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Beach replenishment politics:
Sand miners pay to play
BY LISA ZAHNER - STAFF WRITER (Week of November 19, 2009)

While barrier island residents worked to get sand pumped this winter onto a 6.6- mile stretch of eroded beach from Treasure Shores Park to John’s Island, few were aware that this has been a political quest for local sand mine interests for nearly a decade.

Seeing coastal communities spending tens of millions of dollars to pump sand from offshore — and paying an Illinois company to do it — got under the skin of Sebastian dentist and real estate developer Dr. Henry Fischer.

Fischer’s sons, Hank and Eric, run the family sand mining and land clearing business, Henry Fischer & Sons, and “Doc” Fischer, as he’s known around town, had felt for years that his company could do these beach jobs for a better price.

“Doc” Fischer tried to get in on the bidding for these beach jobs years ago, but the political climate on the Indian River County Commission, led by Chairwoman Fran Adams, was not receptive to the idea of tens of thousands of dump trucks hauling upland sand onto the beaches.

But politicians come and go, and — with a little help — offi cials more amenable to sand miners’ needs have been elected.

This spring, commissioners voted to give local sand miners a chance to bid on such projects. On Sept. 8, Ranger Construction was chosen to do the project for $7.2 million using material from three local sand mines.

Original estimates using offshore sand were $19.7 million and the county was short about $6.5 million. By allowing the upland miners into the process, the county saved money although no one knows what the impact will be of 15,000 dump trucks carrying sand up and down A1A for several months.

The downside of turning to the sand mines is that regulators will only allow sand to be placed on the south half of the project this season, with the north half to be done next year if it turns out that nesting sea turtles like the upland sand.

When the permitting schedule looked precarious a few weeks ago, it was time for political pressure. Fischer — who makes his private plane available during election season to the Florida Republican Party to fl y candidates around the state — admits calling Rep. Ralph Poppell to remind him of the doors that could be opened to Florida companies if and when this project got its permits.

“Sure I called Ralph, this kind of thing is his job, keeping these contracts and these jobs in Florida,” Fischer said. “That’s what our representatives are up there to do, to build the local economy. He understands why this is important.”

Fischer said sand from his mine has been shoring up buildings on the barrier island for years and it has performed well and protected millions of dollars worth of property from falling into the ocean.

“That’s our sand under the Ocean Grill, we’ve been putting sand out there at those pilings for a long time, the Ocean Grill wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for upland sand,” he said.

Sand mines - deep pits, deep pockets

The average person doesn’t think of Indian River County as a place where mining occurs, but sand mining is a little bit different. Plots of land are first strip-mined for the fill dirt needed to stabilize road projects and parking lots and to raise homes in flood-prone areas. That kind of dirt makes up about the top 12 to 14 feet of material under the surface.

Beneath that is basically beach sand, a mix of sand and shell that, when properly washed and filtered, comes pretty close to what you walk on at the beach.

Sometimes these mines are dedicated mines and other times they are future real estate developments acting as sand mines. We have both kinds participating in the island renourishment project.

All told, about 472,000 cubic yards of sand will be placed on the beaches from these mines over a two-year period.

The upcoming beach project, while touted as crucial to the local economy, is a matter of survival for the sand mine owners. With the dearth of new construction drastically reducing the need for fi ll dirt and road aggregate, the sand miners are banking — and betting big — that this and future beach renourishment projects will bolster their business.

“If we don’t do this project, we’ll be out of the beach sand business,” said Stephen Smith, co-owner of Ranch Road Lake LLC.

Ranch Road Lake LLC owns a mine on 82nd Avenue which will be providing the more coarse sand for the fl at part of the beach. The dredge at Ranch Road Lake costs $40,000 per month to operate and, based on the promise that they’re getting the work, Smith has been running the dredge for months, processing sand for our beaches.

“You can’t mine the fi ll dirt that we have on top and the beach sand at the same time,” Smith said. “So we’ve had to choose to devote our operation to the beach sand and nothing else.”

The co-owners of this property are real estate developers-turned miners. They plan on building luxury homes on the property someday. Meanwhile, the sand dredged from the property is forming the community’s lake.

Owners Stephen Smith and Douglas Hazel are also partners in Quail Ridge LLC, which owns and is developing a plat of land adjacent to the Quail Valley Golf Course on 69th Avenue.

Smith is a long-time barrier island resident who recently moved west of town, and a St. Edward’s dad. Hazel is a barrier island resident — when he’s not running his businesses in Washington, Mo. — and currently serves as Chairman of the Board of Marine Bank and Trust.

Through Rank Road Lake, Quail Ridge and Hazel’s Missouri investment and agricultural companies, one of which is called Good Luck LLC, the owners of this sand mine contribute thousands of dollars per election cycle to local and state candidates.

In the last round of county commission races, the Ranch Road Lakes sand mine backed Wesley Davis, who won and now chairs the commission, with $3,000 from the various entities owned by Hazel and Smith, including $500 from “Good Luck LLC,” which shows up frequently on lists of contributors to political campaigns.

