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Sunset Beach reopens Saturday, and more to know about dune restoration

Pinellas County’s work to replenish dunes battered by Hurricane Idalia likely will extend through December.
 
A landscaping team works to embed sea oat plugs into a reconstituted dune at Sunset Beach Place in Treasure Island on Oct. 18 as part of a restoration project.
A landscaping team works to embed sea oat plugs into a reconstituted dune at Sunset Beach Place in Treasure Island on Oct. 18 as part of a restoration project. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 28, 2023

Two month ago, Hurricane Idalia passed Pinellas County more than 100 miles offshore — and, despite the distance, it battered the county’s coastline.

The wreckage underscored how vulnerable the Pinellas coast is to a major storm, and how important the dunes are to protecting what stands beyond them. Though Idalia damaged some property and scattered sand across Gulf Boulevard, county officials have said the buffer created by the dunes prevented it from being worse.

Pinellas County has been working since then to restore dunes. Officials from the county and from Treasure Island said this week that they expected the first of those, Sunset Beach, to reopen to the public Saturday after being closed for more than a month.

Here are four things to know about the dune restoration project — including timelines for restoring and reopening other beaches.

How it works

The typical renourishment work done every several years by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — which is now on hold amid a dispute between the county and the Corps — involves dredging sand from offshore and pumping it onto the beaches. But Pinellas’ dune restoration process is different: In this case, the sand comes in dump trucks from central Florida, with as many as 200 loads per day dropped at the beach, said Kelli Hammer Levy, the county’s public works director.

Another set of dump trucks moves the sand into a long pile along the edge of the beach. Then more heavy machinery shapes the dune into its designed height and grade. Once that’s done, planters seed the dunes with drought-tolerant plants. Levy said the planting contractor monitors each beach for 90 days afterward to make sure that 90% of the plants survive.

The county’s last step is installing new signs reminding beachgoers to keep off the dunes. Speaking of which …

A sign warns visitors to stay off the dunes on Sunset Beach at Treasure Island on Oct. 18 where sand has been reconstituted as part of a restoration project.
A sign warns visitors to stay off the dunes on Sunset Beach at Treasure Island on Oct. 18 where sand has been reconstituted as part of a restoration project. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Keep off the dunes — and construction sites

Walking or crawling on established dunes can cause severe damage, and the same is true of dunes under construction. Despite signage and messages from public officials, though, problems with dune trampling have persisted.

In Belleair Beach, where dune restoration is ongoing, some people have trespassed on private property in an effort to get to the beach despite access points being closed, Mayor Dave Gattis said during a meeting of Pinellas’ Tourist Development Council earlier this month.

“They will not stay away,” he said. “It’s nearly impossible to stop them.”

Levy said she understands that people who planned vacations months ago, only to show up and find the beach closed, are frustrated. The city of Treasure Island has tried to soften the blow by providing vacationers with free parking passes to other beaches within the city while Sunset has been closed. But some seem to delight in breaking the rules.

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“We have just had a few that are incredibly disruptive and it almost seems purposeful,” she said. “They know it’s closed — why would you pull barbecue equipment on the beach?”

When will the work be done?

Crews have been working on dunes at Sunset and three other beaches: Pass-a-Grille, Upham and Belleair.

A recently planted sea oat joins a population of oats on a reconstituted dune at Sunset Beach in Treasure Island on Oct. 18 as part of a restoration project.
A recently planted sea oat joins a population of oats on a reconstituted dune at Sunset Beach in Treasure Island on Oct. 18 as part of a restoration project. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Pass-a-Grille is expected to open soon after Sunset — the county’s beach timeline webpage projects that work will be done by Nov. 12. But Levy said part of the beach may have to be reclosed briefly for more work, as some dune areas were built lower than designed. For now, the beach’s seven southernmost access points are closed.

The dune work at Upham Beach covers a short stretch, with one access point closed. Levy said she expects planting to be done there next week. The county’s timeline projects a Nov. 19 reopening.

A half-dozen access points remain closed at Belleair Beach, where Levy said workers were set to finish hauling sand by this weekend. Grading will begin next week, and the beach is projected to reopen on Nov. 22.

Levy said work will begin soon on two segments at Indian Rocks Beach, which the county currently projects to be done in mid- to late December. Meanwhile, city and county officials are still looking to obtain the necessary permission from property owners to do similar work at Indian Shores, Redington Shores, Redington Beach and Madeira Beach.

What does this mean for beach renourishment?

While the county is handling the dune restoration itself — and footing the bill through tourist tax funds, with about $23.5 million approved so far — officials have said they still hope to come to an agreement with the Army Corps on regular beach renourishment. If the sides can’t agree in the next year, local leaders have indicated they’ll look to have the county do renourishment by itself, also using tourist tax dollars.

But Brian Lowack, the president and CEO of the county’s tourism agency, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, said the dune restoration project has given him some sense of how the Corps could alter its policies concerning the public-access easements it is demanding in order to do the work.

“There’s a way to draft those easements that residents will sign,” Lowack said. “We’ve been working on getting some of the easements the Corps requires for years without success. Kelli and her team were able to put together easements (for dune restoration) that residents were willing to sign within days or weeks.”