By Dan Moffett
South Palm Beach’s long-awaited beach stabilization project will become longer awaited still — unless the town is able to close an easement deal with oceanfront homeowners very soon.
The town has until March 8 to persuade a dozen property owners to sign a letter allowing contractors access to a five-eighths-mile stretch of beach so construction has at least a chance of beginning this fall.
Town Manager Bob Vitas says this is the absolute last in a series of deadlines that have come and gone as the property owners balked at getting onboard. He remains confident they will endorse the plan.
“I think we’re good,” Vitas said. “We’re going to get it done.”
Project manager Kimberly Miranda of the county’s Department of Environmental Resources Management concedes that starting construction this year is a long shot. She says the bureaucratic hurdles ahead are daunting, even if South Palm Beach gets its easements approvals soon.
“Providing exact construction windows is difficult at this point since we are still in the process of obtaining permits,” Miranda said.
A more reasonable starting date is November 2018, she said. But even that could be pushed back if South Palm Beach can’t convince property owners to cooperate.
Vitas and Mayor Bonnie Fischer have gone door-to-door for the last year making the case for the project. Fischer has said that “false information and misunderstanding” have complicated the sales job.
Condo boards have worried about giving away access to their land for 50 years, the term of the agreement. The most recent holdup has been a dispute over liability issues. At least a half-dozen condominium associations have expressed concerns over who would be responsible for possible accidents, injury or damage done by contractors.
To allay those worries, county attorneys in February added a clause to the easement agreement that indemnifies property owners from liability.
If South Palm Beach can’t satisfy its requirements for the north end of the project, then Lantana’s municipal beach will suffer the consequences on the south end — though the town has already signed off on easements and has been supportive of the plan.
Because the project is designed and permitted as a continuous stabilization strategy, without South Palm Beach’s involvement work couldn’t begin on Lantana’s beach groins because of engineering and administrative issues.
“It’s engineered as a single project with the seven groins positioned to assist each other,” Vitas said. “Separating it just won’t work. If you tried, you’d have to start over with a new design.”
Starting from zero means potentially long delays, Vitas said, and Lantana Mayor Dave Stewart agrees. “If South Palm Beach doesn’t get on the train, I don’t know when we would start,” Stewart said. “You’d have to start from scratch with permitting. It could delay the project for a year or more.”
The good news for Lantana is that the town doesn’t have any money at stake. Because its beach is public and the town is allowing particularly useful access for county contractors, Lantana doesn’t have to pay anything for the project.
The stabilization, which will cost roughly $5 million to construct, has been in the works since shortly after Hurricane Wilma tore up the beach in 2005.
The project calls for constructing seven groins — concrete panels supported by concrete piles — buried in the sand, perpendicular to the shore, stretching some 75 feet into the water. The groins begin near the northern South Palm Beach boundary and go as far south as the end of Lantana’s Municipal Beach. Four of the groins would be squarely within South Palm Beach, one on the Lantana-South Palm Beach line, and two others on Lantana’s beach.
The federal government will pay 50 percent of the construction costs, the county will pay 30 percent from its tourism bed tax, and South Palm Beach will have to cover the remaining 20 percent, and also spend roughly $200,000 a year to bring in sand to keep the groins buried.
If all property owners sign off on the easements, then county officials can move forward and issue work orders for contractors. Federal and state officials can then approve the final administrative details to set the project in motion.
Fischer and Vitas are clinging to hope that work can begin in November and be done before turtle nesting season starts in March 2018. Vitas said some condo boards have signed the revised contract.
Miranda has been studying the town’s beach since Wilma hit. She said access to the beach is essential to keeping the project alive.