Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article contained an error regarding the percentage of federal funding devoted to beach renourishment. The error happened during the editing process and is not the fault of the writer. The Gabber Newspaper regrets the error.
Easements. It sounds like a comforting word. In the case of beach renourishment, though, it’s a homely one that can break up any plan to build beaches back along the shores of Pinellas. Thirty-five miles of sand on the west coast of Pinellas County, the barrier islands beaches, draws beach-goers from all over the world. Named by online websites like TripAdvisor as “the top beaches in the world” for the past 13 or so years, beaches from Clearwater to St. Pete Beach make for some of the most popular places to stay in Florida.
Pinellas Beach Renourishment
Here, the need for beach renourishment is perennial, although actual rebuilding of the sands and dunes only happens about every five years. They erode. Then, they get built back up to the same standards of protection or better. Beach erosion remains an ongoing problem for every inch of coastline; it becomes a bigger issue during hurricane season.
“Beach renourishment benefits people, homes, and the environment,” John Bishop, Coastal Management Coordinator of Pinellas County, says. He explains that renourishment protects homes with a greater barrier against weather; protects the environment with habitats for nesting birds and sea turtles; protects employment for the hundreds of workers who aid in the renourishment projects; and protects the sandy playground for people who visit these beaches.
“The funny thing about sea turtles is they won’t nest if there is no beach to nest in,” reports Bruno Falkenstein, who founded Sea Turtle Trackers. Involved in helping sea turtles since 1978, Falkenstein and his family also own and operate the Hurricane in Pass-a-Grille. “We have seen the consequences of beach erosion over the years,” explains Falkenstein. “I remember when there was less than five feet of sand in front of the snack bar on Pass-a-Grille beach. It was pretty alarming.” Falkenstein says the threat of a storm surge often gets mitigated by strong beach infrastructure.
“We can still see the results of hurricanes imprinted on the streets here in Pass-a-Grille,” he says.
St. Pete Beach’s Pass-a-Grille Commissioner Chris Marone perhaps sums it up best.
“It is a delicate balance between taking care of tourists, the environment, the beaches, the indigenous animals, the boaters and the homeowners,” he says.
Funding Pinellas Beach Renourishment
Funding beach renourishment is tricky. For years, Pinellas beaches have relied on a combination of funding. The standard? 65% from the federal government and 17.5% from Florida’s Tourist Development Tax. One-half of one percent of that tax gets set aside annually for beach renourishment projects, amounting to about $5 million or more.
“That is why the Army Corps of Engineers is important to renourish the beaches,” explains Bishop. The Army Corps represents that crucial 65% of federal funding.
What Are Easements, and Why Do They Matter?
Some may consider the current state and overall condition of the beaches grim. A few areas either erode to the five-foot-level noted by Falkenstein. Others become congested canals of sand, blocking waterways necessary for marine traffic to and from the wider waters.
“John’s Pass, Blind Pass, and Upham Beach will get their dredging and renourishment starting this year in the fall,” Bishop says. Pass-a-Grille beach and the Grand Canal have no easements blocking the progress of beach renourishment in these areas, he says, adding that the south Pinellas beaches have “100% compliance with the easements required by the Army Corps of Engineers.”
“The more northern beaches have a problem with easements,” explains Bishop. It seems that beaches from Madeira/the Redingtons to Clearwater areas have more residential property abutting or including the beaches. This represents a 14-mile stretch of beach from Clearwater Pass nearly to John’s Pass.
“The Army Corps of Engineers requires 100% compliance by these property owners,” Bishop says. Homeowners must agree to allow the easement “in perpetuity,” which means forever. Some homeowners do not want to “ease” their property rights forever. Some think that this means they give up their rights of ownership.
Private Property and Public Access
This has created nearly an impasse between the property owners and the federal government. Homeowners ask, “Does my property then become public domain?”
Right now, Pinellas County’s north beaches have “only about 48% compliance with the ‘in perpetuity’ easements,” Bishop says, adding that two other words have squeezed their way into the equation: “public access.” This becomes another worry for residents abutting north county beaches: Do they need to relinquish their privacy as well as their property? Does public access mean strangers can come on their property?
So, for some property owners on the beaches of Pinellas county, the word “easement” has shifted from a comfortable word to a dirty one.
“We haven’t given up yet,” says Bishop. “We hope we can find a solution and get all the beaches renourished as soon as possible”.