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Calls grow louder for lawmakers to use Amendment 1 money for beach repair

A worker repairs a Treasure Island beach in November. Counties battling beach erosion seek a share of Amendment 1 money.
A worker repairs a Treasure Island beach in November. Counties battling beach erosion seek a share of Amendment 1 money.
Published Jan. 20, 2015

Passed by an overwhelming majority of Florida voters last fall, Amendment 1 was billed as a way to force lawmakers to make water quality and land conservation a priority.

But officials from coastal counties are focused on the places where water erodes the land as they seek a share of the estimated $22 billion the mandate is expected to raise over the next two decades.

Pinellas County commissioners have told state lawmakers that dedicating some of that money to beach renourishment is one of their biggest wishes for the upcoming legislative session. Similar requests are echoing around the state before lawmakers decide how to divvy up revenue, said Deborah Flack, president of the Florida Shore & Beach Preservation Association.

"The stakes are high," said Flack, whose group lobbies for renourishment funding on behalf of local governments. "We want to make sure beach management funding is a part of the Amendment 1 strategy, and we want people to be aware the amount we've been getting since 1998 is not cutting it."

Approved by 75 percent of voters, the amendment dedicates one-third of revenue from the existing tax on real estate transactions, known as documentary stamps, to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund for the next 20 years. It's expected to raise about $757 million in 2015-16 and roughly $1.6 billion in the 20th year.

There seems to be little disagreement that the money can be used to replace sand stolen by the sea. The text of the amendment says the funds will be used to "finance or refinance the acquisition and improvement of land, water areas, and related property interests, including … beaches and shores."

"We advertised that it was for ecosystem and management and restoration, and we showed pictures on television and in our campaign material of people using the beaches," said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida. "Not only that, but our polling shows people care about the beaches."

Audubon was part of a consortium that led the effort to pass the amendment and has drafted recommendations for how to spend the money in the first year. It wants the largest shares to be spent on Everglades restoration projects and the environmental land-buying program called Florida Forever, and suggests $30 million for beaches.

Flack's group hopes the lawmakers carve out more than that and create a predictable amount of funding for the next 20 years. That would allow for long-term planning and show the federal government, which provides matching funds for many projects, that state dollars will be available.

Thirteen years ago, the Legislature voted to spend $30 million of doc stamp revenue annually on beach projects. During the recession, the doc stamp revenue plummeted and lawmakers bolstered the program with general fund dollars. They saw it as a wise investment because of the economic and ecological value of Florida's beaches, and the availability of federal match dollars to go along with state and local funding. Still, some years, state funding for the programs dropped to as low as $15 million.

Since the program began, the number of miles of beaches deemed "critically eroded" by the state has increased by 30 percent, to 407, Flack said.

Slightly more than half of the $47.3 million dedicated to beach nourishment in the current year's budget is nonrecurring general revenue, not a source that can be relied on year after year. The money will replenish more than 100 miles of beaches, but that encompasses only about 45 percent of the projects requested by local government. One of the projects that didn't make the cut was Upham Beach in Pinellas.

Flack's group wants lawmakers to dedicate between $47 million and $60 million annually over the next 20 years. Their case is bolstered by a report last week from the Legislature's Office of Economic & Demographic Research that showed $1 invested in beach renourishment generated $5.40 in sales tax revenue.

It's too early to talk about dollar amounts, said Sen. Charlie Dean, an Inverness Republican who chairs the Senate's Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation tasked with spelling out how to spend the money.

"My personal opinion is there will be enough money to include a certain amount for the nourishment of beaches," with a focus on the most critical projects, Dean said.

Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater said he supports increasing funding for beach nourishment with help from Amendment 1. Sen. Jeff Brandes, whose district includes the south Pinellas beaches, said lawmakers should ensure counties get a fair share of Amendment 1 revenue based on how much they contribute.

There are not large tracts of land in Pinellas left to buy, so beach renourishment would be a good use of the county's share, Brandes said. "Let's rank priorities based on need and the value that it's going to provide to the residents of Florida, then begin plugging in dollars to make sure we're getting the most bang for the buck."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.