Pinellas tourism panel recommends more money for beach renourishment

The proposal, if approved by county commissioners, would add up to $4 million for shoring up the coast.
Erik Castillo, of North Andover, Massachusetts, traverses an area of rocks at Oasis Beach at Honeymoon Island State Park on Wednesday, April 21, 2021, the site of a $2 million beach renourishment project.
Erik Castillo, of North Andover, Massachusetts, traverses an area of rocks at Oasis Beach at Honeymoon Island State Park on Wednesday, April 21, 2021, the site of a $2 million beach renourishment project. [ DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Times (2021) ]
Published Jun. 21, 2022|Updated Jun. 21, 2022

In a unanimous vote Tuesday, the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council recommended increasing the percentage of tourist tax dollars that go to beach renourishment.

The proposal comes as the county and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers face an impasse over the Sand Key Shore Protection project, stalling plans to shore up a 9-mile stretch of sand from Clearwater to north Redington Beach.

Council members voted to increase the portion of county’s bed tax dedicated to beach renourishment by a quarter of a penny for each dollar taxed — from 0.5 pennies to 0.75 pennies. The move could generate up to $4 million for renourishment projects, according to Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice, a member of the council.

The 6% tax is collected on hotels and other accommodations rented for less than six months in Pinellas County. To be enacted, Tuesday’s recommendation would need to be approved by county commissioners.

The extra funding would provide a “cushion” as the county continues to shore up its beaches, Justice said.

“We wanted to elevate the discussion of beach renourishment, and keeping our beaches is the most important part of maintaining tourism here,” Justice said. “This is why folks come to Pinellas County, is our beaches, so we have to protect that resource.”

The council is composed of 12 members representing local governments and tourism-related businesses. Council member Phil Henderson, president and CEO of StarLite Cruises, made the motion to increase the beach renourishment funds, initially proposing a hike to a full penny for every dollar taxed before other members pushed back.

The county has federal authorizations for three beach renourishment projects, including the one at Sand Key. The others are Treasure Island, which includes Sunset and Sunshine beaches, and Long Key, which includes Upham Beach and Pass-A-Grille Beach, according to Pinellas County Director of Public Works Kelli Levy.

The next cycle for the Treasure Island and Long Key projects will happen in 2023 as planned. But the Sand Key Project, which was slated to happen in 2024, is in jeopardy, and the county will likely miss the cycle, Levy said.

That’s because the Army Corps of Engineers has required that the county obtain signed perpetual easements from 100% of the residents in the affected beaches. While some residents have signed the easements, others fret about turning over part of their properties to perpetually become public land.

The Corps did not require 100% of the easements in previous decades, but started doing so in 2015, Levy said. The county has received 48% of the 461 easements it needs to receive federal funding and participation in the Sand Key project.

“Right now we are at a standstill,” Levy said at the council meeting.

The county and the Corps met to hash through the problem in January, but talks have slowed since then, Levy said.

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Without those remaining easements, the county won’t receive federal help and will have to make the decision in future years about whether to fund its own renourishment project.

As the erosion worsens, Levy said, the county risks wasting about a $100 million it invested in building up the beaches since the 1980s.