November 11, 2016
Shrinking Shores: How Florida leaders are failing the state’s famous beaches
Eric Staats and Ryan Mills
FLORIDA LEADERS FAIL TO PROTECT THE STATE'S SHORES
Every year, Florida loses more of its beaches.
From the southern tip of the Florida Keys to the western edge of the Panhandle, communities up and down the state’s coasts struggle to keep sand on their shrinking shores, with some losing as much as 18 feet a year.
More than a third of the state’s shoreline has lost ground over the past five decades.
Florida’s brand, a key source of tourist revenue, is washing away.
More than 800 miles of beaches draw more tourists to the Sunshine State from all over the world than any other attraction, including Disney World. They sell the Florida lifestyle, and buffer hurricanes and sea level rise.
Yet, Florida leaders are failing to protect the state’s greatest asset, and here’s how:
» Despite the state receiving more than $3 billion in sales taxes from tourists to beach counties each year, ensuring residents pay no state income tax, Florida lawmakers return less than 1 percent to the shoreline. Governors and legislators some years failed to deliver the $30 million a year promised in state law and changed the law to reduce the obligation. A constitutional amendment later stripped dedicated money from state beaches.
That has left more of the coast vulnerable to hurricanes and other tropical systems, like the ones that hammered Florida this summer in the state’s most destructive storm season in a decade.
» Instead of taking advantage of a 10-year lull in storms to shore up the state’s coast, Florida’s governors and lawmakers allowed an annual backlog of unfunded beach projects to peak at more than $80 million. Local governments that often are not up to the task must fend for themselves as beach renourishment costs skyrocket and the demand for sand increases.
» As erosion consumed more of Florida’s beaches, the state agency charged with protecting them cleared the way for coastal development. The Department of Environmental Protection granted more than 41,000 permits since 1980 to build everything from resorts to houses to swimming pools along Florida’s shores, state records show.
A Naples Daily News analysis shows nearly two-thirds of all coastal building permits issued after 1989 have allowed construction along beaches that DEP already had declared critically eroded, where development, recreation or natural habitat is threatened.
» The more development increased, the more shoreline DEP declared critically eroded. Since 1989, the agency nearly doubled the length of state-designated critically eroded beaches in Florida to 411 miles, almost half of the state’s sandy coast. But Florida leaders helped just more than half of those vulnerable beaches, and often to match money from the federal government. Only 227 miles of the critically eroded shores have received state support, records show.
Even beaches that look healthy can be vulnerable. This year’s storms exposed greater weakness in Florida’s beach program. The tropical systems devastated stretches of critically eroded shoreline left more vulnerable because they never received state money to rebuild with more sand.
“You can go down the map, and you can see that where we’re doing nothing, we’ve got some major problems,” said Debbie Flack, president of the Florida Shore & Beach Preservation Association, a pro-beach lobbying group.
Hurricane Matthew sent a mile of A1A in Flagler County crumbling into the Atlantic Ocean in October and left homes on Vilano Beach in St. Augustine teetering on the edge of sand cliffs.
Before that, Hurricane Hermine washed out the only road in and out of the western end of Alligator Point in the Panhandle. Tropical Storm Colin stole enough beach on Charlotte County’s Manasota Key that two homes and a condo building were deemed unsafe to enter.
Gov. Rick Scott said he believes beaches are vital to Florida. They are why he bought his beachfront home in Naples in 2003. But he declined to commit to increased funding for beaches, saying he’s confident DEP “cares about them.”
“We’re funding them. We’re going to continue funding them,” Scott said.
DEP Secretary Jon Steverson refused numerous requests since May in person, on the phone and through email to discuss the agency’s practices and the state’s approach to beach management.
“The state of Florida is committed to providing funding to help restore and preserve Florida’s beaches,” according to a four-paragraph statement released by Steverson’s office. “Florida has one of the most comprehensive beach management programs in the nation.”
