By Rich Pollack
After shaking a finger at Boca Raton for removing offshore sand as part of a beach restoration project, Highland Beach commissioners are now discussing working with that city to solve short-term sand issues and possibly long-term environmental concerns.
Following calls from residents complaining that sand from off Highland Beach’s coast was being used to enhance Boca Raton’s north beach, town commissioners in June invited coastal engineer Gordon Thomson to help them get a better understanding of the impact of the sand removal and of the state and federal permitting processes.
Some of what they heard — from both Thomson and Town Manager Marshall Labadie — was unexpected.
While residents have complained for years about a shrinking Highland Beach shoreline, Thomson said that the northern and central part of the beach has actually increased, while the southern portion of the beach has gotten smaller.
“Overall, the beach is stable and growing,” he said. “There is more sand on your beach and more sand offshore.”
Thomson also told the commission that the removal of sand from off Highland Beach for the recent project and upcoming restoration projects in Boca Raton will have very little impact on the Highland Beach coast.
“It’s really only the massive storms in which you’ll see a change,” he said.
Commissioner John Shoemaker said that information may come as news to residents who were worried about the impacts of the dredging.
“I think a lot of people are going to be surprised by this,” Shoemaker said.
During the meeting, Thomson explained to commissioners that state and federal regulators have strict guidelines that must be followed and that as part of the permit there must be public notice given that the project will be taking place.
Labadie said that contrary to what many believed, Boca Raton notified Highland Beach of the project as it went through the permitting process.
He has also said that Highland Beach may follow up on a recommendation from Thomson that it possibly piggyback with Boca Raton on future beach projects and use some of the sand to reinforce beach dunes.
While the coastal engineer said that the environmental impact of dredging offshore is closely monitored by state and federal officials and should be minimal, commissioners expressed concerns about reef damage and the long-term impact of removing millions of tons of sand from offshore.
Working with Commissioner Peggy Gossett-Seidman, Labadie proposed that the town contact an environmental lawyer to see what steps Highland Beach — perhaps in conjunction with other coastal communities — can take to minimize the impact of removing beach-compatible sand from the ocean floor.
“It’s about coastal resiliency,” Labadie said. “Why are we working so hard to deplete a finite resource?”
Although Thomson said there is enough beach-compatible sand in the specific area off Highland Beach to last decades, Labadie and commissioners say it’s important to look over the regulations and processes that have been in place for decades in an effort to mitigate future environmental damage.
Labadie said an environmental attorney would be able to provide the town with a better understanding of the statutes and regulations so Highland Beach and other communities could be effective in bringing concerns about dredging to legislators.
“From a public policy perspective you have to constantly re-evaluate how you do things,” he said.
Mayor Doug Hillman said the town will add the idea of hiring an environmental attorney to a list of proposed projects that will be prioritized in the coming weeks. Ú