By Hector Florin
LANTANA — Upset over the possibility that a state agency could force the halt of the beach seawall’s construction, Lantana Town Council members rushed a vote last month to build an unbuilt portion of the wall 13 feet farther away from the water than previously planned.
During the town’s Jan. 26 meeting, Town Manager Mike Bornstein told the council that comments made by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission about the wall’s placement could lead to a legal battle, delays and costs surpassing the current $1.5 million price tag.
While town officials said the state’s Department of Environmental Protection seemed fine with the wall’s design, the Fish and Wildlife Commission worried the wall was being built too close to the shoreline and could have an impact on sea turtle nesting.
“My concerns when I visited the site yesterday were that the siting extends too far seaward into the nesting habitat, in areas that would be used for nesting by sea turtles,” wrote Robin Trindell in a Jan. 15 e-mail. “I hope it is possible to site the seawall farther landward.”
Council members blasted the commission for their comments, saying it was holding the town hostage for necessary work that benefits beachgoers, buildings and businesses and is not believed to have ever posed a threat to sea turtles.
“We have done everything. We have tried to do everything right,” Vice Mayor Elizabeth Tennyson said. “I love turtles. But I don’t think we’re robbing turtles of habitat by building the seawall there. We’re creating this seawall to protect the public’s beach.”
Even Town Attorney R. Max Lohman blasted the commission’s decision, calling it “garbage” while acknowledging that “it’s a tough, tough position” it put the town in.
Days after the Jan. 26 meeting, an S-shaped curve had moved the wall back, Bornstein said. While the 640-foot wall’s construction starts 24 feet away from buildings threatened by erosion, it is being moved closer in.
The decision to move the wall in another 13 feet in came after Bornstein talked to DEP officials. The hope is it is a satisfactory distance to appease the Fish and Wildlife Commission. About 100 feet remained to complete the wall’s construction by the end of January; other work associated with the wall is expected to be completed in March.
Council members rushed to make plans to build the seawall late last year, seeking an emergency declaration after storms washed away a chunk of the beach and threatened The Dune Deck Restaurant and other buildings. The declaration allowed the town to start the project while concurrently seeking state permits. Construction started the second week of January, while at the same time, the county began — and completed — dune restoration on the beach.
Though Tennyson was worried about changing plans suddenly without studying the effects, she joined others to support the new plan in a 4-1 vote, with Councilman Lynn Moorhouse opposed. He also expressed concerns about changing plans so quickly.
The council had reservations about a potential legal battle. Still, they would be reluctant to have any other obstacles thrown into the seawall’s way.
“This is the line in the sand,” Mayor David Stewart said. “They will not come back and ask for anything more.”
The Town Council also addressed the following at its Jan. 12 and Jan. 26 meetings:
• Ethics pledge: While announcing all town employees have signed an ethics pledge, Stewart suggested that vendors doing business with the town also sign it, and council members agreed. Over the two January meetings, Stewart asked the town’s external auditors, janitorial company and seawall builders to sign the pledge.
• Independence Day fireworks: Approved a maximum $35,000 contract with Zambelli Fireworks for the town’s Fourth of July celebration next to Bicentennial Park. One resident opposed the idea because of the town’s financial crunch, but council members defended the event as uplifting and a way for residents to get together.