Bob Solari listed a $500 donation on Sept. 6, 2008 from Quail Ridge LLC, whose offi ce is in his district in the Transocean Offi ce Center on the corner of East Causeway Boulevard and S.R. A1A.

The Ranch Road folks also backed Sebastian City Councilman Jim Hill ($500) and Tom Lowther ($1,500) in their bids for county commission, though they lost to Joe Flescher and Peter O’Bryan, respectively. Ranch Road Lake and its various Doug Hazel entities have contributed $4,500 to the Common Ground PAC, which was formed to counter the anti-growth efforts of the Indian River Neighborhood Association.

Fischer contributed $500 to Davis and $250 to Solari. Fisher also gave $500 each to failed candidates Jim Hill and Tom Lowther. Henry Fischer & Sons has contributed $500 to Common Ground.

Reports of commissioners Gary Wheeler, O’Bryan and Flescher showed no contributions from sand mine interests.

“The commissioners in office now are doing a great job,” Fischer said. “I regret not supporting the other ones last time.”

Whenever decisions came before the dais on the sand project, Davis recused himself because his brother, Brian Davis, owns a sand mine and was involved in the bidding. However, Davis was a vocal supporter behind the scenes of including upland sand in the bid, and he encouraged sand miners to get into the act.

“If I had voted, I wouldn’t have done anything differently than what was done,” Davis said about the commission’s choice of bidders on the job.

Davis said he’s been listening to sand miners’ concerns about the future of their business since the 2007 battle over the mining moratorium and Fischer has been a staunch supporter of Davis since he was on the School Board prior to becoming a commissioner.

Moorings resident Nick Stewart owns Nick Stewart Mining, a longestablished company with its mine located in St. Lucie County which will provide the balance of the sand for the replenishment project.

Stewart has spoken at a few meetings, but has not been as up-front with his advocacy of pushing upland sand on the county. Records show he has not made any major political contributions to local candidates.

According to Smith of the Ranch Road Lake mine, Fischer’s two biggest contributions to the effort have been giving his top manager Chuck Kramer the time off the job site to become what amounts to a full-time lobbyist for the sand mines, and by getting the various mine interests to work together to infl uence the commissioners and members of the Beaches and Shores Preservation Advisory Committee.

Over the past few years, Kramer has knocked on doors at the county, meeting with staffers and commissioners and letting them know that the sand miners were not going away quietly. Kramer said he’s confi dent that the upland sand will prove more than adequate for the job. He hasn’t enjoyed all the meetings and the lobbying, and is looking forward to working on the project very soon.

“This is not what I do, I dig in the dirt for a living every day,” Kramer said. “But I know our sand is the best sand and we’ve had to prove it, the commissioners did not take our word for it, they made us do the hard work of proving it to them that we could do the job.”

Kramer agreed with his boss that upland sand has served the barrier island well.

“Every house out there on the ocean is sitting on sand from a sand mine that was brought in during construction,” Kramer said.

Florida: Paved with Ranger Construction projects

Ranger Construction will be employing these three sand mine subcontractors to provide the material for the project, but Ranger is top dog as the general contractor.

Thought of as a “local” company, Ranger is actually part of the behemoth Vecellio Group of companies, a multi-state consortium of road and bridge contractors.

“Ranger’s operations include one of the largest excavation, grading and asphalt equipment fl eets in the state. We own and operate seven asphalt plants strategically located throughout our market areas, which extend from the greater Orlando area through Daytona and south through the Florida Keys,” the website states.

In addition to a reputation for getting jobs done on time and under budget, Ranger and owner Leo Vecellio help contribute signifi cant sums of money to political campaigns throughout the state.

On top of the contributions made to local offi cials by the sand miners, Vecellio owners have also added to the campaign funds of Florida state legislative offi cials – the same offi cials the county is banking on to grease the wheels of a massive permitting bureaucracy to get the project through.

Though pricey beach renourishment projects would be a drop in the bucket in terms of revenue for Ranger, should the tide turn and more municipalities begin using upland sand, it would open up a whole new market.

Bidding this initial project with Indian River County at only $7.2 million to get the job could mean big bucks down the road, as Ranger has tentacles just about everywhere that Florida has beaches.

Bob Schafer, vice president of the local Ranger division, did not deny that Ranger has a great deal of clout with Florida’s elected offi cials and he doesn’t apologize for the fact that his company is the leader in getting public works projects around the state.

If putting Ranger’s reputation on the line helps achieve a sea change in provision of sand to future beach renourishment projects in Florida, and brings more than 100 jobs to Indian River County, that’s a good thing, he argues.

“It’s not only good for business, it’s good for the state to keep this money and these jobs local,” Schafer said. Schafer said he did not feel the need to call in any of Ranger’s political chips to get this contract.

“I don’t think it’s right to go over peoples’ heads like that and I didn’t need to,” he said. “But they all know who we are, and if the county would have asked me to do anything to help get the permitting through, I defi nitely would have made the calls.”