Saving Florida’s beaches means more than protecting coastal development. Laid-back beach towns are losing the very attraction that draws paying tourists and, as a result, are losing their way of life. Sea turtles and shorebirds are losing habitat. Seminole Indians are fighting to save sacred burial grounds on Egmont Key in Tampa Bay. The historic Kennedy Space Center launching pads that sent man to the moon are threatened by the ever-creeping Atlantic Ocean along Cape Canaveral.
“(People) say you’re fighting nature. No, we’re not. We’re fighting man,” said Kevin Bodge, a Jacksonville-based coastal engineer. “And this is just part of paying the price.”
Permission to Build
COASTAL PERMITS ALLOWED ON CRITICAL SHORELINE
Florida’s pitch as America’s paradise is clear in 1950s-era photos of Miami Beach, where hotels replaced their eroding beaches with swimming pools jutting into the Atlantic Ocean.
Coastal development put Florida on the map, and became the engine that drove the state’s economy.
“The beaches to Florida are like snow to Colorado. You’ve got to have them,” said Dennis Jones, a former Republican legislator from St. Petersburg and a founding father of Florida’s beach program.
Florida sells tourists, snowbirds and retirees the dream of sunshine and sand -- high-rise hotels with an ocean view, beach houses with the surf lapping a few feet away and condominiums with paths to the water.
But there had to be limits.
By the 1970s, Florida drew a hard line in the sand, blocking development within 50 feet of the high tide line as part of the Beach and Shore Preservation Act.
It took only a few years to roll back that prohibition. By 1978, the setback line was replaced with the Coastal Construction Control Line, creating a zone along the state’s shores where development would be allowed but limited to protect both the coast and the infrastructure built near it from a 100-year storm.
“It is in the public interest to preserve and protect (beaches) from imprudent construction, which can jeopardize the stability of the beach-dune system, accelerate erosion, provide inadequate protection to upland structures, endanger adjacent properties or interfere with public beach access,” the Florida law creating the control line states.
Instead of controlling construction, the coastal building program welcomed it, even as the length of Florida shoreline declared critically eroded grew, state records show.
State data show DEP has issued 41,044 permits allowing construction beyond the control line since 1980 -- on average, about three times a day.
Of those permits, more than 23,000 authorized construction on a beach DEP already had designated critically eroded because development, natural habitat or recreation was threatened, according to a Daily News analysis of DEP permit and critical erosion data. That number represents two-thirds of all coastal building permits the agency issued since it began identifying vulnerable beaches as critically eroded in 1989, state records show.
The construction permits allowed more than 6,900 single-family homes, more than 1,200 condos and apartments, and about 600 public or commercial buildings, according to the state data. The remainder of the permits allowed construction of smaller projects like driveways, decks, walkovers and cabanas along the coast.
“We have proceeded to build right next to the edge of this continent that’s retreating back,” said Orrin Pilkey, a Duke University professor of earth and ocean sciences and a leading scholar of the nation’s coasts who advocates retreat from the shore.
While Steverson, head of DEP, declined to discuss the agency’s practices, his office issued written responses to points raised by the Daily News. The agency’s response to the coastal permit process noted DEP follows state law.
“In the processing of any application, and the approval or denial of any permit application submitted to us, the department follows the rules and statutes of the state,” the response notes.
Coastal engineers say obtaining a coastal construction permit is a rigorous process. But DEP rarely rejects requests, turning the control line into an out-of-control line, critics argue.
Since 2006, the agency has denied only 275 coastal construction permits — about 25 a year, according to state data.
“I think this program is basically pretty much a rubber stamp,” said Estus Whitfield, an environmental adviser to four Florida governors from 1979 to 1999.
In 1985, Florida lawmakers sought to reinsert some backbone into the state’s coastal growth policies, while maintaining the coastal construction line. They prohibited construction beyond a second line closer to the water marking expected erosion in 30 years, with one glaring loophole: single-family houses.
“I just don’t think the state has the guts to tell people they can’t build on their property,” said former DEP lawyer Tom Tomasello, who now helps clients obtain coastal construction permits.
By issuing so many construction permits on eroding shorelines, DEP must approve what agency leaders acknowledge are last-resort protections against erosion. Since 1980, the agency has granted construction permits for nearly 1,300 seawalls and bulkheads to protect developed property from washing into the sea, state records show.
