By Rich Pollack
With a renewed emphasis on the environment, the Highland Beach Town Commission took two major steps aimed at preserving the town’s natural resources and revitalizing the shoreline within its borders.
Commissioners agreed in April to create an advisory board charged with helping the town preserve the beaches and shores, as well as other natural areas. The new board’s duties are similar to a board that had been recently disbanded.
The commission also agreed to hire a consultant, most likely Tallahassee based, to work with the advisory board and explore grant funding opportunities that could be used to restore the shoreline.
“Both together will form an operational team that will put together environmental policies and come up with actions to improve the town,” said Commissioner Elyse Riesa, who along with Commissioner Rhoda Zelniker is leading the environmental restoration efforts. “We cannot become the world-class small town we want to be if we don’t take care of our natural resources.”
A major focus for the town is restoring the 2.8 miles of beach along its coastline. Because the town has no public beach and no public access to the beach within its boundaries, receiving federal and state funds for restoration has been a challenge.
A 2013 study estimated that restoring the beach would cost more than $10 million. As a result, town leaders at the time decided to take no further action.
Riesa, however, thinks there may be other avenues to pursue and hopes a consultant could help the town find money.
“The town currently has no one with the expertise to find grant funding in this area,” she said. “We need someone who can find money in the treasure chest for environmental restoration of our town.”
While the beach restoration is a key issue, town leaders hope the consultant will be able to help with other issues, including maintaining the health of mangroves within the town.
Riesa envisions the consultant as also serving as a liaison for the town with state and federal and local environmental regulatory agencies, including the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.
In addition, the consultant would be working closely with the new environmentally focused advisory board whose members have yet to be selected. The seven-member board will replace the town’s Beaches and Shores Advisory Board, which was disbanded late last year and replaced by the club.
Riesa, who previously recommended the Beaches and Shores Advisory Board be disbanded, said a new board, with a broader focus, is needed.
“The new advisory board is being established to provide constructive advice and counsel to town departments and to the Town Commission regarding environmental and natural resource preservation and conservation,” Riesa said. “This board’s responsibilities will be broad in scope in order to ensure any environmental concerns are addressed.”
Among some of the responsibilities Riesa envisions are working with homeowners and homeowners associations to plant noninvasive vegetation on dunes to help prevent erosion, working with the consultant on beach restoration issues and promoting environmentally friendly landscaping.
Town employees are working out details of the environmental efforts, including how the consultant and board will be funded.
Details of the environmental efforts, including how the consultant will be selected and funded, will be handed off to a new town manager once selected.
Town Manager Valerie Oakes was fired May 1.
Riesa thinks residents will benefit from the environment efforts in several ways, including the potential for increased property values.
“Protecting the environment will enrich the quality of life in Highland Beach,” she said.