Charlie Crist Pushes Back on Army Corps Over Pinellas Beach Project

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers following its decision to deny Pinellas County’s request for flexibility in securing easements to renourish local beaches which make up a significant portion of the county’s Shore Protection Project.

In early December, Crist sent a letter to the Corps as the future of the project hung in the balance due to the Corps’ arduous requirement for the county to obtain easements from all property owners along the length of the project. At the time, Crist urged the Army Corps to provide flexibility to the County so the project could continue on schedule.

Crist’s latest letter to the Corps comes on the heels of the Corps’ decision to not grant the county’s request, and asks for its immediate reconsideration as the degradation of Pinellas’ beaches would not only result in a loss of life and property, but also have significant economic impacts on the region’s tourism-based economy.

“The Army Corps’ decision to turn its back on the Pinellas County Shore Protection Project is not only in direct contrast with their federal mission to protect and maintain our shorelines, but would have far-reaching impacts on the people who live, work, and play along our coast,” said Crist on Tuesday. “Pinellas is blessed with some of the most beautiful beaches in the country, and it’s the preservation of these environmental treasures that has allowed our region to become one of the premier global tourist destinations, while also supporting thousands of local jobs and billions in economic impact. I reject the Corps’ decision and will be fighting back against a move that threatens our community’s wellbeing and way of life. It must be reconsidered immediately.”

Crist’s letter, which was sent out at the end of last week, is below.

Dear Mr. Stewart,

I am following up on our phone conversation from February 10th to express my deep disappointment in the Army Corps’ decision to not provide flexibility to Pinellas County in the Corps’ easement requirement. In a December letter to then-Assistant Secretary James, I laid out the threat this easement requirement poses to the future of the Pinellas County Shore Protection Project – a project that is critical to supporting the regional economy, providing habitat to endangered and threatened wildlife, and protecting lives and infrastructure from the destructive impacts of storm surge.

As you know, the Army Corps informed Pinellas County that local officials must obtain perpetual easements along the length of the project from 100 percent of property owners in order to move forward with Sand Key’s next scheduled nourishment. Unfortunately, due to understandable confusion and skepticism from some property owners, the County has been unable to obtain all necessary easements to begin the planning and design process for the upcoming nourishment. Notably, the majority of the remaining easements to be obtained are located well into the dunes where sand won’t be placed (see Attachment A). Requiring property owners to sign, and the County to gather, easements for parcels of land that won’t even see sand is arduous to say the least, and baffling if I am being frank.

While I understand the need to protect public access to Pinellas beaches – and I strongly support doing so – I don’t believe that providing the requested flexibility to the County would impede that access. Florida is unique among states as our State Legislature in law has designated an Erosion Control Line (ECL) that clearly delineates the public and private segments of our beaches. Pinellas County officials and I understand the requirement to obtain easements from property owners where sand will be placed on the private side of the state-mandated line. We believe this is consistent with the requirements of the 1986 WRDA law. Where we disagree with the Army Corps is the need to obtain easements for those segments of the project where sand will only be placed on the public side of the ECL, as public access in these areas is already guaranteed by state law.

Additionally, an argument could be made that allowing the project to lapse would depress public access far more than the Corps providing flexibility in its easement policy, as the beach could erode to the point where people can no longer recreate on it. Should this occur, it would have consequences that go well beyond Pinellas County. Pinellas’ beaches contribute not only to Tampa Bay’s regional economy, not only to the state’s economy, but to the entire country’s economy. In fact, Pinellas beaches are annually ranked as some of the best in the country.[1] Just this month, TripAdvisor named St. Pete Beach as the nation’s top beach and included Clearwater Beach, Madeira Beach, and Treasure Island on its Top 20 list. Furthermore, in 2020, despite the pandemic, Pinellas County drew 12.5 million visitors, creating an economic impact of $5.8 billion and supporting over 65,000 jobs within the County. It is clear that Pinellas beaches and the recreational opportunities they provide draw visitors from well beyond Florida, and even beyond the United States. Allowing this project to lapse would have far-reaching and significant economic consequences.

Even more alarming, the degradation of Pinellas’ beaches could result in loss of life and significant property damage from storms and other flooding events. Nourished beaches provide critical protection from the impacts of storm surge. Without a wide, sandy beach to serve as a buffer, lives would be lost, property and infrastructure would be destroyed, and post-disaster costs for the federal government would skyrocket. Not only is this an incredibly dangerous situation for the people who live and work along Pinellas’ coast, but this directly contradicts the very purpose of the Army Corps’ Shore Protection Program.

Finally, this decision by the Army Corps completely contradicts President Biden’s focus on policies to enhance climate resiliency and preparedness. We saw last year just how damaging even relatively minor storms, such as Tropical Strom Eta, can be to coastal communities. Eta caused tremendous damage to Pinellas’ beaches. Damage that continues to threaten the safety of residents along the southern portion of the Pinellas County project until the beaches can be repaired.

Given this, I find it inexplicable that the Corps would be so willing to abandon a successful and critical public safety project. Frankly, it is unacceptable. The Corps must immediately reconsider this decision and work with Pinellas County to find an acceptable path forward for the Pinellas County Shore Protection Project.

 

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