What to do about Pinellas’ beach erosion standoff | Editorial
Protecting our beaches is too important. All sides need to work harder to find common ground.
A portion of Indian Rocks Beach is seen before and after Hurricane Idalia.
A portion of Indian Rocks Beach is seen before and after Hurricane Idalia. [ Photo courtesy of Ping Wang ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Sept. 14

For decades, Pinellas County has relied on the Army Corps of Engineers to help renourish its beaches. Adding sand to the shoreline helps protect homes and businesses from storms, while also underpinning one of the county’s main tourist draws — beautiful beaches. As of late, the expensive process has ground to a halt. The battle over how to proceed is wasting valuable time as more sand erodes and communities become more vulnerable to the next storm. The only way forward will require compromise.

Pinellas’ renourishment projects often cost millions of dollars, with the Army Corps paying more than 60% and the county responsible for the rest. The state established an erosion control line, tied to the mean high water line before renourishment began decades ago. The public owns and is allowed to access any sand placed on the seaward side of the erosion control line. In its beach renourishment fact sheet, the Corps cites a law that forbids its participation in projects on shorelines that the public cannot access. But private property holders don’t like the idea of ceding control of any part of their property.

The Army Corps has three renourishment projects on hold in Pinellas — a stretch from North Redington Beach to north of Belleair Beach, and two others at Treasure Island and Long Key, which includes St. Pete Beach, the Tampa Bay Times’ Jack Evans reported recently. The Corps has insisted that 100% of the beachfront property owners in those areas provide permanent public access to part of their land, a major change in the required percentage from prior renourishment projects. In the stretch from North Redington to Belleair, fewer than half of the property owners have agreed to the easement. The other two zones haven’t reached the 100% threshold, either.

The Corps doesn’t want to put sand in front of some properties, while leaving the ones owned by people who refuse to grant the easement unprotected. It says that the barrier provided by renourishing beaches works best without any gaps. That makes sense. Why allow an obvious chink in the armor easily exploited by incoming seas? But it’s hard to get any sizable group of people to unanimously agree to anything, let alone convincing hundreds of people to sign over part of their property rights. The Corps must know that 100% is an impossible standard, but it has yet to relent. It’s time to compromise. Lower the percentage to something more reasonable, so that the county has a fighting chance of making it happen.

As for the county, it could pay for the whole project, but that would put a serious strain on the budget. The Corps’ fact sheet on renourishment also says that counties can recoup lost federal beach renourishment money from property owners who hold out, but that would be wildly unpopular in some circles and politically fraught. County Commissioner René Flowers called on the Corps to more narrowly define the easement to ensure that it’s clear the only public access would be to perform renourishment work, though that idea could conflict with the requirement that the public have access to areas renourished using federal money.

Property owners will also have to bend a little. This isn’t just about protecting — or not protecting — their own properties. It’s about ensuring that one of the county’s main economic engines remains intact. Yes, the Corps is playing hardball with its 100% requirement, and property owners should not have to deal with unruly crowds or trespassers who use their properties to access the beach. But the county can ill afford to wait much longer to repair some of these beaches. Just look at the damage from Hurricane Idalia, which tore apart many of the beaches and the dunes, leaving some areas more susceptible to erosion and storm surge than they have been in decades. That’s not good for the county, nor is it good for individual property owners. Defending a slice of your private property just to let your entire home wash away is not a winning strategy.

It’s easy to say now that we should never have built so much on these coastal islands — that we should have let them remain natural barriers. But the reality is that we did and that they are important to our current way of life. People live, work and play on these shorelines. All involved shouldn’t allow what amounts to a policy standoff to jeopardize these shorelines any further. Everyone has sand in this game.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.