June 23, 2024

Lisa Hendrickson is almost out of the sand.

Hendrickson is the mayor of Redington Shores, Florida, a well-heeled beach town in Pinellas County. Her town occupies a small section of a razor-thin barrier island that stretches along the western side of the sprawling Tampa Bay metro area, which includes cities like Tampa and St. Petersburg from the Gulf of Mexico. Many of her constituents have an uninterrupted view of the sea.

The town’s only protection from the Gulf of Mexico increasingly erratic storms is a pristine beach that attracts millions of tourists every year — but that beach is disappearing fast. A series of storms, culminating last fall’s Hurricane Idaliaeroded away most of the sand that protects Redington Shores and the towns around it, leaving residents just one big wave away from water overtaking their homes.

This dangerous situation is the result of a battle between local residents and the US Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that handles flood prevention and protects many of the nation’s beaches. The Corps often rebuilds eroded beaches by hauling in thousands of tons of sand, but the agency refuses to deliver $42 million worth of new sand to Pinellas County, unless the area’s coastal property owners grant public access to the stretches of beach behind their homes. However, hundreds of these property owners in turn refuse to sign documents granting these access points, known as easements. The sight brought the area’s storm recovery to a near halt.

This standoff highlights growing tensions between the federal government and homeowners in coastal areas threatened by climate change. As sea levels have risen and strong storms have caused more damage than ever before, the cost of protecting and insuring beachfronts in Florida and other states has risen rapidly. Agencies like the Corps have had to weigh these costs against the interests of property owners in places like the Tampa Bay region. When those interests come into conflict, populated coastal areas can be left exposed or uninsured, leaving them vulnerable to the next climate-driven storm.

“Our coastlines are the first line of defense against storms, and our Gulf beaches are just eroding away,” Hendrickson told Grist. “I don’t know where we’re going with it now, or how we’re going to come together to work through it.”

The Corps put the service policy in place decades ago to ensure it didn’t spend public money to restore private beaches, but the agency didn’t begin seriously enforcing the rule until after Superstorm Sandy in 2012. When the Corps tried to replace disintegrated beaches in New Jersey, it discovered it didn’t have all the easements it needed. Local governments tried to get them for yearsand the state government had to use eminent domain to seize portions of the beach in order to satisfy the agency.

In the years since, the agency has warned Pinellas County and other local governments that they won’t get any more sand unless they get easements from all the property owners on their beaches. The Corps says it first raised the issue with Pinellas in 2017, but tensions began to rise last year after Idalia eroded the area’s beaches to dangerous levels, creating a desperate need for new protective sand.

The Corps requires that easements be “in perpetuity,” meaning that the public will always have access to the beach area behind an owner’s property. The agency says it’s just so it has the ability to help after future storms: When a hurricane wipes out a beach, the Corps often steps in to pay for an emergency beach replenishment just weeks later, to ensure homes don’t wash away not. . The agency says it cannot commit to doing this emergency work unless it can be certain that access to the beach will remain public forever. It also says that it easements of everyone property owners in a given area because nutrient projects do not work unless they are contiguous along an entire stretch of sand.

Pinellas County officials tried their best to locate these heirs, even going door-to-door pleading with residents to “sign for sand.” Nevertheless, about half of the 461 property owners along the barrier island refused to allow them. County officials continue to urge residents to file, but they have received few new easements since late last year.

The odd thing about the easement controversy is that these waterfront residents don’t fully own the beaches behind their homes — in fact, most of the nation’s beaches are already public. State law states that all Florida beaches with artificial sand are public up to the “erosion control line,” which is roughly the same as that which marks high tide. In other words, everything from the water to the high tide line is open for anyone to walk, tan or spread a blanket. The land in dispute between the Corps and the homeowners is only the section of sand between the back of a beach house and the high tide line, which in many cases is only a few dozen feet.

“For most of the project, the beach is wide open to the public,” said John Bishop, Pinellas County’s coastal management coordinator. “Many of the comfort areas are not even on the beach, they are in the dune behind the beach.”

Owners’ reasons for refusing easements are numerous, but most cite a fear that allowing public access to the sand behind their property will encourage tourists to venture onto their dunes or onto the seawalls behind their homes. sit. Of course, they can’t stop tourists and beachgoers from using the beach that sits between the erosion line and the water — but they don’t want them to come any closer.

Even those property owners who have granted their easements have yet to see any benefit, as the Corps will not deliver sand until all are in compliance.

Andrew Youngman, the property manager at the Sea Oats resort condo in Redington Shores, says the board of his 40-unit building was initially eager to give the Corps an easement for beach nourishment last year. But when residents found out they wouldn’t get new sand unless the county effectively obtained it from all property owners, they figured it would never happen, so they never completed the paperwork. Since then, Youngman has seen the area around his property erode.

“We’re probably in the best shape around because we have a dune of our own out there,” Youngman told Grist. “Everyone else is just flat from their building to the water.”

The beachfront in Redington Shores, Florida, when it was more rugged.  The federal government is refusing to restore eroded parts of the beach amid a battle with local homeowners.
The beachfront in Redington Shores, Florida, used to be more rugged. Today, the federal government refuses to restore eroded portions of the beach until homeowners grant access. Jeffrey Greenberg / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The local government and the Army Corps of Engineers have been running this staring contest for nearly a year now, and some political heavyweights have gotten involved on the country’s side. Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio and Representative Anna Paulina Luna, all Republicans, accused the Corps of holding up the beach project on bureaucratic grounds. Last month Scott sent a letter to the Corps and says that his voters have “seen enough inaction”. The letter urged the Corps to relax its service delivery policy, saying that “further delays on these projects could cause catastrophic harm to … coastal communities.”

In response to questions from Grist, a Corps spokesman gave no indication that the agency would move on its policy, which it had begun to enforce elsewhere in Florida and in other coastal states such as South Carolina.

Even when Pinellas County tried to obtain separate temporary utilities to build new emergency dunes on top of its beaches, many residents still refused, in part out of concern that new dunes would block their ocean views. This further stalemate with homeowners forced the county to build a piecemeal dune behind coastal properties, leaving holes in front of the homes and hotels where the owners did not want to provide an emotional service.

This broken dune won’t do much during storm season, according to René Flowers, a Pinellas County commissioner who pushed the Corps to deliver the sand.

“When you have a break in the chain, then all the work you do is not as impactful to protect as it could be,” she said.

Rob Young, a professor of geology at Western Carolina University and a frequent critic of beach nourishment projects, says Pinellas County should fund the nourishment itself through sales tax increases rather than relying on the federal government to pay for new sand. He pointed out that some beach towns on the Outer Banks of North Carolina have tax tourism to pay for sand after the federal government stopped covering the cost.

“For many people, the privacy is more important to them than the risk of destruction,” he said, referring to residents who refused to comply. “The solution is very easy – pay at your own risk.” Young added that many nutrition projects don’t seem to be worth the money they cost. He pointed to the Jersey Shore, where a $1 million beach nourishment project washed away in just one year.

Knowing that beach nourishment might not be a good investment isn’t doing much to help local leaders like Flowers, the Pinellas County commissioner, who is bracing for a hurricane season that meteorologists predict will be one of the most active in decades be.

“I’m very concerned about those homeowners out there who will be affected because maybe their neighbor chose not to allow access,” she said.

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