INDIAN ROCKS BEACH —Joanne “Cookie” Kennedy left her hair salon, walked across Gulf Boulevard and onto the Indian Rocks Beach shoreline.
She stopped before the sand and pointed to an inner portion of the dune, parallel to the beginning of the boardwalk that leads to the beach.
“Before they started beach renourishment, our beach was no longer than there,” said Kennedy, the mayor of Indian Rocks Beach. “And sometimes maybe a little less.”
Sand moves quickly along the Pinellas County coast. It flows into inlets and piles up next to jetties. It expands and thins beaches. Storms move the tide in and suck sand back offshore.
Along a 9-mile stretch of Pinellas County, the federal Sand Key Shore Protection Project provides a lifeline for the shrinking beaches from just south of the Clearwater Pass to the northern tip of Redington Beach. Every five to seven years the Army Corps of Engineers hires a contractor to pump in sand to replace what has eroded away.
But a once-brushed-over provision of the project that the Army Corps is now emphasizing puts the Sand Key project in doubt. If Pinellas County does not get perpetual easements from 100 percent of the private properties that border the project, the Army Corps will skip each cycle until all 461 easements are signed. For years, the county only collected easements for areas where sand would be replaced — which varies based on need.
The perpetual easements from property owners would give permanent permission for the Corps to nourish beaches by their property.
Without the project, city and county officials fear the tide will creep into the seawall. Storms would chip away at the beachfront. Flooding would increase. Across the beachfront covered by the Sand Key project, many beaches could disappear and mirror what they looked like in the 1980s.
“So the project’s not even going to begin basically,” said Pinellas County Coastal Management Coordinator John Bishop. “We would be starting to design for this now, probably.”
Local officials said in interviews that they don’t expect to reach the easement threshold by the scheduled 2024 project. They’ve collected 223 of the 461 they need.
The provision has been a gray area and a point of frustration for county officials and residents. In 2018, there were four gaps in the project that were not renourished due to issues obtaining easements, according to Bishop.
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In public meetings and an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers - who spearhead and finance the majority of the project - said the easements ensure federal funding goes toward public land. If a major storm hits the Pinellas coast, they’ll already have permission to perform quick renourishments. It’s a nationwide policy, officials said, that allows for continuity over the many renourishment projects they lead along the East Coast.
In a 2015 meeting, the Army Corps told Pinellas County officials and mayors of beach cities in the Sand Key project area that the easement requirement had not historically been enforced.
The 2018 renourishment cycle was approaching at the time, and the Corps said the county only needed to obtain easements from where sand would be placed for that round. They ended up replacing 1.3 million cubic yards of eroded sand that year.
But moving forward, they expected the county to obtain all easements for the project width – including areas that are part of the project area but don’t normally receive sand.
“During previous nourishment projects, the pertinent policy and laws were not realized, not thoroughly researched, or simply not enforced,” the Army Corps said in the meeting, according to minutes provided to the Times through a records request. After Hurricane Sandy and Tropical Storm Debby in 2012, the Corps started implementing the policy more.
In the years since, Pinellas County has asked the corps to change its policy. They’ve also asked residents to sign easements so they can adhere to it. Bishop said he’s waiting for the Army Corps to get a briefing back to the county about the Sand Key project.
He doesn’t expect much to change, but he won’t rule it out.
Easements come down to what’s called the Erosion Control Line, a barrier set in 1985 and 1986 that separates private property from public beach.
That line has stayed put as the beaches have expanded under the nourishment projects, which have totaled 9.3 million cubic yards of sand and have cost $139.7 million since the first Sand Key installment in 1988. The project has roughly 60 percent federal funding, 20 percent state funding and 20 percent county funding.
There are three beach nourishment projects in Pinellas County: Treasure Island, Long Key in St. Pete Beach and Sand Key. The county needs to collect easements for all three projects, though none are to the extent of the Sand Key project.
Erosion is natural, and the Pinellas County coast is always changing, said Ping Wang, director of the Coastal Research Laboratory at the University of South Florida. That’s why the Dan’s Island beachfront condo towers is known as an “erosional hotspot,” but just over a mile to the north, the Sand Key Park beach is growing. The nourishment projects ensure that many public beaches stay intact despite this.
Many erosion control lines now rest far from the current shoreline, parallel to boardwalks entering the beach or up to 60 feet inside dunes, which are no longer covered by the renourishment project. Beach nourishment projects occur seaward of the Erosion Control Line, which is public.
“The ironic thing about this is that a lot of the beach we’re talking about is actually public,” said Bishop. “And that sand may erode away because we can’t get (easements from) a tiny sliver of private property on the landward edge.”
County and city officials have held public meetings with residents and showed pictures of the coast back in the 1980s, where the sea nearly meets the seawall. They have a slide that says “No one can sign those easements but YOU!” Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist has called it an “unreasonable and impossible task,” and wrote to the Army Corps asking for a change in policy.
Will Reilly, of the U.S, Army Corps of Engineers, said in a public meeting last September that collecting permanent easements beforehand is the most efficient method. If a large storm hits the Pinellas coast, and beachfront homeowners scatter to different places, it would be difficult to track down each owner and have them sign an easement.
“The quick response certainly from an engineering standpoint is so vital. So vital to get back out there and protect that infrastructure,” he said.
Meanwhile, some beachfront owners in Indian Rocks Beach, Indian Shores and Redington Shores are hesitant or have been unresponsive to the easement requests. At public meetings they’ve questioned the wording of the easement. Some are concerned about property rights, or why their land far from the shore is now a part of this. They haven’t had to sign a permanent agreement before, so why now?
“We all want the sand, and we’ve always gotten the sand,” Indian Rocks Beach resident Lisa Kerr said at the September meeting. “But now something has changed that we suddenly need to sign these easements.”
Recently, a 24-page packet circulated among Indian Rocks Beach residents, which described the easements as a “land grab” by the Army Corps.
“There is no next step,” Pinellas County Public Works Director Kelli Hammer Levy said in an interview. “There are hundreds of people who have said no. We have reached out to every single person two or three times. (We met) with a lot of them, held public meetings, talked with everybody, answered all their questions. There is no solution.”
When Kennedy, the Indian Rocks Beach mayor, grew up in Largo, the beach was no larger than 10 to 12 feet wide. As the beach has grown, so has the area’s lure. She sees more activities on the beach, and more attractions, than she did growing up here.
Down the line, she thought about how it would affect the people who pass through Indian Rocks Beach: tourists who come for the beach, a yoga class she sees, daytrippers who come from their inland homes and everyday residents who live near the beach. After Tropical Storm Eta last year, Indian Rocks Beach lost about 260,000 cubic yards of sand, per the county.
“If we don’t have any beach renourishment and this keeps getting beat down, beat down, beat down, I mean, it would probably sustain us for a while, but I just don’t want to see it happen,” she said. “For many reasons.”