A strip of beach in the Sand Key nourishment project highlights the property easements that have been received, shown in green, and others that have not, in red.

Column: Cooperation needed to protect Pinellas’ beaches, economy

From left are U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, County Commissioner Pat Gerard and County Commissioner Dave Eggers.

Here in Pinellas we take pride in our beaches. They provide us with valuable recreational opportunities; they give local and endangered wildlife a place to call home; and they support our region’s tourism-based economy. Less talked about, but perhaps equally important, our beaches also serve as a buffer for flooding and storm surge, saving lives and protecting infrastructure and property when a storm hits.

Without our beaches, Pinellas wouldn’t be the community we know today. Without our beaches, Pinellas would be at increased risk of storm damage, particularly for those who live and work in our beach communities. Without our beaches, our economy and way of life would take an enormous hit.

That’s why Pinellas County partners with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to keep our beaches healthy and thriving, by renourishing them with new sand every 6-7 years. In order to do this, the Corps requires that all property owners along the length of the Pinellas County Shore Protection Project at Sand Key, from Clearwater to Redington Beach, sign easements to allow the Corps to do its work. Currently, Indian Rocks Beach through Redington Shores have not met this requirement.

Unfortunately, unless the county can obtain signed easements from all property owners along the length of this segment, the Corps has informed us it could postpone the nourishment until the easements are received, leaving the Sand Key segment of our coast unprotected and without new sand.

Being unable to proceed with the next scheduled nourishment means that we won’t be able to keep our beaches in pristine condition; our tourism-dependent economy will take a big hit; and those who live, work, and play along our coast will face a significantly increased risk of damage and destruction from storms.

A lot of misinformation about the intent of the easements has been spread, causing a number of beachfront owners to unfortunately hold off on acting in our community’s best interest. But it is also true that the Corps’ easement requirement is arduous and inconsistent with past procedures. This is especially true when you take into account that the Corps is requiring easements well into the sand dunes, which would not receive sand under the planned project.

That’s why we’ve been seeking flexibility from the Army Corps’ easement policy. Congressman Crist recently sent a letter to the Corps asking for the lifting of the easement requirement for areas where sand will not be placed. This would give Pinellas County the flexibility to continue moving forward on this critical infrastructure project.

Ultimately, though, it is the Army Corps of Engineers that will determine how much flexibility to provide and whether to proceed with the project. The Corps funds 62.8% of the project’s cost.

We thank those homeowners who have already signed easements. And while we will continue pressing the Corps to grant our request and lift unnecessary requirements, we encourage homeowners that haven’t yet signed an easement to please do so as soon as possible. Please visit https://www.pinellascounty.org/environment/coastalMngmt/easements.htm to learn more.

It is imperative that the Pinellas County Shore Protection Project proceed on schedule, so that we here in Pinellas can continue to enjoy our beautiful beaches, preserve our environment, our economy, our way of life, and protect our coastal communities from natural disasters.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist serves Florida’s 13th District, which includes Pinellas County. Pat Gerard is chair of the Pinellas County Commission, and Dave Eggers is vice chair.