Pinellas may be able to pay for beach renourishment by itself after all

A new analysis gives a more optimistic picture of the county’s ability to restore its eroded beaches — without worrying about the Army Corps of Engineers’ policies.
Gary Gepfrey, 67, of Seminole walks down a path between eroded sand dunes along Indian Rocks Beach after Hurricane Idalia last month. The storm worsened erosion on Pinellas County's beaches.
Gary Gepfrey, 67, of Seminole walks down a path between eroded sand dunes along Indian Rocks Beach after Hurricane Idalia last month. The storm worsened erosion on Pinellas County's beaches. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Sept. 14

CLEARWATER — Not long ago, the option of Pinellas County paying for beach renourishment by itself — an end-run around the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with whom the county is locked in a dispute — looked like a grim one.

“A couple of months ago, the sky was falling, as far as making decisions on beaches or baseball,” County Commissioner Charlie Justice said Thursday, during a joint meeting of the commission and Pinellas’ tourism board, the Tourist Development Council.

But what Justice heard Thursday was “incredibly encouraging,” he said. A new analysis by county staff shows that Pinellas could take on the full cost of restoring its badly eroded beaches if it needed to, and maybe even do so comfortably, without precluding funding for other major projects.

It was a marked change from what county commissioners heard in July: That the county would quickly burn through money doing renourishment on its own; that the extra funding needed could jeopardize other projects, such as a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium.

The county has for years been stuck at an impasse with the Army Corps of Engineers, which periodically renourishes beaches on Pinellas barrier islands.

The U.S. government typically covers about two-thirds of renourishment costs, but the process has to follow Army Corps policy. In the last decade, it began to require that 100% of beachfront property owners grant permanent public access to land they own within the project area, rather than temporary access while work is ongoing.

The county has been able to secure fewer than half of the 461 easements needed on the largest project area, Sand Key, with property owners fearful that they’d be signing away their land. It has sought to compromise with the Corps, but it’s acknowledged recently that it may need to find another way to get the renourishment done.

Hurricane Idalia only made the problem more visible, as it battered already-eroded beaches.

“I really do believe there’s a solution here working with the Corps,” County Administrator Barry Burton said. “It’s frustrating, because it’s taking too long and we’ve seen the risk associated with that.”

Burton and his staff emphasized that the model presented Thursday is a forecast, not a crystal ball. It doesn’t include funding for emergency nourishment due to storm damage, which the county would have to cover if it doesn’t secure the easements the Corps wants.

But the 40-year outlook does incorporate funding for a Rays stadium, the planned Phillies expansion in Clearwater, cultural institutions and whatever may happen to the Toytown former landfill site, long discussed as a potential home for sporting development.

Regular beach renourishment would cost about $484.6 million over the next forty years, about a quarter of its capital tourist-tax income during that time, according to the analysis. That’s more than the county would take in from the half-cent tourist tax it now dedicates to beach renourishment, but not so much as to break the bank. Though reserves would dwindle during renourishment years, Assistant County Administrator Kevin Knutson said, the net revenue over four decades would be more than $728 million.

Spend your days with Hayes

Spend your days with Hayes

Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter

Columnist Stephanie Hayes will share thoughts, feelings and funny business with you every Monday.

You’re all signed up!

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

Explore all your options

The projections were based on what Burton called a “very, very worst-case scenario,” one in which the county makes no progress with the Corps and the state refuses to help pay for renourishment. It also assumes that the tourist-tax formula, which puts 40% of the tax toward capital projects and the rest toward marketing and advertising, remains unchanged.

Meanwhile, one of the most urgent tasks on the county’s plate now is emergency beach nourishment in the wake of Idalia. Burton said the county plans to have it done during “this hurricane season,” but a timeline was still unclear.

“If we can make that happen tomorrow, we’ll make it happen tomorrow,” he said. “But it’s more complicated than that.”