Trucking sand to beaches: Officials say ‘Never again’
STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of June 28, 2012)
Three members of the Indian River Board of County Commissioners stated that they’ve finally had enough, and will never vote again to truck-in sand for beach replenishment.
Was it the two years of delays? Or the $4 million in cost overruns? Maybe the repeated shortages of sand? Perhaps the fact that even after the project dragged into a third year, a full 1,500 feet of dunes was still left incomplete?
The deciding factor was none of the above. What threw three commissioners over the edge was a very public and petty dispute among three vendors – Ranger Construction, the Ranch Road Lake LLC sand mine and Henry Fischer and Sons dredging operation – over the last $60,000 of the $15 million project.
Two weeks ago, commissioners pleaded with the parties to settle their differences and they set up a meeting for that purpose.
“We did have that meeting last Friday and while it was entertaining, it was not productive,” County Attorney Alan Polackwich told commissioners June 19.
Before commissioners was a request to finalize payment and release about a half million dollars on deposit with the county to ensure Ranger would complete the project. In the end, commissioners voted 4-1 to pay Ranger the money because they felt holding back $60,000 would not resolve the dispute because two parties, Ranch Road and Fischer, are embroiled in lawsuits.
Polackwich said keeping the $60,000 would only “draw us deeper into the battle going on between Fisher and Ranch Road in court.”
The latest and hopefully final installment of the trucked-in sand saga which began in September 2009 devolved into grown men standing at podiums and pointing fingers at each other on television as they denied responsibility for the debacle.
Watching the back and forth was like a tennis match. A former sheriff, Commissioner Gary Wheeler, said the scene made him feel like he was back in law enforcement, in the middle of a confusing domestic incident.
Commissioner Joe Flescher was so befuddled 45 minutes into the discussion that he said, “It sounds like we are entering into a semantical world of galactical measures.”
Commissioner Peter O’Bryan, the most vocal cheerleader of the North County beach replenishment project, went on record first stating his support for doing another project with the same companies had evaporated.
He still describes the project, which shored up more than six miles of beach from John’s Island to Treasure Shores Park, as a technical and environmental success. But to clear up the financial quandary which has tainted the project, O’Bryan suggested each party eat $20,000 of the disputed amount and settle the lawsuit.
Ranch Road and Ranger refused, but Fischer agreed. Ironically, the $20,000 each that Ranch Road and Ranger would have been out is a tiny fraction of the tens of millions of dollars to be made on future sand projects.
When extrapolated to other governments in Florida in need of beach sand, which will surely be gun shy about hiring these contractors after hearing of Indian River County’s reproach, the potential lost business could mount into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
“If we don’t resolve this and it ever comes before us again, I’m not going to be motivated to vote if these parties are involved again,” O’Bryan said.
Commissioner Bob Solari, who has been more critical of the project than any of the other commissioners, echoed O’Bryan. Wheeler went beyond O’Bryan’s statement to say that he thought Ranch Road Lake sand mine owner Steve Smith was the “bad guy.”
“I’m not going to be here after November, but I would never support using Ranch Road sand as long as Steve was involved in it,” Wheeler said.
Smith stands by his statements that he does not owe Fischer any money.
Fischer manager Chuck Cramer stands by assertions that he did not receive a fuel surcharge adjustment which was due his company to compensate for increased diesel fuel costs.
Bob Shafer of Ranger Construction said he’s not responsible for the fact that Fisher may or may not have gotten paid because he paid Smith and Ranch Road because that’s who he contracted with for the sand.
Commissioner Wesley Davis did not weigh in on the discussion much, except to say that the county needed to end the taxpayers’ involvement in the project by releasing the final payment.
Davis sits in a tight spot, as Dr. Henry Fischer has been a long-time campaign supporter and Smith of Ranch Road is a distant cousin. Davis also has a brother in the sand mining business.
Flescher, who said he wanted the county to hold back the money in a last-ditch effort to force a solution, said he was “greatly disappointed” in the fact that the situation was such a mess and that subcontractors may not have gotten their due compensation.
In summing up his fellow commissioners’ statements, he expressed his grief over what appears to be the end of trucked-in sand as an option for beach projects.
“This will never happen again,” Flescher said. “There will be future needs. The beach isn’t going anywhere, or to some the beach is going away. Hearing that we’ll have to be looking elsewhere because we don’t have vendors who will cooperate, that’s a shame because you’re local vendors.”
The reason why commissioners voted for the trucked-in sand scheme in the first place instead of for the dredging operation that pumps in sand from offshore was to employ local people instead of sand pumping crews from the Midwest.
In the end, the project provided some temporary and seasonal trucking jobs, a handful of jobs to dredge and mine workers, and to biologists and engineers.
Crews who mined the sand the last year and a half of the project came from Louisiana.
The next beach sand project in the county’s replenishment plan will encompass the beaches within the City of Vero Beach. County officials have said that due to financial challenges and the lack of state money for beach projects, that effort has been postponed indefinitely. In the meantime, the county is studying the feasibility of constructing artificial reefs offshore to prevent sand from washing away.