She was wearing a mask, but there was no hiding the disappointment in Kelli Levy’s voice when she told county commissioners Nov. 13 that some of Pinellas County’s beaches were in serious trouble.
The county’s Department of Public Works director was delivering the news that the entire $40 million-plus Sand Key beach nourishment project was in doubt after the county failed to secure the needed easements from property owners in three of the seven municipalities seeking sand.
Officials thought they had until the spring of 2021 to acquire the 461 easements, Levy said, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers notified the county Nov. 6 that it moved up the deadline and required an update in order to prepare for its fiscal year 2022 budgeting, which will include the design and permitting for the 2024 nourishment of Sand Key.
The project area consists of nine miles of the beach in Clearwater, Belleair Beach, Indian Rocks Beach, Indian Shores, Redington Shores, North Redington Beach and Redington Beach.
However, more than 200 property owners in Indian Rocks Beach, Indian Shores and Redington Shores have resisted providing the permanent easements that would allow public use of the area being replenished.
Levy said the county would ask the Corps to proceed in the area where easements were secured, which constitutes 55% of the project. She added that staff at the Corps were supportive, but they said it’s unlikely those who make the final call will agree.
“When it goes to headquarters, it is probable that the whole project will be canceled,” she said, citing the cost-to-benefit formula the Army uses.
If that happens, she says, those beaches wouldn’t be eligible for nourishing again until 2030 — and the easements would still be necessary.
By that time, most of the beach would be gone, she said. Especially considering about half of the sand brought in two years ago is already gone, she said, adding that Tropical Storm Eta caused considerable erosion.
County commissioners said the impact of losing those beaches goes far beyond that area.
“Eventually, this is enough to affect our whole economy in Pinellas County,” Commissioner Janet Long said.
Long said the residents need to understand the implications of their decision.
“I shudder to think how these people are going to feel who are so protective of their backyard when, oh, by the way, they don’t have a backyard anymore because the beaches are gone,” Long said.
Indian Rocks Beach Mayor Joanne “Cookie” Kennedy said on Nov. 16 that losing the project would be devastating to small businesses already suffering from the pandemic.
“The last thing we need is for the Corps of Engineers and for our federal government not to renourish our beaches,” she said.
The Army has been nourishing the constantly eroding coastline since 1988, but it wasn’t until 2018 that it started requiring permanent easements in order to place sand on private property. Since the beach is being built with public funds, it would allow the public to use the easement area, which is one of the concerns of the holdouts.
In 2018, the Army Corps worked around those gaps, but it informed officials it wouldn’t do it again.
“Some of them (residents) feel like we could come out there and construct something other than a beach even though it specifically says we can only construct a beach,” Levy said. “They feel like we could authorize private activities in their backyard like concession stands and other things like that even though it is very clearly prohibited in the easement.”
She said county staff has conducted an extensive outreach program this past year and will send out a third mailing soon.
“But we are not expecting any positive feedback from that,” she said. “There has been a campaign out there by some other individuals … a negative campaign against the program.”
Commissioner Kathleen Peters said she would even be willing to knock on doors to inform residents how beaches serve as a barrier to protect property and the upland infrastructure.
There would be a lot of doors, though, because 242 of 461 easements are still needed.
Only 21 of 75 have signed off in Redington Shores, 79 of 159 in Indian Shores, and 73 of 180 in Indian Rocks Beach.
“We can’t seem to move the needle on what the belief system is out there,” Levy said. “With some folks, (they see it as) just a land grab.”
The federal government funds 60% of the project and the state and county split the remainder. So, Levy said the county could still move forward with a project, but it would be costly.
“If the Corps walks away and we would decide to do a project … the cost would likely fall entirely on our shoulders,” she said.
County Administrator Barry Burton said local government can only do so much, so staff will plead its case to the state’s federal legislators, including Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott.
He said the county has been working with U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist for years in an effort to change the way the Army approaches these projects, but has been unsuccessful.
Kennedy said she would be joining the effort to lobby federal officials and has already reached out to Crist’s office.
“I know that I’m not giving up,” she said on Nov. 16.
“We’re going to work on a plan to at least make sure we exhaust every single avenue that we can think of before the end of the year.”
In some cases, Levy added, the Corps is seeking easements where it is not even placing sand way up in the dunes.
“To walk from the entire project for someplace that we’re not placing sand is just such a huge risk for our community from a strong resiliency perspective but also for our economy and the environmental aspects that the beach provides as well,” she said.