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Shores still pushing for beach replenishment

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of January 18, 2024)
Photo: Shores Councilmember Mary Alice Smith views the beach with Sgt.Travis Parker.

Hope is waning for residents waiting to get sand placed on Indian River Shores’ dunes ahead of the unknowns of the 2024 Atlantic Hurricane Season, but town officials are doing everything in their power to make it happen.

The town hired its own coastal engineers to quantify damage to beaches from Turtle Trail south to the Tracking Station, and to file an independent application to have that stretch of beach declared critically eroded by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Each week, town public works or public safety staffers ride out to the beach to document each new escarpment chewed away by winter storm systems.

Shores oceanfront property owners have quickly signed and returned the required number of easement agreements needed to give county crews permission to work on the beach. Funding is in place to purchase the sand.

Now it’s a race against time, as turtle nesting season starts in the spring, and the absolute latest workers can be on the beach is May 1, with special permits. Regulators prefer all heavy equipment be off the beaches by the time the first Leatherback turtles begin nesting in March, and that’s only six weeks away.

Councilmember Mary Alice Smith, who serves as the Shores’ representative on the county’s Beaches and Shores Preservation Advisory Committee, rode out on an ATV last week to get a closer look at the damage.

“I was surprised. The damage is more extensive than before. People who have spent their own money to build up the dunes, a lot of that is gone now,” Smith said. “The houses and buildings look so much closer than they used to.”

For example, residents of the 500 Building condominiums at John’s Island took on an extensive dune repair project after Hurricane Nicole, to the extent of sinking large planter containers with vegetation on the building side to shore up the beach and protect the building. “You can see the side of the planters where the sand is washed away,” Smith said.

With the North Barrier Island (Sector 3) sand replenishment project underway and making progress, “I’ve heard the Sector 3 project is going really well. We had hoped that they could just continue on and do Sector 4,” Smith said. “We’ve been waiting on the county to get the permits.”

The sector numbering refers to the county’s master plan for beaches, the numbers running from 1 to 7 starting just south of the Sebastian Inlet and running south past Round Island Park to the Indian River-St. Lucie county line.

Beaches in the town limits include popular public access points like Beachcomber Lane, which Indian River Shores taxpayers paid to replenish with sand after storm damage in the fall, with town Public Works Director Larry Bryant coordinating that project.

Town Manager Jim Harpring said the town’s application for critically eroded status is still pending with FDEP in Tallahassee.

“Once we get in line with that, you get evaluated automatically,” Smith said.

Smith said she thinks the town’s initiative in documenting all the damage on a continuous basis, and submitting its own application to FDEP, has not been wasted on county and state officials who plan and decide the priorities and funding for beach projects. “I think we have their attention now. At least we’re now at the top of the list,” she said.

But without that critically eroded status, Harpring and Smith agreed that, realistically, Shores residents may be on their own again this hurricane season in terms of erosion protection.

“As to the overall data and the likelihood of the dune replenishment in Sector 4 occurring this season, I defer to the county. They will have the most up to date information on both counts. However, it is mid-January and having not heard of a specific time frame from the County,  I do not believe we will see dune work on Sector 4 prior to turtle nesting season,” Harpring said on Monday.