12420284481?profile=RESIZE_710xJordan Nichols and Bill Simons gauge the plan’s suggested channel as too shallow. Photos by Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star

After plan blindsides Hypoluxo Island, lagoon project won’t touch channel after all

By Mary Thurwachter

Bonefish Cove, a long-planned effort to bring a chain of three mangrove islands and oyster reefs to the central Lake Worth Lagoon, encountered stormy waters last month. The stir-up occurred just as construction was about to begin — after some Hypoluxo Island residents realized the project could cut off their boating access to the Intracoastal Waterway.

12420286256?profile=RESIZE_400xAfter serious discussions among state, federal and Palm Beach County officials — as well as the residents on Hypoluxo Island’s northeast side who will be affected by the project — calm has been restored and the project is moving forward. The center island, which would have been built directly over the channel used for decades by the residents, is being removed from the plans, officials said.

The project, a partnership between the county and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will create valuable habitat for flora and fauna that had otherwise been lost or degraded because of past dredge and fill activities, stormwater discharges and shoreline hardening. The islands — named Bonefish Cove after a popular fish that recently returned to the area due to previous county restoration projects — will be formed using 320,000 cubic yards of sand from Peanut Island.

Although the plan has been brewing for years, it took until mid-February for residents of Hypoluxo Island to get wind of it via a flyer sent to their homes.

Boaters were outraged when they realized the project, about a half mile in length and directly north of Hypoluxo Island, would take away their navigational access to the Intracoastal.

Among homeowners spurred into action was former Lantana Mayor Dave Stewart, who reached out to Town Manager Brian Raducci.

Raducci was unaware of Bonefish Cove, but he contacted county and Army Corps officials to set up a Feb. 29 workshop, giving them a chance to detail the $15 million project and residents an opportunity to air concerns.

The Town Hall meeting was flooded with unhappy residents.

Some worried about a reduction in water velocity and accumulation of more sedimentation in the shallow waters along the shoreline on the northeast side of the island.

Larry Robbins, nicknamed “The Dock Man,” said he built most of the docks in the area and feared the lessening of volume of water coming in and out of the channel. “It really gets choked up at Ocean Avenue,” he said. “You’ve got to keep that area from turning into a sewer.”

Matt Mitchell, county division director for environmental enhancement and restoration, said the project was designed “to provide more sea grass habitat, and there are insular benefits to the water quality.”

“Erosion, shoaling, navigation, all these things are included in the permit process,” Mitchell said. “The islands have a limestone rock ring around them. We would not expect that this material migrates closer to the Intracoastal or east closer to the island.”
But the residents’ main concern was the loss of the passageway to the Intracoastal.

“This is a small community focused on water activities,” said Robert Banting. “Fishing is sort of our theme for the town. Tonight’s crowd is evidence that whatever’s been done — and what you did may have complied with your requirements — was inadequate to inform the people who are going to be affected. We support the environmental benefits of this project, but we don’t support taking away people’s access to the Intracoastal.”

Banting said there had to be “a solution that doesn’t eliminate the environmental benefits and also gives people the right that they had for many years to continue access to the Intracoastal.”

Mitchell said the county had done extensive study and determined that the mangrove islands weren’t going to preclude anyone from getting into and out of the Intracoastal.

“I understand from some comments we’ve received and some phone calls that there may be a historic, preferred route directly across from La Renaissance, but that was not a marked channel or anything that was included in any sort of review,” Mitchell said. “When we went through the process, we were diligent in looking at depth, in looking at navigational concerns and without a marked, known channel, the determination was ‘yes, there are islands coming here, but there is area to the north of the islands that would still allow anyone behind the islands to ingress and egress to the Intracoastal.’”

12420285888?profile=RESIZE_710xJordan Nichols used PVC pipe marked at 1-foot increments to demonstrate the shallow depth of the edge of the alternate access channel first proposed for the project.

