The Army Corps of Engineers has denied a waiver that would have let a massive, already-behind-schedule beach renourishment project move forward in Pinellas County.
The thumbs-down from the Corps’ headquarters signals that it’s digging its heels in amid a years-long standoff with the county over the replenishment of sand on a critically eroded stretch of coastline. It may also mark a turning point, with county officials turning their eyes toward other potential sources of money so they can do the project without the Corps.
The pumping of tons of sand onto an 8½-mile stretch of Sand Key, from North Redington Beach in the south to north of Belleair Beach, is crucial to maintaining the shoreline as a tourism draw, habitat for endangered species and natural storm buffer, local leaders say.
The waiver would have freed Pinellas of its main source of conflict with the Corps: a rule that requires beachfront property owners to grant a perpetual easement, creating public access on part of their land next to the beach, in order for the Corps to do the work.
The denial from the Corps’ headquarters came despite approval from lower ranks of the Corps. Its Jacksonville district prepared the waiver on the county’s behalf last August, and its South Atlantic Division, in Atlanta, approved it weeks later.
The memo stating the waiver would be denied was undated. Kelli Levy, Pinellas County’s public works director, said the county was told weeks ago the waiver would be denied but had to request something in writing several times before receiving the memo Thursday night.
The permanent-easement rule, which the Corps implemented in the mid-2010s, was a change from previous decades, when it required only temporary easements to add sand to the beach every five to seven years. Paula S. Johnson, the Corps’ interim director of real estate, wrote in the memo that permanent easements are necessary to “manage uncertainty.”
Pinellas officials have long since hit a wall in trying to secure those easements, with about half of the property owners signing them.
“We’re just trying to make sure that we have done everything we possibly can to continue our relationships and this project and the collaboration we’ve had with the Army Corps,” Levy said. “If indeed there is no forward progress, then we’re going to have to have other conversations about how we move forward.”
There may be a few pathways left for the county to work with the Corps, which would take on nearly two-thirds of the $42 million the project would cost. Pinellas leaders visited the White House in March to seek help and have continued to talk to officials there. County Commission Chairperson Janet Long, who started the dialogue, declined to discuss the most recent conversations.
Last month, U.S. Rep. Anna Paulina Luna blasted the Corps in a letter, calling the easement rule “an ill-intentioned attempt ... to strip property rights from homeowners.” She’s drafted language, which Levy shared with the Tampa Bay Times, that would require the Corps to move forward without easements as part of a funding request for the project.
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
But Pinellas can and should take matters into its own hands, said North Redington Beach Mayor Bill Queen, whose town has lost all of its sand from the last renourishment in 2018. The county covers one-fifth of renourishment costs, which it funds through money set aside from tourist bed taxes.
The money in that pot could cover a larger portion of the project, Queen said. He said the county could dedicate more tourist tax money to renourishment, either from its capital projects fund or by reapportioning some of the 60% of tourism dollars that go to advertising and marketing. County Commissioner Chris Latvala has also advocated for the county to revisit that split.
“There’s not a hell of a lot of sense to advertise beaches if we have no sand on it,” Queen said.
Long is “sure (tourist tax funding) will be part of the discussion,” she said Friday. But while spending two days this week at a regional resiliency summit on Clearwater Beach, she said she’s concluded the county needs to step back, “reset” and “compile more data than we’ve looked at before.” Among the most poignant things she heard this week, she said, was a geologist noting that shorelines have been changing since the last ice age.
“If you think about that and then you look at our 35 miles of beach that we have in Pinellas County ... you have to take a deep breath and step back,” she said. “What will our shoreline look like 50 years from now?”
Thinking about how to harden beaches and rely less on renourishment is important, Queen said. But, he added, “we need to do this project now, and then we can think about long term.”
The cost of that missing sand is becoming ever more apparent, Levy said. Beaches provide a crucial buffer from hurricanes and other large storms, sapping some of the energy that rushes water to homes and roads beyond the shore.
Even smaller storms can hurt an already eroded beach, though: After last weekend’s storms, Levy went to the beach on Sand Key, just outside the Dan’s Island condominium complex. She found that it had been worn down to a narrow strip of dry sand before the dunes and, just past them, the condo tower.
“This is not even a significant (storm), and yet it had a significant impact out there,” she said. “We’ve got to do something.”