That armor, installed to hold the line against erosion, deflects energy from storm-tossed waves and makes them a force of erosion. That leads to more erosion and more seawalls.
In the months after the busy 2005 storm season, panicked property owners, in an unprecedented move, obtained more than 250 permits to build seawalls in the Panhandle’s hard-hit Walton County. Across the state, residents of Vilano Beach north of St. Augustine — a critically eroded beach that has yet to receive state money for sand — scrambled to throw up seawalls after their beach started disappearing.
More than 100 miles of Florida’s shoreline is currently armored, according to a 2012 study by the engineering firm Coastal Tech Corp. of Jacksonville.
RESIDENTS WANT THEIR BEACH BACK
On the June night Tropical Storm Colin roared past Southwest Florida toward the Panhandle, Toni Orr rode out the storm in a room where her late mother used to watch the Gulf of Mexico come closer to her back door.
The walls shook. The windows rattled. Orr worried the living room could fall into the waves along Manasota Key.
“I had my stuff by the door,” said Orr, a Port Charlotte Middle School sixth-grade teacher. “If Dorothy and Toto came floating by like everything else that came floating by, we were out of here.”
The beach at Manasota Key has been slowly disappearing at about 3 ½ feet per year, according to a county-funded erosion study. Colin was the final straw.
Charlotte County commissioners declared a state of emergency. Neighbors banded together to throw up a seawall to protect their investment. They want their beach back.
Their sandy coast is among about 280 miles of Florida shores that have shrunk since the 1970s, according to a Daily News analysis of beach measurement data compiled by coastal researchers for a first-of-its-kind shoreline atlas in 2010.
On Cape San Blas, in the Panhandle, the fastest-eroding beach in the state lost more than 18 feet of sand per year from 2009 to 2014, according to Gulf County calculations. The erosion is so bad, the county and state dumped boulders along a section of coast to stop waves from washing over Cape San Blas Road, the only way on or off the peninsula.
Erosion rates alone are not enough for the DEP to declare a beach like Cape San Blas at-risk. Something must be threatened to make the list: wildlife habitat, historical resources, recreation or, most often, development.
DEP defines both stretches of beach at Cape San Blas and Manasota Key as critically eroded, a term the agency developed as part of its method of identifying threatened beaches.
DEP survey crews rotate around the state measuring beach width from the high tide line to established range monuments -- about 4,000 markers every 1,000 feet or so along Florida’s coast, some dating back to the mid-19th century. The monitoring system gives researchers unparalleled ability to analyze the back and forth of Florida’s sandy shores.
If too little beach is left after a 25-year computer-simulated storm, DEP declares the section critically eroded.
Florida’s first critical erosion report in 1989 listed 218 miles of shoreline, and it has nearly doubled to 411 miles. Beaches can appear healthy and be vulnerable.
Over the years, the state has helped renourish 227 miles of critically eroded beach, leaving another 184 miles -- including the beach at Manasota Key -- without state aid, according to state records.
But some of what the state classifies as critically eroded is actually beach that has widened with the natural flow of sand over time. The beaches require renourishment because developers have built on the expanding shores, said James Houston, director emeritus of the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, Miss., and an advocate for renourishing eroding beaches.
Houston and the late pioneering coastal engineer Robert Dean of the University of Florida pointed to a stretch of critically eroded Indian River County shore that has grown more than 240 feet since the first measurement in 1882, according to their research published in the March issue of the Journal of Coastal Research. Houses built on the widening beach are now threatened because the shoreline has since retreated to where it was in about 1980, according to their research.
Even growing beaches recede sometimes, rising and falling, but with an upward trend, like the stock market.
“It spans a lot of wiggles, but these wiggles last for years and they give people the impression that things are eroding,” Houston said in an interview.
Dean, Houston and Pilkey published research in the 1980s that showed as much as 85 percent of the erosion on Florida’s east coast is due to ports and inlets trapping sand.
Houston argues Florida leaders should pay more attention to those manmade causes of erosion that interfere with sand’s natural flow along the coast. That, he said, is why much of Florida’s coast is losing ground.
