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Beach replenishment kept Sandy's damage from being far worse

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of December 6, 2012)
Photo: New sand shores up Baytree oceanfront pool.

When Baytree was built in the 1980s, the beach seemed to go on forever. But over the years, the pool on the eastern side of the property has become precariously close to the dune line as nature carved away large chunks of the beach.

The 6.6 mile area of critically eroded beach on which Baytree is located was the focus of a $15 million, three-year beach renourishment and dune restoration project that finished earlier this year.

Now, half of that sand is gone, much of it washed away by the heavy surf produced as Hurricane Sandy marched up the east coast a month ago.

The storm left the concrete and piping of Baytree’s pool in a precarious situation. The pool was closed for about a month until an emergency order was granted allowing construction workers to replace sand along the edge of the pool.

As of late last week, 17 people had been granted emergency sand permits to shore up the dunes in front of their homes and in some cases structures such as stairs down to the beach.

The loss of millions of dollars of sand doesn’t settle well with many people, particularly those who insist beach renourishment projects are futile and a waste of money.

But for the various communities on the northern part of the island, the massive project did exactly what it was intended to do: protect the property and the area’s biggest economic engine, its beaches.

According to Allison McNeal, the tourism director for the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce, more than $363 million was spent on tourism in Indian River County in 2010. That figure, which was the result of research by the U.S. Travel Association, takes into account hotel stays, shopping and money spent at restaurants.

The beaches, said McNeal, are the reason nine out of 10 people travel to this part of Florida.

“From the chamber’s perspective, the beaches are the number one draw here,” McNeal said. “It is extremely important to the economic impact of Indian River County. We depend on those tourism dollars.”

The high seas ushered in by Hurricane Sandy didn’t just sweep away the northern part of the beach. Tracking Station County Park near the 7-Eleven on A1A also lost an enormous amount of sand and remains closed.

Yane Zana, an island resident and beachside developer, said preserving the beaches is something of an ongoing battle.

Zana got an emergency order to replace some of the sand around the dunes at the under construction North Shore Club.

“It’s important to put sand back. You have to be willing to spend money to reconstruct the dunes and the beaches,” Zana said. “There’s no question about it, Sector 3 had a lot of people complaining about what was spent. But what are you going to do, not put any sand back? That’s like saying you are not going to protect your most important asset.”

Not helping the erosion situation was another round of high seas and surf that continued to batter  what’s left of the dunes over the Thanksgiving weekend, said James Gray, the county’s environmental engineer.

Gray’s preliminary estimate of the value of the sand lost along our beaches after Hurricane Sandy came in at a $12 million.

But Gray said that on average, for every $1 spent on beach projects, there is a $7 dollar return in the form of protecting the investment in property and money brought in from recreational uses.

According to a database of beachfront properties along the 6.6-mile stretch of island  between the Seaview subdivision and John’s Island, the value of the properties, excluding condominiums, is set at more than $371 million by the Indian River County Property Appraisers Office.

Had the dunes not been built up over the three-year period, some of those homes could have been compromised, said Gray.

“Sector 3 did its job,” Gray said. “It was designed to provide storm protection and it did that. I can say that until I get blue in the face. It did just that. It protected our infrastructure.”

For a single coastal storm such as Sandy, Gray said he hasn’t seen such damage since Hurricane Francis.

Gray said a number of homes in Brevard County – where there has been no beach renourishment recently – suffered foundation damage because of pounding surf. Palm Beach County also lost a number of properties due to heavy waves and erosion.