Sand dunes are important. They limit beach erosion and protect the coast from storm damage. Dunes are protected by state law — even the ones on private property.
But every once in a while, a waterfront property owner on north Clearwater Beach will bring in heavy equipment on a weekend and bulldoze a sand dune to clear the way for a party tent or something like that.
And what happens to that property owner? What does the state do? Pretty much nothing, according to people who want Clearwater to start protecting its sand dunes.
Tonight, the Clearwater City Council will consider creating and enforcing a local law prohibiting the destruction of dunes.
The city's Environmental Advisory Board is urging the council to do this. The Clearwater Beach Association, a homeowners group, has been complaining about the lack of enforcement.
If property owners are cited for dune destruction, the environmental board thinks they should be required to mitigate the damage before the property's sale, or their property should be subject to a lien that covers the mitigation costs.
"By law, even dunes on private land cannot be disturbed. The EAB chair witnessed that dunes and vegetation have been altered seaward from three houses on Eldorado Avenue," the environmental board's chairman, Peter Stasis, said in a letter to the City Council. "Without city action to stop weekend removal efforts and the erection of tents where dunes once stood, all dunes could disappear."
City Council members discussed the issue at a work session Monday. They had some questions.
First of all, they asked, does the state really not do anything?
"The state uses one code enforcement officer for the whole southwest part of the state. (He said) north Clearwater Beach has probably the most complaints that they have in the state. They don't really have these problems in other areas," said Ed Chesney, Clearwater's environmental manager. "They send out letters to the offending homeowners asking them to correct the destruction. They don't follow up on those letters, and really nothing happens."
The council wanted to know if Clearwater would be on solid legal ground if it started protecting sand dunes itself.
Assistant City Attorney Leslie Dougall-Sides said she thought so. She said the only local government in Florida that has such a law is Sarasota County, and its law has never been challenged in court.
It remains uncertain whether Clearwater will want to take on new responsibilities at a time when it is shrinking the size of its work force.
"This sounds like a significant commitment of staff time," said council member Paul Gibson. "We are constantly telling Mr. Horne (the city manager) to cut his budget and do less."
In a separate interview, Horne voiced the same concern.
"We don't have the resources to babysit 25 or 30 property owners and make sure they comply with the dune rules," Horne said. He suggested holding a meeting with beachfront homeowners instead.
Although Clearwater Beach residents say the state law has no teeth, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection maintains that it does enforce the law. Violations are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, said DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller.
"Enforcement in some instances may be in the form of penalties, compensation required for damages, or implementation of 'in-kind' projects that prevent pollution or otherwise enhance the environment," she said.
However, beach residents say they're seeing little if any enforcement of the law.
"There are six or seven people who are violating the law. It's not the majority, it's just a few owners," said Pat Power, a member of the Clearwater Beach Association and the city's Environmental Advisory Board.
"If you look at aerial photos of the beach, you can see places where there are no sand dunes. That happened when a guy brought in a backhoe and knocked them down so he could put up a tent for a wedding."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.