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Replenishment of Vero barrier island beaches is again uncertain BY LISA ZAHNER - STAFF WRITER (Week of June 18, 2009)

For those waiting anxiously since the 2004 hurricanes for the long-promised replenishment of the barrier island beaches from the northern end of John’s Island to just north of Windsor, there may be some good news this week – or perhaps, once again, some disappointing news.

The good news would be that the $6 million shortfall in funds for this project, which budget officials revealed as a new problem during the winter, may wind up plugged by an $8 million federal stimulus grant from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

We will know if we have gotten lucky, county officials tell us, by the end of July.

The possible bad news is that a belated decision by the County Commission to consider getting sand from west of town and trucking it to the beaches – instead of pumping it from offshore as has previously been the practice – could delay start of the beach replenishment project from this fall until as late as 2011.

Staff has been working on design of the project since 2007, and believes it is now on the verge of obtaining the necessary permits from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But all that was predicated on pumping sand from the seabed.

A suitable source of sand had been located offshore, about two miles east of Round Island Park near the Indian River- St. Lucie county line, according to Jonathan Gorham, Coastal Resource Manager for the Coastal Engineering Division of the Indian River County Public Works Department. This is the same source used for the last three re-nourishment projects undertaken by the county.

But if the county decides to switch to an onshore source of sand, the state could request further studies or design revisions before they give the go-ahead, delaying the project months or even years.

The only thing certain at this point is that bid packets will be available June 30th for contractors who wish to either pump or truck sand onto beaches along the 6.5-mile tract of beach called Sector 3.

Earlier this year, the county put out a request to determine the availability of local contractors who had the resources and licenses necessary to bid on the Sector 3 project.

But while that request was under consideration, land mine operators petitioned the County Commission to open up the bidding to upland sources of sand. Commissioners agreed on May 11 to consider bids from contractors using onshore as well as offshore sources.

Gorham said that if a contractor proposing to use an offshore source submits the winning bid, and “if we can get the permitting through, we would be able to at least get started during the 2009-2010 season.”

He said a contract could be awarded to a bidder proposing to use an offshore sand source as early as September. Authorization to commence could come as early as December with work beginning in January 2010 – only a short delay.

However, should the county opt to go with a contractor who would truck the sand in from the west, the start of the beach renourishment project could be delayed until later in 2010, or even 2011, considering that work can only be performed between November 1 and May 1 due to sea turtle season.

The cost of the project now is estimated to be $19.7 million based on the current design. The county has committed revenues of $8.07 million from the one cent local-option sales tax and nearly $1.09 million in tourist tax money toward the project. The Sebastian Inlet Taxing District has agreed to contribute $4.68 million.

“We have a $6 million shortfall, but if we get the $8 million (federal) grant, we will have plenty of money to do the project,” said Jason Brown, director of the Indian River County Office of Management and Budget. “We will have to re-evaluate various things if we don’t get this grant and look at the big costs of the project.”

When asked if the renourishment effort could go forward in phases, prioritizing the areas of Sector 3 most in need of attention, Brown said, “My understanding was that the project needed to go as planned.”

Sector 3 is represented by Commissioner Joseph Flescher, who favored opening up the bidding to both offshore and upland sand sources because it gives the county more options. Flescher said he feels opening up the bid process could reduce the cost of the project, or at least make it feasible to build up the dune structure of areas most in peril.

“If that can be accomplished, we will have a winning scenario,” he said. “The beach can be restored, the infrastructure can be maintained and we’ll be assisting the local economy.”

Should Indian River County go with a trucked-in source of sand, it would be venturing into fairly uncharted scientific territory, as nearly all Florida coastal communities, according to Gorham, use offshore sand sources.

“In some places offshore of Dade County, the sand sources are depleted so they are looking at other options, but here there is plenty of sand offshore to do this,” he said. “I know of a few projects using upland sand that are still in the permitting process.”

“The whole project is designed around the grain size of the sand, we’re looking for a mean grain size of .5 millimeters,” Gorham said. “Different grain sizes of sand react differently to the wave action and so we have to design the project and the permitting around that.”

