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Second major island beach repair project put on hold

STORY BY SUE COCKING (Week of October 15, 2020)

Repairs to dunes and replacement of storm-eroded sand along north island beaches, initially slated to begin in November, will now not begin until in early January so only half the project seems likely to be accomplished this winter season.

The change puts at risk not just the island’s eroding shoreline but millions more in state and federal funding, on top of now uncertain funding that was slated for a recently delayed south-island project.

County officials say they hope to rebid the north island project and begin part of it sometime in January, but that would leave only a few months until the start of turtle-nesting season at the end of April, when all construction equipment has to be off the beach.

Under the county’s fallback, two-step plan for the northern island, a 3.7-mile stretch of beach from Treasure Shores Park south to route 510 will be restored first. Plans call for spreading about 307,000 cubic yards of sand and planting thousands of native dune plants in that section.

Renourishment of the 3-mile section from 510 south to Turtle Trail Beach Park will be put off until November 2021.

Originally, both northern sections were slated to be done as part of a single project, but the low bidder for the full-scale 6.7-mile renourishment, Ahtma Marine and Construction, withdrew its $17.1 million bid due to cost concerns, according to Eric Charest, the county's natural resources manager. 

Last month, county commissioners decided that if Ahtma failed to execute the contract within 15 days, the project would be re-bid. County staffers are working with their engineering consultant, Aptim, to draw up a new bid packet. 

Charest wrote in an email to Vero Beach 32963 that he anticipates new bids will be received, reviewed and awarded by early December, with construction beginning in early January.

The county was counting on some $10 million in federal and state grants to help pay for the entire two-part project.

“At this time, the state/federal funding is still available for the project constructed in two parts,” county spokesman Brian Sullivan wrote in an email. If additional delays crop up and the money is lost, however, the county could be set back years in its beach repair program.

Last month, hopes for a much-needed $9.9 million beach repair project on the south island washed away when the county commission voted to put off spreading sand and rebuilding dunes along an eroded 2-mile stretch of shoreline from Seagrove to the Moorings.

The county postponed the project for at least one year because not enough beachfront property owners gave permission for workers to be on land they own, which extends inland from the high-tide line and includes the dunes. Some refused outright, while many others did not respond to county inquiries.

The county wanted agreements with 90 percent of beachfront property owners to ensure the repairs would not be undermined by gaps in the dune line. But after months of mailings, phone calls, canvassing by community groups and a public webinar, the county only managed to secure about half of the private property access easements it needed for this stretch of beach.

About $5.8 million of the south island project’s $9.9 million cost was to be covered by federal and state grants. But the delay jeopardizes that funding.

“Postponing the project does put our cost-share at risk,” the county said in a letter sent to beachfront property owners on Oct. 8. “However, county staff will seek extensions from the appropriate agencies.” The letter said the county will continue pursuing the required easements from homeowners who have yet to execute them. 

County officials say repairing storm-battered dunes and adding sand protects upland homes and businesses and enhances sea turtle nesting. But a state law passed in 2018 that makes it harder for municipalities to secure public access to some beaches and a change in the wording of the county’s easement agreement, which makes the easement permanent, have put oceanfront property owners on guard.