City barred from replenishing its eroded beaches
A county request for $5.8 million in state money to fix Vero’s eroded beaches highlights a bizarre situation: The city is barred by its own charter from spending tax dollars to fix the beaches it depends on, not just for much of its revenue and reputation, but for its very identity.
A charter amendment approved by voters in the 1989 bans the city from undertaking any major beach replenishment projects, and the popular beaches at Jaycee Park, Sexton Plaza and Humiston Park just keep getting narrower.
Making the situation still more bizarre, the county, which feeds on bed tax money collected from barrier island hotels, has refused to pay for beach repairs within the city, even though the city is part of the county and draws most of the tourists who come here.
City Manager Jim O’Connor, backed by a string of former mayors, has repeatedly asked the county to share bed-tax money collected from Vero Beach’s hotels and motels, citing the importance of the city’s beaches to tourism and the local economy.
But the county and its Tourist Development Council have been unwilling to divert dollars away from public relations programs run by the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce.
A public safety exemption in the city charter allows Vero officials to fund short-term emergency beach repairs, and the city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years on small patchwork fixes, but the beaches continue to waste away.
Even before the recent damage caused by Hurricane Matthew, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection classified Vero’s heavily-used beaches as “critically eroded.”
Each time a storm blows in – be it tropical or a Nor’easter – massive chunks of sand are chewed from the shoreline at the city beaches, sometimes leaving perilous drop-offs and shaky structures, such as the Conn Beach boardwalk that still sports orange caution tape months after Matthew blew by offshore.
The county has spent tens of millions in recent years dumping replacement sand on county beaches, but repairs to the shoreline within the Vero city limits have been pushed back time and again.
Now, though it’s still unwilling to share bed-tax revenue, the county finally seems to be trying to take care of the goose that lays the golden egg by getting the state to pony up millions to fix city beaches.
Assistant County Attorney Kate Pingolt-Cotner, who serves as legislative liaison between the county and legislators, delivered the ask before the holidays. The total amount needed for post-hurricane beach repair countywide is about $14 million, with Vero at long last being a priority.
County officials also want the state to designate a solid, predictable funding source for beach programs so communities can better plan restoration projects.
“Erosion leaves miles of beaches, public infrastructure and upland development vulnerable to the next storm event, as well as impacting tourism,” Cotner said. “Currently, beach renourishment is funded via doc stamps, along with countless other programs. This leaves beach renourishment projects fighting every year for a very small piece of a large pie.”
Because of strict regulations that protect sea turtles during nesting season, beach restoration projects can only be undertaken between Nov. 1 to May 1. Before a project can start, the beach must be surveyed, the project designed and permitted, and a contract executed for approved, beach-quality sand from a sand mine.
So even if money is budgeted in the 2017 legislative session, and Vero’s beaches are deemed eligible, the soonest one grain of sand could get on shore would be around next Thanksgiving.