Silts and clays would be a concern with sand from an upland source. Silt, which is much finer than sand, Gorham explained, could contribute to the sand washing away and clay could cause the sand to clump up. Hard, clumpy sand is tougher for turtles to nest in and can wash away in chunks, so these contaminants must be kept to under two percent of the sand volume.

“We look at beach compatibility, we want to try to match the beach in color for aesthetic and biological reasons,” Gorham said.

The color of the sand in relation to the heat it absorbs is a factor as it relates to our beaches serving as nesting habitat for sea turtles. More or less heat could potentially endanger the prospect of sea turtle eggs developing, surviving and hatching on Sector 3 beaches, according to Gorham.

Work can only be undertaken from November 1 through May 1 to avoid most of the sea turtle nesting season, as the existing nests and the building of new nests would be disrupted by trucks, equipment and the introduction of the new sand itself.

Areas slated for this project are: Treasure Shores Park, Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, Windsor, Golden Sands Park, Orchid Island Golf and Beach Club, Grand Harbor Golf and Beach Club, Wabasso Beach Park, Disney’s Vero Beach Resort, Sea Oaks, Turtle Trail, Carlton, Marbrisa, Sea Grape Trail, Baytree, Palm Island Plantation Beach Club, Island Club, Sanderling, and John’s Island.

Gorham said the main opposition to the Sector 3 project and previous projects has come from those concerned about the unintended environmental impacts on habitat, reefs and marine fisheries, and from budget hawks who oppose spending tax money on sand that may wash away with the next storm.

Local business owner and 30-year resident Steve Parsons considers himself in both camps of dissenters. His livelihood as proprietor of the Wabasso Tackle Shop depends on tourists flocking to the area to take advantage of the great fishing. He fears that aggressive sand pumping or sand trucking onto the county’s beaches will endanger the popular sport of surf fishing.

“My opposition is partly environmental, but there are other aspects to it. If they think that sand is going to stay on the beach just because they want it to, they’re dreaming,” Parsons said. “If you look at Palm Beach and Broward, surf fishing is over down there.”

From a fiscal perspective, Parsons is adamant about the fact that the county’s public beaches belong all residents and visitors, not just to the people who live on the beach. But he doesn’t favor the use of tourist tax money to renourish the beach sand.

“They want to use the tourist tax money because it’s supposed to enhance tourism, but how are you going to enhance tourism by smothering all the fish? They might as well dump truckloads of dollar bills on the beach,” he said.

Parsons is against opening up the bidding to trucked-in sand from upland sand mines, and claims the decision was political in nature. He said he has voiced his opinion on the topic to his commissioner, Chairman Wesley Davis, numerous times, as Davis is a patron of the tackle shop.

According to Paul Teresi and Rose Spytek, president and vice president of the Taxpayers Association of Indian River County, the group has not yet taken a position on the Sector 3 project or its fiscal feasibility, but will be bringing it up at their July Board meeting.

The Sea Oaks Condominium Association’s Beach Committee has been anticipating this project and, according to Chairperson Louise Schmitt, a resident since 2003, members are thrilled at the prospect of it actually coming to fruition.

“We’re very anxious for the project to get done, not only for our building but for the sake of our beach,” she said.

Schmitt said that several of the buildings in Sea Oaks and nearby communities have been in peril since the 2004 hurricanes and that some emergency stabilization measures had to be taken by the county in the interim while plans on the Sector 3 project were being developed. She thinks the project is definitely worth the money. “It’s extremely important for the buildings being threatened and for everyone in Vero Beach. At high tide, there is not much beach to walk on,” she said. “Sector 3 was promised, it was supposed to be done long ago, before the hurricanes and with a major resort and four parks in the area, it’s time for us to have our needs addressed.”

Gorham said there isn’t much site prep work that needs to be done before the sand is either pumped via a massive pipe system or trucked in. Beachside residents in Sector 3 would experience some extra heavy equipment traffic and probably 1,000 feet of beach would be closed at a time while the work is being done.

Public beach access to Treasure Shores Park, Golden Sands Park, Wabasso Beach Park, Sea Grape Trail and Turtle Trail would be used whenever possible ,and trucks would enter there and drive down the beach to the worksite. Private roads would only be used in areas where no public beach access was available.

“Every one to two miles, we will need an access point,” Gorham said.