Pinellas County officials implemented an emergency plan in less than a week to construct new protective dunes to replace sand washed away by Hurricane Idalia, underscoring the project’s urgency.
The over $6 million project will reinforce a critically eroded, mile-long section of Sunset Beach in Treasure Island. The city government closed all parking lots and access points Sept. 20 until construction concludes in about a month.
Administrator Barry Burton relayed the welcome news to commissioners at their Sept. 19 meeting. He said the dunes would help protect waterfront homes and businesses until local leaders resolve an ongoing standoff with the Army Corps of Engineers and property owners.
“We’re looking at an extensive amount of repairs,” Burton said. “My intent is to sign these emergency orders as we get the easements.”
He added that “times is of the essence” and said Public Works Director Kelli Levy “has certainly moved with haste in trying to find solutions for our beaches.”
County officials considered over 21 of the county’s 35 miles of beaches critically eroded before Idalia. However, an impasse with the Corps and property owners has exacerbated the problem.
The agency now requires signed public easement documents from all owners in and around renourishment sites before it will fund the expensive projects. Many residents have refused due to language falsely suggesting they would permanently relinquish property rights.
“We’re using temporary construction easements to construct the dunes and … temporary erosion control measures where we can’t put in dunes,” Levy said. “The segments where we do not need additional easements are Pass-a-Grille, Belleair Beach, Clearwater and North Redington.”
Burton’s emergency procurement request followed a Sept. 19 event at Tropicana Field. St. Petersburg, County and Tampa Bay Rays leadership verbally agreed to build a new ballpark to prevent the team from relocating.
Beach issues could have derailed the project. The county will contribute about $300 million in bed taxes to help fund the $1.3 billion stadium.
However, commissioners also use the 6% surcharge on hotel stays to periodically strengthen the county’s primary economic driver – its beaches. Burton highlighted a “worst-case” funding model Sept. 14 that showed county coffers would have enough to fund renourishments without the Corps’, the Rays stadium, and several other capital projects.
Levy said she started formulating a plan Sept. 13 and would issue a notice to proceed immediately following the emergency authorization. “Dune construction is the gold standard,” she said.
“That’s what we want to do everywhere,” Levy added. “But where we cannot, we would like to put these ‘trap bags’ to protect property. If they (owners) don’t want them, then that is their decision to make.”
Due to extensive erosion, some beaches lack space to construct new dunes. Levy explained that sand-filled trap bags stand about four feet tall and provide a temporary barrier between property and wave action.
Commissioner Kathleen Peters noted that some owners would inevitably complain about the size. Levy said there was nothing else she could do at that point and would skip those properties.
However, Peters told Levy she could expect more easements in the coming days. “I was out knocking on doors Sunday to get them, and … that word spread really quickly,” Peters said.
She noted that residents also requested sea walls to protect their waterfront properties. Peters said many owners expressed concern that additional storm surge would decimate their pools and decks and compromise their home’s foundation.
“Well, sea walls aren’t going to protect them from that,” Levy succinctly replied. “You can just walk down the beach and see what happened to a lot of the seawalls. They crumbled.
“The way the waves reflect off of those seawalls – it basically starts a ripple effect of erosion down the beach. That’s why we really want to get those dunes out there.”
Levy said dump trucks would bring about 50,000 cubic yards of compatible sand from a mine 90 miles away to Sunset Beach. Additional heavy equipment would contour it into dunes as close to the property as possible.
She noted that areas with dunes received significantly less damage. Levy said “the best infrastructure you can have” also offers privacy from beach activities.
While Burton said the county could fund regular renourishments without federal help, the risk is “that we don’t know how many times this is going to occur over the next 40 years.”
“What’s that cost going to be?” he added. “That’s why it’s so important to work these issues out with the Corps. I do believe there is a solution. We just haven’t come to terms with that yet.”