Tierra Verde’s Grand Canal needs major dredging. Who will pay for it?

As nearby residents grow frustrated with the deteriorating canal, a patchwork of state and federal approvals could put off the sand dredging until 2023.
Aerial drone photo of the Tierra Verde Grand Canal pictured on Thursday, July 8, 2021 in Tierra Verde.
Aerial drone photo of the Tierra Verde Grand Canal pictured on Thursday, July 8, 2021 in Tierra Verde. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Jul. 8, 2021|Updated Jul. 9, 2021

The Tierra Verde Grand Canal is filling up with sand.

The water flow has slowed in the waterway snaking along the marina, condos and private homes that make up the quiet community. A gated community built along the water now has a private beach that has sprouted since 2018. For years, residents along the canal have called on the county to speed up a dredging process that would clear it of sand. The dredging itself would take about three months.

But the timeline for the project may take until 2023, Kelli Levy, Pinellas County’s public works director said during Thursday’s Board of Commissioners meeting.

A flurry of state regulations, funding sources and feasibility studies makes the process long and complicated — there are more than a dozen checkpoints before the county can apply for state and federal permits, which then could take 13 months to process.

“I’ve heard a lot about ‘can we hurry this up’” said Levy. “And we can to a point. But there is a lot of permitting hurdles to dredging out a new project like this.”

The cost of the total assessment can range between $585,000 and $3.182 million. The county is trying to figure out how to pay for the project - from private residents, county, state or federal funds.

Residents say its uses are far more wide-ranging than just Tierra Verde residents. At last month’s county commission meeting, seven residents of nearby properties spoke of a deteriorating waterway used more by visitors than residents as it becomes more shallow and hazardous.

Shielia Nagley, a widow with a fixed income, said the cost of the project would be a hardship for her and others in her position. Several said that they were frustrated that they pay a state submerged land tax - a fee that comes with waterfront properties - while the state won’t cover the cost of the dredging. Brad O’Brien, general manager of the Port 32 marina, said the vast majority of the canal’s visitors are not residents.

The Army Corps of Engineers indicated they have no interest in making it a federal project, Levy said Thursday. And the submerged land lease that waterfront owners pay to the state is not shared with local governments. State grants are for areas that are used more by the public.

“This is more of a local channel that supports the property owners that live in and around there,” Levy said.

The best case scenario, Levy said, would be grouping the sand dredge projects with ongoing beach nourishment projects for Pinellas’ larger beaches. If the sand is approved for public use, the county could hire a contractor to move the sand to Pass-A-Grille, where the beach is losing sand due to erosion. This would potentially open up more funding sources down the line, as the long-term nourishment projects are shared with state and federal funds.

Read inspiring stories about ordinary lives

Read inspiring stories about ordinary lives

Subscribe to our free How They Lived newsletter

You’ll get a remembrance of Tampa Bay residents we’ve lost, including heartwarming and amusing details about their lives, every Tuesday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Yet that’s one of four main funding possibilities for the project. With its classification as a local navigation project, it ostensibly would not be eligible for federal or state grant programs. Another option is to charge condo owners who face the water. And the project could potentially pull funding from other sources, like the county’s general fund.

As the permit approval process rolls through, Levy said, the county will better understand how much residents could be charged.

“You have the actual need today, and then all of that precedent-setting decision-making that we’re doing, how does that affect us tomorrow or (in) 10 years,” said commissioner Charlie Justice. “To me, it’s an interesting question we think of this as a navigational way? We’re thinking of it as an amenity for nice homes on the water. But if we think of it as a navigational way, it just brings up a whole other way of looking at it.”

• • •

Clarification: The Pinellas County Board of Commissioners met during a public meeting Thursday. Kelli Levy is the county’s public works director. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Levy’s title.