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As John’s Pass fills with sand, there’s a bureaucratic tangle on who should fix it

Sand intrusion has created a beach that is blocking boats and threatening to drive out the landmark Hubbard’s Marina and other businesses.

MADEIRA BEACH — When Capt. Dylan Hubbard was a kid in the 1990s, he could jump off the boardwalk of his family’s marina into the waters of John’s Pass below.

But gradually over the past six decades, sand from the updrift beaches has been pushed south, hooking around the heel of the barrier island and settling along the north side of the John’s Pass channel. It has created an unwanted beach now butting up against the boat dock, narrowing the channel.

The sand intrusion has accelerated in the past few years, creating a dire problem for Hubbard’s Marina, which has been at the site since 1976 and is now a top tourist destination with fishing charters, cruises, restaurants and shops.

Boats on Hubbard’s dock are at times beached, and three slips are so shallow they are unusable, he said. A stormwater drain under the marina clogs with sand, so rainstorms flood surrounding John’s Pass village streets.

How exactly to fix the problem and who is responsible for it, however, has become a bureaucratic tangle.

“This is our home, this is a special place, but this is threatening to put us out of business if we don’t pull boats out of the dock and move,” said Hubbard, 29, the fourth generation owner of the family business. “That would just crush this whole place, but the sand keeps coming.”

Aerial photos show the sand intrusion over time on north side of John's Pass channel. The year 2000 is to the left. On the right is February 2020.
Aerial photos show the sand intrusion over time on north side of John's Pass channel. The year 2000 is to the left. On the right is February 2020. [ Dylan Hubbard ]

John’s Pass, the body of water between Madeira Beach and Treasure Island, is a state inlet with a federal navigation channel in the middle. But the sand that has accumulated on the north side of the pass belongs to the riparian property owner because it is above the main high water line, according to a letter the Florida Department of Environmental Protection sent to Pinellas County in July.

Hubbard said his last landlord dredged the waterfront in 2017 at a cost of $186,000, but sand piled back up in less than a year.

Capt. Dylan Hubbard brings up aerial photos on his office computer showing John's Pass throughout the years, to explain the progression of sand buildup along the boardwalk on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020 in Madeira Beach.
Capt. Dylan Hubbard brings up aerial photos on his office computer showing John's Pass throughout the years, to explain the progression of sand buildup along the boardwalk on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020 in Madeira Beach. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Real estate investor Ben Mallah, who bought the marina in 2019, said the problem requires a multi-governmental strategy. At stake, he said, is a top tourist destination for the region.

About 40 business owners in John’s Pass village, from jewelers to restaurateurs, have signed a petition pleading for government to help as the sand threatens to change the area forever.

“It needs a temporary fix right now, a band-aid, then it needs a permanent solution,” Mallah said. “If not, you’re going to see all of this disappear.”

The unwanted beach has also created a safety hazard. It attracts children and adults who play and fish on the deceiving shoreline and get pulled in by the current.

Madeira Beach Fire Chief Clint Belk said John’s Pass has become the top site for water rescues. The sand has caused the current to move more rapidly because it has a narrower pass to move through.

In a letter to the city last month, Belk cited an example of a mother and son whose kayak got stuck between the John’s Pass Bridge and a wooden structure. The kayak flipped and firefighters were able to quickly rescue them from the current only because they were already on site tending to a gas leak.

“Without a resolution to this problem, I can say we are on borrowed time before something more serious happens,” Belk wrote.

Fishermen wait around for their catch to be cleaned at Hubbard's Marina at John's Pass, on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020 in Madeira Beach.
Fishermen wait around for their catch to be cleaned at Hubbard's Marina at John's Pass, on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020 in Madeira Beach. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

The Army Corps of Engineers is preparing to conduct a feasibility study to look at coastal storm damage solutions for the shorelines between Treasure Island and Long Key. But that analysis would not include the sand intrusion problem at John’s Pass, according to Army Corps spokesman David Ruderman.

If stakeholders wanted the federal government to investigate the sand intrusion issue, Ruderman said Pinellas County would have to first request an Army Corps study.

Pinellas County Public Works Director Kelli Levy said Madeira Beach hasn’t yet asked the county to solicit a study from the Army Corps. But city and county officials are scheduled to discuss the issue in a private meeting on Nov. 6 with business owners, state and federal legislators, and the Army Corps.

Even if a study was requested, the authorization process and study could take several years, Levy said. And the project costs would have to be split with the local government.

“I’m hoping we walk out of there with a short-term fix,” Hubbard said of the Nov. 6 meeting. “If it’s just finger pointing and doing studies, then we’re looking at a 10-year fix, and we’ll have to leave.”

A small beach has been steadily growing along the boardwalk at John's Pass due to sand buildup over the decades. The creation of a beach where there shouldn't be one means people are swimming in dangerous currents and in a channel where vessels are moving through constantly. The issue is also threatening local businesses like Hubbard's Marina, whose dock is being intruded with sand.
A small beach has been steadily growing along the boardwalk at John's Pass due to sand buildup over the decades. The creation of a beach where there shouldn't be one means people are swimming in dangerous currents and in a channel where vessels are moving through constantly. The issue is also threatening local businesses like Hubbard's Marina, whose dock is being intruded with sand. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

So what is causing the sand intrusion in the first place? A combination of factors, according to Ping Wang, a University of South Florida geology professor who has studied the area.

Wang said a strong flood current brings sand into the channel but a naturally weak ebb current on the north side struggles to flush intruding sand out to sea. The ebb current isn’t as weak on the south end of the channel, which is why the Treasure Island side is not having the same problem, Wang said.

The state replaced the John’s Pass Bridge in 2010, and the new vertical columns are larger than the previous bridge. This structure further impedes the flow out of the channel, Wang said, which may be why sedimentation has accelerated in recent years.

There has also been nourishment of beaches to the north over the past two decades, which has increased the amount of sand that can be moved south with the tide. But Wang said it is not realistic to stop nourishing the beaches, and nourishment is only a secondary cause.

Aerial photos show sand beginning to accumulate in the pass as early as 1957, long before nourishment began.

Wang said a solution could be a large scale dredging project to rid sand for potentially a decade, but more analysis is needed for a long-term solution.

Hubbard wants the city to extend beach groins that sit perpendicular to Madeira Beach and help prevent sand from traveling south. The city secured $250,000 this year from the Legislature for the project, but Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed the award within $1 billion of cuts to the state budget.

Hubbard also wants to see the rock jetties that wrap around the north and south ends of the pass extended. But Wang said extending the jetties may not be optimal as it would cause problems for neighboring beaches to the north and south.

In the meantime, John’s Pass village business owners worry about how much time they have for a solution. Mary Matthews, who owns Gray’s Jewelers on the boardwalk, said businesses will be impacted if John’s Pass becomes known as the area’s top site for water rescues.

“The tide is dangerous, people are wading out there in the sand and I’ve watched kids have to be rescued by jet skis,” Matthews said. “Right now, everybody has the jurisdiction to say ‘it’s not my problem.'”

Mary Matthews, owner of Gray Jewelers at John's Pass, remembers when the water used to come up right to the boardwalk, on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020 in Madeira Beach.
Mary Matthews, owner of Gray Jewelers at John's Pass, remembers when the water used to come up right to the boardwalk, on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020 in Madeira Beach. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

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