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County to Miami-Dade: Keep your hands off our sand


Keep your shovels out of our sand!

That's the message Indian River County, along with Martin and St. Lucie, will send to the Army Corps of Engineers, protesting a plan to gobble up and relocate an unspecified amount of “bulk ocean sand” from the Treasure Coast to Miami-Dade County, via an agreement between Miami-Dade and the Corps.

Of the 100-plus million cubic yards of beach-compatible sand along the shores of St. Lucie, Martin, Palm Beach and Miami Dade counties, approximately 5.2 million cubic yards is available for removal in federal waters off St. Lucie and Martin Counties, according to a Florida Department of Environmental Protection-Army Corps of Engineers study. It is these counties the Miami-Dade project specifically names as a source of sand to replenish South Florida’s world famous beaches.

When the project first appeared on Indian River County radar back in January, the County Commission, along with the other Treasure Coast counties, voiced opposition, and listed several concerns. Although Indian River County was not included in the study, officials believe removal of beach sand from the neighboring counties could negatively affect Indian River County as the growing demand for beach quality sand continues.

Despite the objections, the Corps issued a “Finding of No Significant Impact.” Now the project is moving forward, and a permit application has been submitted to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Making the problem worse, as the County views it, are new rules for the use of “Outer Continental Shelf sand, gravel and shell resources for shore protection projects authorized by or funded in whole or in part by the Federal government,” recently proposed by the U.S. Department of the Interior, which the county fears could result in the loss of sand needed to restore the barrier island’s critically eroded shoreline.

County Coastal Engineer James Gray Jr. brought this new front in the ongoing Sand Wars before the Commission May 10 as he explained concerns and questions the County's Beach and Shore Preservation Advisory Board – the beach committee – compiled after perusing the lengthy federal rule proposal.

Indian River County does not use federal funds for beach restoration, relying on state and local funds instead, and beach committee members fear projects that are funded by the federal government may take priority over county projects if both have identified the same offshore sand for beach repair.

The Beach Committee wants to know: How would projects be prioritized? Would a federally funded project take precedence over a local entity that has identified the same offshore borrow source for its beach fill needs, or would it be first come, first served? Can such borrow material be reserved for future use, since permitting typically takes a couple of years?

Other questions raised by Gray and the beach committee: According to the Federal Register, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has issued almost 50 Florida leases for sand removal with 22 parties, including five small public entities. The beach committee asks: Where are they? Are agreement documents available? Were there any legal challenges?

Gray said Indian River County has spent significant funds on detailed sediment studies to identify three offshore borrow sources – north, central and south – that contain a combined volume of approximately 8 million cubic yards of “beach compatible sand.”

Use of these offshore sand resources, he emphasized, “in full or in part, will be required if the county is to continue its beach management efforts for the next 30-50 years.” Will those sources be at risk under the proposed new rules, and if so, would funds spent to survey the sources be reimbursed if another party removes the sand?

A final question: Why doesn't Miami-Dade look south for its sand – to the Bahamas, for example? The sand in those waters is said to be more compatible with South Florida beaches, and is also closer and therefore probably cheaper to transport than sand from the Treasure Coast. However, Gray said, the Corps so far wants to use domestic sources as long as they are available.

The Corps environmental assessment on the Miami-Dade project, which concluded “no significant impact” doesn’t necessarily provide any assurance or protection for the county. It referred specifically to impact on “sites of cultural or historical significance, and endangered species,” and did not address the impact on a community of losing valuable ocean sand intended for future beach restoration projects.

The Commission will send a letter to the U.S. Department of Energy Bureau of Ocean Management, as Indian River joins Martin and St. Lucie Counties in a coordinated outreach to several state and federal offices. Congressman Patrick Murphy's support is also being sought, according to Gray.