Over half of Pinellas County beaches are “critically eroded,” yet officials lack vital funding for renourishment projects – due to an impasse with the Army Corps of Engineers and private property owners.
Commissioners brainstormed potential solutions at a work session Thursday and broached the idea of using additional bed tax dollars that could potentially fund a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium. County Administrator Barry Burton stressed the importance of a federal partnership and said self-funding would liquidate the “entire tourism development tax money just for renourishment.”
Kelli Levy, public works director, said the issue arose in late 2017 when the Corps began requiring all area homeowners to sign a permanent easement document. She also explained that renourishment mitigates storm damage and bolsters environmental resiliency.
Multiple long-awaited projects are now on hold, and Commission Chair Janet Long said the timing could not be worse.
“We are going into full-bore hurricane season,” Long said. “The condition of our beaches is a life, health and safety issue.”
Levy began the presentation by noting that 21.4 of the county’s 35 miles of beaches critically need restoration. Workers renourish 12 miles periodically, and an expansive, $57 million Sand Key project set for 2024 is now on hold indefinitely.
In addition, officials have paused renourishment initiatives scheduled to start in the fall on Treasure Island, Long Key and Pass-a-Grille while the Corps reconfirms easement acquisitions.
“When you look at our federal agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers, this is a storm damage reduction project,” Levy said. “That’s what it is – that’s why the Army Corps does these projects.”
She added that private property values along those stretches of coastline exceed $10 billion. Including public infrastructure exponentially increases the cost of what is at stake.
Federal funding typically covers about 60% of beach renourishment costs. Local and state dollars split the balance.
A new requirement that all private property owners must sign “perpetual” easements has thrown the process in limbo since 2018. Levy said that was due to the Corps encountering issues in New Jersey following Hurricane Sandy.
However, she explained that Florida has a unique erosion control line that allows access to public beaches along private property lines. Levy said that messaging is falling on deaf ears.
While the county has enough funding to complete scheduled projects totaling $80 million, Levy said officials would incur a $7 million gap in 2027. That deficit would soar to $175 million in 2045.
In addition, Levy said county coffers alone could not begin to mitigate hurricane damage. She said Pinellas beaches have “30 years of sand out there,” and local dunes ceased to exist after Hurricane Elena in 1984.
Levy added that reconstructing the dunes would “probably be three to four times a normal renourishment.” Burton issued a stark warning for residents.
“We cannot do it alone,” Burton said. “If this is not a federal project, the federal government is not coming to help. That is a scary thought. That is what we’re facing, and with a Corps that is unwilling to bend.”
Burton told commissioners that Pinellas was the first county government to encounter these issues with the agency, which operates under the U.S. Army’s umbrella. He said Corps officials recently began looking at how the easement requirement affects projects throughout the state, and the problem has “snowballed.”
Levy added that 10 other Florida counties, one city and a county in North Carolina, New York and New Jersey have reached a similar stalemate with the Corps and private property owners. Levy said the agreement’s language, particularly the term “perpetual,” is causing fear among residents.
She said county administrators also believe the term is unnecessary. Levy explained that the policy is not law, making it easier to change.
“But at this moment, the Army Corps is holding firm that 100% of perpetual public access easements are necessary to ensure federal support,” she added.
Long has met with White House officials and spoke directly to the President about the renourishment issues. Those talks failed to garner a resolution.
Bed taxes and a ballpark
A half percent of the county’s 1% bed tax helps fund the renourishment projects. That brings in about $8 million annually, and Commissioner Charlie Justice said officials could “tweak the formula” or use money earmarked for other initiatives.
Long said county leadership should consider the beach issues before deciding whether to dedicate $600 million to a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium this year. Commissioner Chris Latvala noted that the Tourist Development Council has also recommended funding other projects – including $34 million for a Dali Museum expansion.
“If we don’t have a beach, we don’t have tourism,” Latvala added. “I have concerns that don’t have anything to do with those projects; it has to do with us having the money.”
Burton pledged that administrators would continue working to secure federal funding and conduct community outreach to combat misinformation regarding easements. Meanwhile, Levy said they could apply for emergency authorizations “to prevent something catastrophic.”