor, they decided to take a step back and do some more research.
Town commissioners decided this week to study the issue after an engineering firm told them the project that was proposed by another firm was an extreme solution for a problem that may affect just 20 percent of the bluff.
"There are a few areas that really need to be addressed, but for the most part, the erosion that is occurring is occurring at a very slow rate," said Al Carrier, a principal of Deuel & Associates, a Clearwater firm.
Mayor Gary Katica said he no longer had confidence in the project, which could cost $4 million or $5 million.
"We need to be sold on this," Katica said. "The citizens of Belleair need to be sold."
Majestic oaks sprawl over Hallett Park, which sits on the bluff, just south of the Belleair Country Club. The bluff, which is about 25 feet high, runs a half mile along Bayview Drive. Along the bluff, in some spots, palm trees jut out from the edge. In at least one area, the edge of the bluff is just 10 paces from the street.
Town Manager Micah Maxwell said the erosion must be dealt with to avoid damage to Bayview and to a sewer pipe that runs along the bluff.
"We need to make sure the sewer pipe doesn't break off and do damage to the Intracoastal Waterway," Maxwell said.
The town began looking into the bluff restoration about six years ago, when it discovered that Bayview Drive was in danger.
After receiving a report by the engineering firm, Cardno TBE of Clearwater, Belleair leaders were prepared to restore the bluff using a gabion seawall (a wire basket filled with earth or rocks) and tens of thousands of cubic yards of fill dirt.
But Deuel was asked to look into the matter after town leaders began to have second thoughts. For months, the town has heard from residents who were concerned that the project would spoil the natural beauty of the bluff.
Resident Brian Battaglia wrote several letters questioning the environmental impact and scope of the plan. Tuesday, he called the plan "overkill."
Another resident, Nancy Hartshorne, who worried about the fate of wildlife and 100-year-old trees, agreed.
"We simply don't want to cut off a hangnail and lop off the whole thumb," she said.
Commissioner Kevin Piccarreto said town leaders needed more information before they decided whether to support TBE's plan or change direction.
And after hearing from Deuel, Deputy Mayor Steve Fowler said he was disappointed with TBE's direction.
"Their charge was to give us some solutions for this problem and I think they just gave us one solution, which was a 100 percent (solution) for a 20 percent problem," Fowler said.
Deuel representatives said there may be more aesthetic options than gabions, such as vegetative mats. They also said the proposed project aims to reclaim land, rather than simply maintain the bluff, and that town leaders had a choice, depending on their goal.
Deuel had researched the issue for just a few days, but Brian Barker, another company principal, said, so far, it appears that the erosion may be caused by groundwater seeping through the bank. The erosion doesn't appear to be caused by water flowing over the bluff from the roadway or by wave action from below, he said.
A study would likely monitor groundwater to see whether it's contributing to the erosion and evaluate soil types throughout the bluff to narrow down the best types of erosion control, they said.
Barker estimated that a study may cost $15,000 to $25,000.
Carrier told town leaders that it would make sense to monitor the site closely during the study, which could take several months.
"I don't want to stand up here and give you a false sense of hope that everything's going to be okay," Carrier said. "There are areas that you should be concerned about."
Maxwell said he'd compile information for commissioners for further discussion next month.
"I do think it would be better to engage the study sooner rather than later," Commissioner Tom Shelly said.
"We don't want to drag this on," Katica said. "The last thing we need is a cave-in of the sewer pipe."
Lorri Helfand can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4155.