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‘Hail Mary’ bid launched to save beach project


Indian River County is making one final push to get enough oceanfront homeowners to sign the easements needed to replenish beaches from just south of Castaway Cove to The Moorings using federal and state grant dollars.

The previous four campaigns to collect sufficient signed easements have failed, so what’s the difference this time around? A personal touch.

On May 2, county commissioners signed off on giving Sandpointe resident Doug Demuth 30 days to collect easement signatures with a door-to-door approach.

The hope is that if Demuth can get four additional signatures, the county will have met its target to proceed with a $10,000 feasibility study. The study would then help county staff rework the project scope to eliminate the 14 northernmost properties from the replenishment area.

“Bottom line is: those folks up north were never going to sign on this thing and this plan was hatched three and a half years ago,” Demuth said. “They never talked to these people — had they done that, then they would have come up with a plan B.”

Demuth presented his Plan B project alteration to the Board of County Commissioners on March 7, but it was struck down 3-2. Afterward, Demuth said he forced the issue with the Beach and Shores Preservation Advisory Committee, or BSPAC, which brought forward the approved recommendation on May 2.

While there is no guarantee that FEMA will approve an extension for the $10 million funding awarded due to storm damage, County Commission Chair Joe Earman said he hopes progress on the easements will help buy the county more time.

“If Demuth can come back and get easements and FEMA sees that we’ve got easements, maybe they say, ‘Yeah, we can give y’all another extension,’” Earman said. “This is the ‘Hail Mary’ pass without a doubt.”

Where the county previously only corresponded by letter, Demuth is utilizing his personal connection with area residents.

“Laura Moss and I met with a resident last Saturday and went through stuff,” Demuth said. “She’s an influencer – she’s got two neighbors who also turned down the initial easement. So if I can get her to sign up she can help me with the other two. There’s another guy who seems to be a property flipper. He evidently owns two properties in Sector 7. I think he signed one for one of the previous properties, so I’m guessing he might sign for both.”

Of the 14 properties that Demuth can target for signatures, he said he thinks the odds are good with seven.

“Trying to track them down is a challenge,” Demuth said.  “A number of them are snowbirds, so they’ve got homes in other places. Some other folks are investors, so trying to funnel your way through to who the warm body who signed the document to purchase is sometimes a challenge.”

Even if the signature target is achieved, proceeding with the project will not be guaranteed. While the construction permits are already in hand, the feasibility study will need to determine if a lasting, viable project can be done without the northern area of about 700 yards.

The northern section was engineered to serve as a “feeder beach,” by receiving 43 percent of the total 294,496 cubic yards of sand, which would largely flow south. Altering the northern feeder area, according to county staff estimations, shortens the project lifespan from seven years to two years.

“The permit should be valid as long as work within the constraints of the permit,” said natural resources manager Eric Charest. “We can fill less than the permit is, but then that’s where the feasibility is. Is it worth placing X amount of sand if we’re supposed to place Y?”

With the additional delay, a project now could not begin until November 2024 due to the sea turtle nesting season.

Yet, the consistent push for a working project stems from what could be dire consequences.

County estimations show that Sector 7 will receive approximately $3 million in annual damages if not restored.

“We’re not strong-arming anybody,” Demuth said. “The message to these folks is, ‘You have to weigh the risk of not getting more sand versus signing an easement that may be a little more constrictive than you’d like.’ Remember, you’re sitting in that area of Indian River County that FDEP claims is critically eroded and will continue to be more and more.

“To not do anything just doesn’t seem like a very good strategy when what you’re trying to do is save the beaches,” Demuth said. “We’re not going in there and showing tales of woe, disaster and destruction. These folks know what they have and what they used to have.”

While South Barrier Island residents balk at signing easements, Indian River Shores residents desperately want the county to replenish the town’s storm-weary beaches. Last week, the county Beach and Shores Advisory Committee recommended the county commission “direct staff to look at performing a feasibility study to determine eligibility for Sector 4 (the central and southern end of Indian River Shores) becoming an engineered beach.”

The swath of beach called Sector 4 runs from John’s Island to Tracking Station Beach. Shoring up the dunes will require easements from a target percentage of 63 residences to permit any work done.

On May 8, FEMA determined that the town’s beaches did not qualify for federal funding. The storm damage did not meet the “critically eroded” criteria even though “review of the current Sector 4 data as it relates to Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Nicole losses, indicates that comparing the pre- and post-storm surveys shows a surveyed loss of 50,200 cubic yards of sand above Mean High Water (dry beach and dune losses),” according to a staff report.

FEMA, though, measures an area differently, considering all the sand in a system, even that which is underwater. With those measurements, there was an increase of 11,700 cubic yards of sand within the sector. The staff report reads, “It is anticipated that the County will challenge the FEMA determination.”

If work is done without FEMA’s support, the project could cost between $5 million and $6 million, which would be partially covered by $1,152,520.43 in Florida Department of Environmental Protection funding.