That leaves roads and homes, habitat and history at risk.
At the Kennedy Space Center north of Port Canaveral, the Atlantic Ocean has been creeping closer to the underground utilities that service the pads that launched the Apollo moon landings and space shuttle flights, and are now crucial to a new era of SpaceX flights.
Instead of rebuilding the eroded beach under federal control to make it wider, NASA is building dunes higher to hold back the Atlantic. It’s called “managed retreat.”
“This is it. This is our protection,” said Don Dankert, a scientist with NASA’s environmental management branch. “We’re going to let the beach do what the beach will do.”
At the entrance of Tampa Bay, it’s not erosion caused by inlets but by shipping wakes and storms that threatens Egmont Key’s sacred past.
In the 1850s, at the end of the Third Seminole War, the U.S. Army jailed hundreds of captured Seminoles on the island until they could be loaded onto steamboats and taken to Arkansas for the march west on the Trail of Tears.
Many died in horrible conditions at Egmont Key. Their graves are marked in a small cemetery. Others, nobody is sure how many, are believed to be buried in unmarked graves, their remains at risk of washing away.
“It is a piece of our history, the beginning of the holocaust for us,” Seminole Court Chief Justice Willie Johns said. “It would be a shame to let it go because we didn’t do anything about it.”
FLORIDA LEADERS AREN’T DOING ENOUGH FOR BEACHES
While Florida’s monitoring of its shoreline has created massive amounts of data and become the envy of other coastal states, governors and lawmakers have broken the promise made at the birth of the state’s beach management program.
Jones, the state representative from Pinellas County, offered a plan unanimously approved by the Legislature in 1998 to support the growing practice of renourishing beaches by pumping offshore sand onto them.
Lawmakers committed at least $30 million a year of the state’s real estate transaction tax, or documentary stamp tax, to the nascent beach program.
But in 2003, then-Gov. Jeb Bush proposed cutting it in half, while lawmakers decided on $22.5 million.
By 2008, as the recession choked documentary stamp tax revenue, legislators changed the law to reduce the annual commitment to 2.12 percent of what is left in a state environmental trust fund, dropping estimated annual beach money to as little as $1 million at one point.
The money never dipped that far, but dropped to a low of $15 million in 2010, with most state money used to match federal support.
Beaches took another hit in 2014 when a constitutional amendment approved by voters removed the dedicated money from documentary stamp taxes for beaches, making them compete with other state projects.
Beaches have received more than $30 million each year since, but more than half of that state money flowed to federal projects requiring a match or receiving priority because of federal support, records show.
Federal money long has driven Florida’s beach program, leaving little for those communities that aren’t hit by storms or aren’t lucky enough to be among the special class that receive federal support.
DEP and lawmakers give state funding priority to projects that receive federal money from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This year, for example, 73 percent of the state’s beach budget was eaten up by projects that received federal money, leaving only scraps for dozens of other local beach renourishment requests.
“I receive zero dollars from the Army Corps of Engineers,” said Juan Florensa, public works administrator for Longboat Key. “It does not really make sense. I would argue that those cities and counties that get federal funding, they’re already getting some money.”
Flack, who heads the pro-beach lobbying group, said the problem isn’t federal projects. The problem is Florida leaders aren’t doing enough for beaches.
“I think everybody who does not get funding thinks they are the short end of the stick,” Flack said. “No. The demand is so high, the stick is short for everybody.”
The Panhandle’s Cape San Blas offers a glimpse of what happens when state and local leaders don’t work together to manage beaches.
David and Tasha Bromfield, tourists from Nashville, traveled there for a beach vacation this summer. The only problem: no beach.
Their beach stairs led to a narrow spit of wet, muddy sand with protruding roots, logs and seaweed.
Instead of building sand castles, their 2-year-old son napped inside. The family spent a lot of time at a nearby raw bar.
They won’t be back, David Bromfield said. “There’s no real attraction to come here.”
“So why come to Florida?” he said, looking into the waves lapping at the wooden stairs. “You might as well go to the Caribbean.”
Reporter Brett Murphy contributed to this story.