Bill Queen is desperate for sand.
The mayor of North Redington Beach has seen the shore shrink steadily over the past few years as the Gulf of Mexico creeps closer to lines of blue cabanas.
“Our lifeblood is the sand,” he said.
Yet it’s washing away.
In June, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection reported that almost all of Sand Key — a 14-mile stretch of Pinellas County coast from Clearwater Pass to John’s Pass — is critically eroded.
Beach renourishment, in which heavy machinery pumps sand from the water back to shore, is a partial solution.
Since 1993, the Army Corps of Engineers has pumped tons of sand every five to seven years along a nine-mile portion of Sand Key, from Clearwater to Redington Beach. Another round is due in 2024, with plans to pump more than 1 million cubic yards of sand — nearly enough to fill the Empire State Building.
But a long-overlooked federal policy has placed the $42 million project in jeopardy.
In a major break from decades past, the Corps is requiring all beachfront residents who live along the project to give away some of their property rights. For the work to proceed, every owner will need to sign a document known as a perpetual easement that allows public access on a portion of their land next to the beach.
The Corps is allowing no exceptions, even though county calculations show a fraction of the new sand — 1.4% — would touch private property.
It’s an all-or-nothing approach that has pitted neighbor against neighbor: Some plead for sand, while others balk at granting future public access to their properties.
In total, 461 easements need to be collected. If just one resident refuses to sign, the Corps would not proceed. Yet more than half the owners remain holdouts after years of county officials trying to persuade them.
That leaves the residents in a stalemate, the project on hold and a big stretch of Pinellas beaches more vulnerable to storms.
According to county data, nearly half the sand from the area’s last renourishment in 2018 already has eroded. And that project addressed only a small section of Sand Key.
“At times it does feel like we’re being set up to fail,” said Kelli Levy, Pinellas County’s public works director. “I can’t think of another instance where a group of private citizens could have such an incredible impact on not just industry, but the environment.”
It’s almost certain the beaches will go without replenishment in 2024.
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The heart of the battle
Many of the Sand Key beaches didn’t exist a few decades ago. They were created by cycles of renourishment.
In the 1980s, before the first project, the beaches were slivers of sand. When Hurricane Elena hit in 1985, they shrank even more.
“You would step off the seawall straight down into the water,” said R.B. Johnson, a former mayor of Indian Rocks Beach.
City and county officials fear that, without a continuing renourishment effort, the work of many years and the product of millions invested will wash away.
“Pinellas County’s brand is beaches,” said John Bishop, the county’s coastal management coordinator. “We’re a tourist industry. … It would be like trying to go to Disney World but the Magic Kingdom is gone.”
When Bishop was working toward his doctorate in oceanography a decade ago, he became fascinated with the geology of coastal areas. He’s a guy who loves the beach and the wildlife that inhabits it.
For the last several years, he has spent his days mediating between property owners and the Corps, taking calls from both sides. When people reach out, he often answers with an earnest, “I don’t know.”
“Until we resolve the easement issue, the project can’t move forward at all,” said Bishop, who has taken up yoga to help mellow frustration. “It’s not going through the design process or anything. It’s basically on hold.”
When the Corps first told the county that it would require easements from residents, Bishop and his peers went all in trying to collect them.
The county held meetings and put out informational videos. Mayors and beach town commissioners made a show of signing their easements during public meetings, touting the importance of getting sand.
It was akin to campaigns around COVID-19 vaccines: a display of “if I can do it, you can do it, too” — but also of fractured trust in government.
Part of that comes down to the shift in practice. Although the Corps asked for some easements during past cycles, it did not require perpetual easements from all beachfront owners.
That changed after Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast in 2012 and the Corps found it did not have the required easements to repair New Jersey’s damaged beaches. It triggered a review of the agency’s storm damage projects, including the one on Sand Key.
During a 2015 meeting with Pinellas County and town officials, the Corps announced it would require easements from all residents with properties along the project.
Corps officials said the easements were needed as a precaution, in case a storm damaged private areas of the beach. They cited the 1986 Water Resource Development Act, which prohibits the federal government from spending money to benefit only private interests on such projects.
The change came as a shock to many Pinellas property owners who had lived along the beach for years. Among them were Diana Fuller and Hugh Smith, a married couple who live in a massive stone house on Indian Rocks Beach.
“We’ve never been asked to sign an easement and we’ve always gotten sand,” said Fuller. “So why do they need them now?”
The greater concern, they said, is the language and scope of the easement.
It goes back to the placement of the Erosion Control Line, a boundary that divides state-owned and private land and marks where the mean high water line was in the 1980s. Because the beaches were heavily eroded then, the line often lies far from the water.
Fuller and Smith’s property is separated from the public beach by dunes. It’s land on which the Corps couldn’t place sand on this cycle even if it wanted to, because laws prohibit disrupting plant life on the mounds.
“They can’t get their equipment over the dunes, so this area isn’t even accessible to them,” Fuller said. “Why would I sign my rights as a property owner away?”
