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South beach dune replenishment project delayed for at least a year

STORY BY SUE COCKING (Week of October 1, 2020)

Hopes for a much-needed $9.9-million beach repair project washed away last week when the county commission voted to put off spreading sand and rebuilding dunes along an eroded 2-mile stretch of South Beach 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 postponement jeopardizes $5.7 million in state and federal grants earmarked for the project that could be awarded to some other entity between now and fall 2021.

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 needs for this stretch of beach.

At the same time, commissioners tentatively awarded a contract for repairs to a 6.6-mile stretch of north island shoreline from Treasure Shores to Turtle Trail beach park where about 80 percent of property owners agreed to the easements. The $17.1-million contract went to low bidder Ahtma Marine and Construction, which is required to execute the contract within the next week.

The county, with assistance by local community groups, has been trying for months to secure 90 percent of the needed private access agreements along both the south island and north island stretches of beach targeted for “renourishment.”

Eight property owners refused to sign for reasons that are not certain.  None of them returned phone calls and emails from Vero Beach 32963. But the agreements are perpetual construction easements that would allow workers to place and spread sand on private land between the mean high-water line and the vegetation line on the dune not just this year, but in the future. And that may have made the holdouts leery. Those who do not sign will not get sand on their property.

Grand Harbor, which has a private beach club along the northern project area, refused to let the county work on its property, a refusal that took some residents by surprise.  The community is controlled by GH Vero Beach Development, which did not consult homeowners in advance. 

One resident who asked that her name not be used said she only learned about it last week from a neighbor, and "we'd certainly like to have it. I have no idea why they would have said no."  

She speculated that it may have stemmed from fears that signing the agreements would lead to random beachgoers wandering onto private property.                 

"But I've never seen anybody walk close to where our chairs are," she added.

Problems with securing access to beaches increased in 2018 when Florida Statute 163.035 was passed. The law was intended to make it easier for local governments to ensure public access to beaches but had the opposite effect.

Meanwhile, the failure of a major beach repair project designed to preserve barrier island property and prosperity is frustrating to leaders of beach advocacy groups. After all, they say, repairing the dunes and adding sand to the shoreline protects upland homes and businesses and enhances sea turtle nesting.

"I can't figure out why most people don't want to sign up for this," Save Our Shores leader Mark Tripson told county commissioners.

Added North Beach Civic Association President Tuck Ferrell: "It's Vero Beach, not Vero No Beach."