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Barrier Island beach replenishment project One ugly surprise after another
BY LISA ZAHNER - STAFF WRITER (Week of February 11, 2010)

Not only does the timeline for renewing the northern island beaches keep getting longer.

Not only does the number of trucks filled with sand that will be pounding across the Wabasso Causeway – at a rate of one a minute, ten hours per day, even on Saturdays and Sundays – keep getting higher.

Not only does replenishment of these beaches keep getting costlier in million-dollar increments.

Now, the really great news is that the two popular northern beaches – Wabasso Beach Park and Golden Sands Park – have been closed for the remainder of the winter season so the trucks can have unencumbered access to the beach.

And for those who love how local government works, none of these things – including the need to close public access to the beaches for months – was disclosed to the public when the Indian River County Commission voted unanimously to choose sand trucking over offshore sand pumping a few months ago.

The gates are already locked tight and the signs proclaiming “beach closed” and “no trespassing” are on order. Commissioner Joe Flescher, who represents the District 2 area which is receiving the trucked-in sand, met with constituents last Friday morning to answer questions about the closing of Wabasso Beach and Golden Sands parks during the height of tourist season.

“Quite frankly, we knew this was going to happen, but we didn’t know exactly when,” he said.

Though the county may not have been explicit about its intentions to close both beach parks for extended periods, Flescher said the parks were announced as staging areas and that it should have been obvious that heavy equipment and the beachgoing public could not safely coexist during construction.

“It would not be workable to keep the beaches open,” he said. “I think that it was discussed during the planning of the project because there would be no capacity to have bathers on the beach.”

Not even the local businesses yards from Wabasso Beach were notified in advance that the park would be closing for nearly three months.

“No, we haven’t heard. I never heard anything about closing the park,” said Greg Kingsley, manager of the Orchid Island Pizzeria. “About 20 to 30 percent of our business comes from people going to the beach.”

Customers of the take-out restaurant also sometimes park in the beach parking lot, which is now a designated hard-hat area and completely off limits to all but construction traffic.

Kingsley said he’s concerned that people will use parking to sneak onto the beach at night, after the trucks and equipment stop running.

“Because of the high residential area, a lot of folks live in the project area and it’s about impossible to keep people off the beach,” said Michael Walther, principal of Coastal Tech, the county’s engineer of record on the project and overseer of environmental monitoring efforts.

Contractors are being required to keep the public at least 500 feet away from any area under active construction for safety reasons. Indian River Sheriff’s Office Spokesman Deputy Jeff Luther said the parks will be on close patrol.

Plans for the beach closing were obviously not a newsflash to management of Disney’s Vero Beach resort, located directly south of the Wabasso Beach Park, which promises guests the “quintessential Florida beach experience.”

The Disney folks must have had some inside information, as they notified resort guests in a letter that the resort beach would be closed during construction. The beach in front of Disney closed Tuesday between the hours of 7 a.m. and 5 p.m., but guests were told they could still take an evening stroll after the shoveling stops.

The lack of beach didn’t seem to matter to the northerners in Disney’s Green Cabin Room Monday night gleefully escaping from up to two feet of snow. Exactly how Disney is explaining to European visitors to its Vero resort why they cannot visit the beach is far from clear.

Luther also said the Sheriff’s Office would be keeping an eye on the dump trucks – up to one truck per minute, 10 hours per day, traveling the county’s roads.

Originally, trucks were only scheduled to run on weekdays, but this past Monday, it was announced by Ranger Construction that they would be hauling and placing sand on Saturdays and even some Sundays, if necessary, to keep on top of the workload. While the original plan was to spread out the truck traffic over several island bridges, local opposition quickly narrowed the choice of routes to the Wabasso Causeway.

Over the past few weeks, the county taxpayers have sunk deeper and deeper into the sand trap that is the latest beach renourishment plan, with the price tag doubling from the published $7.27 million bid to a current total of about $15 million including recently approved and pending change orders.

This summer, the county’s budget office had estimated the project– which then was expected to involve offshore sand pumping like all previous replenishment project -- would cost $19 million with money budgeted for the project coming up about $6.5 million short. That suggests the county had about $12.5 million set aside for the project, including $4.68 million from the Sebastian Inlet Taxing District.

Then sand miners entered the picture. They were hailed as heroes for submitting bids of about half what off-shore dredging outfits normally charge. In turn, the off-shore companies lowered their bids dramatically.

Sand miners promised jobs to hundreds of unemployed truckers and construction workers, whom they hired to wave picket signs in the County Commission chambers the day the project came up for a vote.

In September, Beaches and Shores Preservation Committee Chairman Bill Glynn declared the decision to allow dump trucks to bring in about 482,000 cubic yards of sand to shore up the beaches from Treasure Shores Park south to the northern tip of John’s Island a “win-win” and said that barrier island residents should be “dancing in the streets.”

Then reality set in. The first blow came when oceanfront residents heard that the amount of sand to be placed on the beach was being cut in half.

Then there was a change of specifications, a redesign, computer models, shifting of sand suppliers, another redesign and finally a huge $984,000 change order in the contract with Ranger Construction to pay for all the new testing being required by regulators to quell their heartburn over using inland sand as fill on environmentally sensitive beaches.

Throughout the arduous permitting process, we heard about sea turtle nesting season, wash-out rates, test plans and reproductive rates. Barrier island residents got an education about limestone near-shore reefs and “hard bottom,” and how we might be messing it up with all this dumping of sand.

Then the county engineering staff told residents that three years down the line, it may need to foot the bill for an artificial reef to mitigate the damage. Now it’s February and this winter’s storms have eaten chunks out of a badly eroded shoreline. Just to get the beaches back to the starting point of the original design, the county needs to purchase an additional 100,000 cubic yards of sand for the first phase of the project.

As part of the ever-growing tab, the county taxpayers are paying scientists from Wabasso to survey the beach pre- and post-construction. More scientists from Jensen Beach are getting paid to walk the beach every morning, looking for turtle and shorebird nests so they can give the “all clear” for construction crews to begin work.

Should a nest be located in the construction zone, Fish and Wildlife officials must come in to relocate the turtle nest to a safe place or to sequester the shorebird nest with a 300-foot buffer zone.

Geologists from Stuart will be swimming out to survey the area between the beach and the near-shore reef. Two groups of engineers from Coconut Grove and Orlando will test every truckload of sand leaving the sand mine. Another group of engineers will watch each truckload of sand that’s stockpiled at the staging areas.

More engineers will test the turbidity of the water every four hours to make sure the workers are not stirring up too much loose sand. If the turbidity gets too high, all construction must halt immediately until things settle down.

After the fill is placed, county coastal engineers will test the compaction of the sand to see if it needs to be tilled for the sea turtles. For three years after the project is completed – which will be next spring, since it now is being stretched out over two years -- more scientists will collect data and relay it back to the regulators in Tallahassee and Washington.