CLEARWATER — A divided City Council will decide Thursday night whether to plant 10,000 sea oats on south Clearwater Beach, but it's not clear which way they'll vote.
Council members fired questions at city staffers Tuesday about a plan to use sea oats to create nine new sand dunes. The purpose is to keep sand from blowing onto the BeachWalk promenade and onto streets and parking lots near the beach.
The council's main concern: How high would these dunes get?
Some beach property owners and the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce oppose more sand dunes on the beach. They say the existing dunes are too high and block the view of the Gulf of Mexico.
"The dunes right now are huge — unacceptably large in my opinion. They're long, they're wide, they're tall," said City Council member Paul Gibson.
On the five-member council, Gibson and Mayor Frank Hibbard plan to vote against the sea oat project. Meanwhile, council member John Doran supports it. Council members George Cretekos and Bill Jonson want more information and haven't shown their hands yet.
To answer the council's questions, city parks director Kevin Dunbar and landscape manager Brian Murphree described a plan to create dunes at a number of points alongside BeachWalk. They said the dunes would prevent winds out of the northwest from blowing sand through openings in BeachWalk's 30-inch-high sand-blocking wall.
Murphree showed photos of nearby streets and sidewalks inundated with beach sand. He said a team of city staffers spends hundreds of hours a year removing this sand. Dunbar said one of those city jobs is to be eliminated due to budget cuts.
The city got the 10,000 sea oats for free from Pinellas County, which encourages their use to prevent beach erosion.
Dunbar acknowledged that some of the old sand dunes on Clearwater Beach have grown high.
"The size of those dunes has taken on, in some cases, a life of their own," Dunbar said. But he added: "We're not planning massive sand dunes."
Although the sea oats themselves are protected by state law, Dunbar said, the city would level out the sand around the new sea oats daily to prevent the base of the new dunes from growing too wide. "If you only have so much size of a base, the sand dune will only grow so high."
Under questioning from Gibson, Murphree acknowledged that the new dunes could "potentially" become as tall as the old dunes.
Opponents of the sand dunes are suggesting that the city put up sand fences along BeachWalk for part of the year.
But Dunbar doubts that the state would allow Clearwater to put up sand fences on a temporary basis. He thinks the fences would just create more sand dunes.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.