Both Fuller and Smith are retired lawyers. When they received the easement requested for their property in 2019 and realized what was being asked, they almost couldn’t believe it.
They objected to language that would allow any beachgoer to stray onto their land and make themselves at home. In theory, if they signed, someone could set up their beach chairs in the couple’s back yard.
Smith said he felt as if the county and the Corps weren’t transparent about that. The couple worried that people wouldn’t understand what they were signing.
Other residents like Nancy Izor-Obarski and Jose Coppen shared that concern.
Izor-Obarski owns property that runs right up to the public beach without separation by dunes. Already, she said, beachgoers walk up to her patio and use her water hose without permission. She’s worried the easement will only worsen the problem.
Coppen, who served as a commissioner for Indian Rocks Beach in 2007, emigrated from Cuba. He saw the request as a breach of his freedom.
County officials assert that multiple public meetings were held and that questions were answered when asked. They said property owners should weigh the benefits of the sand against the ask of the easement.
“We want to be clear that we want the sand. This isn’t about not wanting a public beach,” Fuller said. “We just don’t want to sign our rights away when what they’re asking for isn’t necessary for the project.”
The couple drafted a 24-page pamphlet with big red letters on the cover: “Things you should have been told before you signed the county’s beach nourishment easement.”
They mailed a copy to every property owner along Sand Key.
‘Selfish is what it amounts to’
For the 223 property owners who have signed easements, and beachgoers who live inland and have no say, the holdout by those unwilling to sign feels irrational and short-sighted.
It’s a tradeoff you have to make, said Jim Labadie, a longtime property owner in Indian Rocks Beach. Sign an easement, get the sand. Don’t sign, and you risk losing the beach.
“If there’s no beach, there’s no business,” said Labadie, 76, who owns the Colonial Court Inn overlooking the gulf and has signed an easement.
He said he doesn’t understand why other residents haven’t been willing to do the same. “They’re just being selfish is what it amounts to,” he said.
Labadie isn’t alone in that view. Over the last three years, Smith and Fuller have been approached by angry neighbors. People have shown up at town meetings with signs. One man sang a song about beach ownership to the tune of “This Land is Your Land,” inserting the word “beach” where appropriate.
“I’ve been asked by people that have signed if they can sue their neighbors who don’t sign if the beach doesn’t get renourished and a storm hits and their property is destroyed,” said Levy, the public works director. “That’s how strongly people are feeling.”
In North Redington Beach, all 26 required easements have been signed. Yet the town’s fate is in the hands of holdouts.
“It’s frustrating because the whole project is based on 100% compliance,” said Queen, the North Redington Beach mayor. “We’re the ones that are going to suffer because we’re the ones that need the sand the most.”
Drifting from safety
Standing on a boardwalk one day in July, Levy looked toward the dunes at Indian Rocks Beach. Waves crashed a couple hundred feet away.
In recent months, she’s reframed her approach.
In the beginning, the focus was on getting the job done. The Corps tasked the county with collecting all easements, and the county tried to comply.
But years later, with fewer than half signed, it’s time to consider other paths.
For more than a year, Levy and Bishop have been back and forth with the Corps asking for adjustments to language in the easements, as well as the number needed to move forward.
“There isn’t anything in any document that I’ve ever read that says you must have 100% of all easements,” Levy said. “We should only be getting easements where we’re doing work, you know? We shouldn’t be requiring property owners to provide easements where no work is going to occur.”
In August, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, sent a letter sent to President Biden, asserting the same.
“We are spending our time trying to convince the Corps of its unwise decision while stretches of the beach erode away,” Crist wrote. “This is an impossible and, frankly, arbitrary task.”
But the Corps has yet to budge.
In response to questions from the Tampa Bay Times, David Ruderman, public affairs specialist for the Corps’ Jacksonville district, declined to elaborate on the easement requirements.
“The Corps continues to work with the non-federal sponsor, Pinellas County, to clarify real estate requirements,” Ruderman said.
If the agency doesn’t change its policy, the project at Sand Key will likely be canceled and the county will lose millions in potential funding. As things stand, the Corps absorbs 63% of the project cost, with the remainder split evenly between the county and state.
The alternative would be working the project into the county budget and absorbing the cost locally. But even then the county would have to get permission from the Corps to use its project design and still would require easements on certain properties.
“In the grand scheme of things, I’m just sad,” Levy said. She gazed out at the dunes, covered in a tangle of grass, shrubs and yellow wildflowers.
“You lose the beach, you lose it all. … We have more and more infrastructure at risk, we lose all of this vital habitat and we lose an economic driver of the region. It’s too important to lose.”
She said she hopes Corps officials will come walk the beach with her, that they’ll see the problems up close and understand why some property owners would never sign an easement. Maybe that would change their minds.
Her phone rang as birds chirped and storm clouds rolled over the gulf.
It was Bishop calling — he had just finished another call with the Corps.
Nothing new to share, he said.
Another wave hit the beach. Sand drifted away.