Pinellas County, town seek help from residents in bid to restore beaches

Left, a photo taken Sept. 13, 2017, shows the condition of the beach at Indian Rocks Beach prior to a nourishment project. Right, a photo taken Aug. 30, 2018, shows how the beach looks after.

INDIAN SHORES — In past beach nourishment projects, the Army Corps of Engineers gave towns and cities some leeway if some property owners failed to cooperate.

That won’t be the case this time, Pinellas County officials say.

If even one shoreline property owner refuses to sign a storm damage reduction easement for the Sand Key Beach Nourishment project slated for 2023, an entire town could forfeit its portion of the allotted sand.

And plenty have not.

With that in mind, 15 residents of Indian Shores came to the town’s Municipal Center on Feb. 11 for training on how to convince their neighbors to sign these crucial easements.

Mayor Patrick Soranno began by stating the urgency of the situation.

“We (Indian Shores) are a barrier island. No easements equals no sand equals no beach,” he said. Vice Mayor Diantha Schear and Town Council members Bill Smith and Mike Hackerson were also present to lend their support.

John E. Bishop, coastal management coordinator from Pinellas County environmental management, and Ashley J. Johnson, senior communications coordinator for county marketing and communications, began their presentation to the so-call “Beach Champions” by giving an overview of the area pertaining to Pinellas County.

The 35 miles of beach is divided into three projects: Sand Key, Treasure Island, and Long Key. Of the 35 miles, 21.4 are critically eroded.

The Sand Key Beach Nourishment Project consists of nine miles of the beach in Clearwater, Belleair Beach, Indian Rocks Beach, Indian Shores, Redington Shores, North Redington Beach and Redington Shores.

“The first Sand Key Beach nourishment took place in 1988 and has been replenished every five or six years,” Bishop said.

Johnson pointed out the importance of obtaining the easements, which are needed by the end of the year.

“(Signing the easements) is not only critical to combat erosion but also is essential to the economic well-being of the area in terms of tourism,” she said.

Funds for the project need to be solidified by 2021, with 60% federal funds, 20% from the state, and 20% from the county. The funds are not transferable to any other place or time.

To understand the scope of the Sand Key Beach nourishment, Bishop and Johnson showed a picture of the Empire State Building and said the amount of sand placed during the 2018 nourishment project was enough to fill the building.

“On average, we (Pinellas County beaches) lose 12 feet per year of beach due to sand erosion,” Bishop said, highlighting the point by showing pre- and post-nourishment photos of different locations in the Sand Key region from the past.

A long way to go

Bishop explained that the 1986 Water Resources Development Act prohibits federal participation in costs assigned to benefits to privately-owned shores. This, combined with the 1996 guidelines developed by the Army Corps of Engineers for perpetual public access easements to be applied for all shore protection projects, makes it necessary for all owners of affected beachfront properties to sign the easements.

A few owners did not sign easements the last time and the Corps worked around them to get the job done. That will not be the case this time.

Just over 30%, or 139 of the 461 easements needed for the entire project, have been signed as of Feb. 10. Of the 159 easements needed for Indian Shores, 124 of them still need to be signed.

Johnson dispelled some of the myths that keep some property owners from signing. The easement does not authorize construction of dune systems. The easement is solely for activities necessary for construction and operation of beach nourishment. Easements stay with the property when sold. No commercial enterprises or permanent structures will be constructed on the easement as part of public use. Once granted, the easement is perpetual and won’t need to be resigned.

The next meeting of the Beach Champions is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 25, 10 a.m., on the fourth floor of the Indian Shores Municipal Center. A “Sign for Sand” event will be held Tuesday, March 3, at 6 p.m. also at the Center. Beachfront owners are encouraged to come.

Three members from the Army Corps of Engineers will be present to answer questions in addition to Bishop and Johnson. Town administrators will also be on hand to help property owners fill out and submit their signed easements.

Johnson said the two main reasons property owners don’t sign has to do with two words: me and now. “It doesn’t just affect you; it affects everyone along the shoreline, and it affects the entire beach well into the future,” she said.