It is no secret Florida’s famous for its beaches. With more than 800 miles, tourists from around the world flock to them for sun, surf, and water recreation. However, overhauls at the Army Corps of Engineers have stalled more than half of Florida’s beach renourishment projects. What’s followed is a rare move from Florida politics: a bipartisan memorial supported from both sides of the aisle, CS/HM 1411: Shore Protection (read the Senate and House memorials). This memorial urges the U.S. Congress and the president to allow these beach renourishment projects to continue.
According to Pepper Uchino, president of the Florida Shore and Beach Preservation Association, this USACOE change started affecting Florida’s beach renourishment projects in 2015. The cause: Due to complications while trying to revitalize beaches affected by 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, the USACOE moved to practice more consistency across the nation when dealing with beach renourishment. This means now the USACOE uses the same policies and regulations for beaches from California to New York to the Sunshine State.
For the USACOE, this streamlines the process of beach renourishment throughout the nation.
It, however, simultaneously creates issues when dealing with Florida legislation that’s dictated Florida beach use and renourishment for more than a half-century. These laws allow for beaches below the high water line to be publicly owned since 1970. The Florida State Constitution, Article X, Section 11 says that “the title to lands under navigable waters, within the boundaries of the state, which have not been alienated, including beaches below mean high water lines, is held by the state, by virtue of its sovereignty, in trust for all the people.”
Florida’s a unique situation,” said Uchini. “There’s a law that creates all of this public land and they should take it into consideration.”
The Issue with Easements
Currently, the USACOE requires all projects to have perpetual easements. “Perpetual easements” means the ongoing right to use the land for recreation and/or construction. The USACOE requires them for beach renourishment. This proves problematic in Florida, where the government already owns large parts of the beach that get renourished.
Surveyors set an Erosion Control Line when renourishing Florida beaches for the first time. This dictates what is private land (all land from the ECL facing inland) and what is public land (all land from the ECL facing towards the water). Even after renourishment, this line does not change. Therefore, it creates large amounts of dry sand beach that Florida residents publicly own. Easements differ from public property.
In the past, USACOE renourishment projects in Florida came into compliance, but not with easements. Instead, Florida projects comply with waivers and other processes. However, these processes technically did not noncomply, but proved useful due to Florida’s unique legislation.
This is no longer the case.
Another issue, said Uchino, is the interpretation of policies by the USACOE. These deny project waiver requests for the local project sponsor. This halts payment for sand, essential for beach renourishment. However, this stoppage technically goes against federal law. “Local project sponsors” are usually local governments using tax dollars to pay for beach renourishment.
Furthermore, according to the USACOE, once it authorizes a project, it has authorization in perpetuity for federal emergency funds; the funds often used within beach restoration projects following heavy storms and hurricanes. This combination of issues has led to restricted access to emergency funds. It’s also caused 19 of the 27 federal renourishment projects across Florida to halt indefinitely.
When asked about the recently halted beach renourishment projects, Michelle Roberts, spokesperson for the USACOE Jacksonville district sent The Gabber Newspaper this statement: “Our mission is to protect the citizens of Florida and our Nation, and it is a mission we take very seriously. USACE has not abandoned any federal shore protection projects or the citizens they protect.”
According to Roberts, Col. Booth of the USACOE also visited several renourishment sites where easements were not granted.
“Homeowners expressed concern about some of the specific language in the easement documents,” said Roberts. “Col. Booth has forwarded those concerns to our headquarters for their consideration.”
Pinellas Beach Renourishment and Environmental and Economic Gems
For Pinellas County, where some of Florida’s beach nourishment projects first began to stall, this issue hits home. Advocates consider beach renourishment a vital part of protecting the expansive coastline — for both economic and ecological reasons.
“Beaches in Florida, they’re economic engines and environmental gems,” said Uchino. “They are the number one identifier of Florida’s brand. Not only that, healthy beaches provide habitat for a lot of endangered species… so there are a lot of benefits here [to have healthy beaches] and a lot of potential negative consequences for inaction.”
Healthy beaches are a massive economic draw to Florida, bringing in roughly $56 billion dollars annually, according to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection. They also help protect property and families from storm surges and hurricanes. Numerous species of threatened and endangered plants and animals, such as sea turtles, nesting shorebirds, and plant life, use the beaches and dunes. According to Uchino, if the Florida House of Representatives and the ACOE cannot reach a deal, Florida’s economy and wildlife could soon get severely impacted.
What is the Beach Renourishment Memorial?
The creation of the memorial followed. A memorial is a petition that summarizes important information for the federal government. This Memorial does so regarding Florida’s beach renourishment projects. Both Republicans and Democrats in the Florida House of Representatives support this, a rare move in Florida’s recent political history.
Uchino met with House Representative and environmental scientist Lindsay Cross regarding the issue and the possible ecological and economic effects that follow. The idea of drafting a memorial was born. In a statement released by the Office of Representative Cross, she states:
“Our local partners are working hard to maintain these beaches that drive our local economies and we need our federal partners to support these efforts. With a change in federal policy, we’ll have the ability to rebuild our battered shorelines, safeguard our infrastructure, improve our resiliency, and enjoy a day at the beach.”
Widespread support of the memorial that crossed political lines followed. This led to a seemingly united effort to urge Congress to make the USACOE take Florida’s unique legislation into account when ruling whether beach renourishment projects comply.
“We have support from both Republicans and Democrats in the House, congressional side too, because this policy affects so many that it crosses political boundaries,” said Uchino. “Democrat, Republican, it doesn’t matter on this particular issue. It’s affecting us all.
What’s Next for Pinellas Beaches?
According to Uchino, the memorial now will continue to the Florida Senate. Its supporters hope it gains more support as time goes on, leading to action from the federal government. In the meantime, the ACOE is standing by its move to create a more streamlined system of managing renourishment projects across the United States.
However, in Florida, the USACOE policy regarding beach renourishment will continue to get pushback from locals.
“I don’t think this can be overstated how critical it is [the completion of beach renourishment projects] to the state, ” said Uchino. “I would hate to jeopardize all of the investment and time, money and effort spent on keeping Florida beaches some of the best in the world just because of a rigid policy interpretation.”
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