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Clearwater asks about enforcing dune protection law

CLEARWATER — Fed up with the state's lack of action to protect sand dunes on Clearwater Beach, the city of Clearwater is going to explore whether it can protect the dunes itself.

Thursday night, the City Council voted unanimously to ask the Florida Department of Environmental Protection whether it will delegate to Clearwater the legal authority to enforce a state law. The law forbids beachfront property owners from damaging or destroying sand dunes, even if they're on private property.

Clearwater also will investigate what its responsibilities would be under such an arrangement, and how much it might cost the city.

All this comes at the urging of the city's Environmental Advisory Board and the Clearwater Beach Association, a homeowners group. Beach residents complain that they see dunes being destroyed — sometimes with heavy equipment — and that the state is not enforcing its own rules.

"We're asking the city to step up and to enforce the current law, because any removal or alteration of dunes will increase potential flood damage," said Pat Power, a beach homeowner who sits on the city's environmental board. "Most of the gulffront homeowners understand the value of the dunes. They understand that they protect their houses. There's only a handful of people along the beach who are irresponsible."

Sand dunes are protected by law because they limit beach erosion and act as a barrier from storm damage.

On Clearwater Beach, most of the complaints about dune destruction have centered on the 700 and 800 blocks of Eldorado Avenue, a residential street on the beachfront, said Ed Chesney, Clearwater's environmental manager. Most of the cases involve homeowners cutting paths through the dunes to maintain their beach access.

"The way the state has dealt with them is, unless the problems were repeat offenders, they would send warning letters. And if nothing was heard again, they really didn't follow up on those," Chesney said. "There were probably a handful of cases where there were repeat offenders. And even in those instances, the state did not have the staff or did not follow up on them."

The DEP maintains that it does enforce the law and that it sometimes fines people for damaging sand dunes. However, the agency wasn't able to provide any statistics this week to show how often it takes action in such cases.

Before Clearwater takes on the job of protecting sand dunes, the City Council wants to know more about how that would work. Would officials need before-and-after photos? Would they need expert testimony in every case? What would the penalties be?

And if the state won't delegate its authority to Clearwater, could the city pass its own sand dune law?

One Clearwater resident, conservative activist Joe Paige, spoke out against the proposal at Thursday night's council meeting.

"These dunes do not belong to the city of Clearwater. They do not belong to the nosey neighbors. They do not belong to the nanny state. They do not belong to the EPA or DEP," Paige said. "They are private property."

Council members responded that the dunes in question are mostly on public property. In any case, they said, dunes on private property are environmentally protected in Florida, the same way that wetlands are.

To illustrate their fears, several council members and beach residents referred to a 2004 case where a beachfront homeowner brought in a Bobcat utility machine to level a sand dune.

"I personally was on the ground. I took the picture of the Bobcat," said Jerry Murphy, past president of the Clearwater Beach Association. "I talked with the man that had hired the Bobcat. And he said, 'It's my property and I'll do what I want to with it.' "

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Clearwater asks about enforcing dune protection law 02/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 4, 2011 7:33pm]

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