By Dan Moffett
After 12 years of planning, lobbying and debate, South Palm Beach Town Council members say they’re now having second thoughts about staying in a county project to install concrete groins in the hope of stabilizing the town’s eroding beaches.
“This is turning out to be a long project to the answer ‘no,’ ” Mayor Bonnie Fischer said. “We’re just being realistic here. I think it’s about time we looked into something else.”
Until expressing her doubts during a Feb. 27 workshop on the project, Fischer had been a vocal supporter of the groin plan since joining the council seven years ago.
Other council members concurred with her changing viewpoint.
“I seem to get a feeling from the crowd that the current plan isn’t acceptable to our constituents,” said Councilwoman Stella Gaddy Jordan after listening to a steady stream of residents’ complaints for nearly two hours. “They elected us to do their bidding.”
Vice Mayor Robert Gottlieb said the town should take a step back and reassess alternatives: “Let’s look at the options.”
The project, which was first conceived after Hurricane Wilma ravaged the town’s beaches in 2005, calls for installing a network of groins from South Palm’s northern boundary to the southern end of Lantana Municipal Beach. The plan’s $5 million price tag is to be split among the state (50 percent), Palm Beach County (30 percent) and South Palm (20 percent).
The reversal in the town comes after a rising tide of opposition and negative developments in recent months. Among them:
• Manalapan Mayor Keith Waters has said his town is opposed the groin plan over concerns it will interrupt the natural southward flow of sand and damage the town’s beaches. Manalapan’s commissioners have said they’re willing to take legal action to stop the project.
“The county does not want to pit municipality against municipality,” Fischer said. “I understand that.”
• The Concordia East condominium in South Palm continues to refuse to sign an easement agreement with the county to allow workers on its beach, fearing legal liability or opening the door to public access.
• The Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa has joined Manalapan in opposing the use of groins.
• County environmental managers are still trying to obtain all the necessary permitting from state and federal officials and may not be able to meet the intended November start date to complete work before turtle nesting season. If managers miss the deadline, the project would be pushed back another year.
• Increasing complaints from residents about the appearance of concrete structures on the beach and the cost to the town.
Joseph Chaison, a county engineer, told residents during the workshop that installing structures is “the least preferred” option for fighting beach erosion, but South Palm Beach has no good choices. Because the town’s shoreline has a hard bottom and the water already reaches some condos’ seawalls, a traditional renourishment plan would be difficult. The sand might wash away as soon as it’s dumped.
Julie Mitchell, the county’s environmental program supervisor, told the council the county would “continue to work with you to develop a feasible alternative” if the town decides to pull out of the groin plan and try something else.
“At some point a decision has to be made as to whether to go forward with this project,” Mitchell said.
Fischer said the council will consider its options and get back to the county.
In other business, Police Chief Carl Webb is taking a medical leave of absence and will be away from the department “for weeks,” a spokesman for the town said.
Sgt. Mark Garrison, a 17-year veteran with the town, will fill in as chief until Webb returns.
“Chief Webb wants to thank all the residents and friends who have wished him well and offered their support,” the spokesman said.