CLEARWATER — A beach resident spotted the front loader just before sunset, carving a rugged path through the sand dunes of North Beach.
The machine was stationed outside a three-story Mediterranean mansion on Eldorado Avenue. The dunes were trampled under a tangle of tread tracks. Behind the loader trailed what looked like an oil leak.
The evidence looked incriminating. Beach homeowners have long complained of scofflaws crushing the dunes, which are protected by state law, to preserve their walkways to the water. Ed Chesney, the city's environmental manager, alerted state inspectors.
Then he got a surprise. The state already knew of the work. Earlier that month, homeowner Rosemary DeJoy had applied for a state permit for "managed excavation" to push sand buildup seaward from her white patio fence. She was, for the moment, in the clear.
It was only the most recent case of dune watching gone awry, a side effect of lax enforcement that has left beach residents pleading for action.
Some are frustrated by the state's hands-off monitoring and the city's meek education campaign, which they say are not aggressive enough to enforce the law. Amid the confusion, they say, the dunes have remained in danger.
Last month, the City Council voted to send certified letters to beach mailboxes reminding residents of the rules, as a first step to potentially stronger enforcement. About a thousand letters will likely go out within the week.
But beach residents say that's not enough. Patrick Gallagher, resident of the Clearwater Beach Association, wrote the council last week that residents showed the city documented proof of dune "destruction in progress" months ago and have yet to find a resolution.
"Direct, positive action is necessary," Gallagher wrote. "Council's decision to write letters is too little; too late."
Mayor Frank Hibbard said last month that the city should tread lightly around regulation, as the dunes are under the state's jurisdiction.
The state can cede some authority to the city if it offers up enough money and personnel. But the council, facing millions of dollars of budget cuts, instead chose the cheaper option: enforcement by mail.
"I thought we'd have a little bit more oomph in our response than that," said Pete Stasis, chairman of the city's Environmental Advisory Board. In January, the board urged the council to pass an ordinance banning the destruction of dunes, and they plan to hold a special meeting on dunes today. "We were hoping for something better."
The City Council on Monday briefly discussed Gallagher's input before deciding it should wait until the city's letters are mailed.
"I'd like to see if what we arrived at works," council member Paul Gibson said, "before deciding that it didn't."
The state Department of Environmental Protection employs one field representative to conduct inspections and issue permits from north Pinellas to Sarasota County, more than 100 miles of coast.
Complaints to the state must be inspected, documented and reported back to Tallahassee. Chesney said Clearwater Beach has the most reports of dune violations in the state.
Most offenders receive warning letters asking them how they'll fix their violation. The state rarely bothers to follow up.
"That's what makes people frustrated," he said. "If the city was following up on it, we would have more real-time results."
As for the home on Eldorado Avenue? Chesney said it looked like the loader cleared out a lot more of the dunes than was allowed in the permit.
He's not sure what will happen next. The state inspector is on vacation until next week.
Drew Harwell can be reached at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org.