Boaters’ concerns
Mitchell’s argument didn’t hold water with the residents. Their point of entry to the Intracoastal is what they call La Renaissance channel, directly west of the Palm Beach condo with the same name. Plans called for the middle of the three islands to be built directly over La Renaissance channel.

Bill Simons and his son Hal have been using the channel since 1996. Simons said he was shocked when he received the flyer two weeks before construction was originally scheduled to start. He recognized what the center island would mean to boaters — losing deep-water access to the Intracoastal. He and neighbor Jordan Nichols, a retired civil engineer who once worked for the South Florida Water Management District, went door to door to sound the alarm.

“Right now, we have a channel over 100 feet wide with no navigational hazard,” Nichols said. “What the county is telling us is our access is up to the north. I scaled it off with bathometric maps and the (northern) channel is only 15 feet wide and it has rocks on both sides, so it’s a true hazard.”

Nichols and others filed petitions with the South Florida Water Management District requesting an administrative hearing to challenge the state permit for the work. But some of those petitions were denied because the requests came after the deadline. The notice for the plan was not published in The Palm Beach Post until March 2, and Nichols sent his request on Feb. 29. But the water management district initially maintained the public notice was the Feb. 14 flyers.

Impact on property values
Stuart Fain, who lives on Hypoluxo Island, said the island has many homes on the east side north of Ocean Avenue and that the loss of Intracoastal access would greatly reduce property values. He met with residents who talked about hiring a lawyer but who held off and were “politely working” with the county. He also reached out to U.S. Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio of Florida.

At a March 22 meeting involving Deb Drum, director of the county’s Department of Environmental Resources Management, county administrators, biologists and engineers and a handful of residents, Fain saw that polite worked.

Here is Simons’s assessment of what transpired.

“After dismissing 5-6 letters (petitions for administrative hearings) on grounds of missing the required deadline, they accepted the fact that the public notice in The Palm Beach Post was on March 2, 2024, and the letters indeed were timely,” Simons explained. “Forcing a hearing would have put in jeopardy the whole project and, of course, the loss of federal money that was funding the project.”

(Residents who asked for hearings have been asked to withdraw the requests.)

“They offered to save the channel and instructed the Corps of Engineers to leave a 125-foot-wide channel unfilled,” Simons said. “They will redraw the islands not to lose any square footage by changing the two outer islands’ size. They will begin filling the northern island first until they redraw the site. There shouldn’t be any disruption of navigation during construction.”

Simons said officials “were surprisingly accommodating as I thought they were going to try to stick to the original plan.”

Drum, in an email to The Coastal Star, said the officials looked for an option that would help to keep the project on track while maintaining the current navigation pathway that residents use.

She said the county has sent a letter to the Army Corps requesting that it sequence the current project to not put any fill in the area identified by the neighbors as their navigation pathway until there is a redesign of the project to avoid that area. 

While Drum wrote that some administrative and technical discussions are still needed with the Corps, “we are confident that we will be able to satisfactorily go through that process to result in a project that meets all of our habitat and resiliency goals while maintaining the navigational pathway that the neighbors have used in the past up to now.”

Reactions to the resolution
“The islanders affected are ecstatic, as you can imagine.” Simons said. “I had already arranged a Tampa law firm specializing in this to represent us pending the results of the [March 22] meeting. It was going to be quite an expense.”

Fain said the state “was fair with us as they should be. We were happy to have U.S. Sen. Rick Scott and Congressman Brian Mast behind us. Jordan Nichols’ knowledge of the system was priceless. Hats off to him. My wife, Martha Fain, was the catalyst to bringing Sen. Scott and Rep. Brian Mast on board.

“This was a victory for everyone on Hypoluxo Island,” Fain said. “Our property and riparian rights should not ever be infringed.”

Stewart was pleased, as well.

“I’m very appreciative of Palm Beach County and the people involved in this project who listened to the concerns of the Hypoluxo Island residents and came up with an amicable agreement to where we don’t lose our deep-water access,” he said. “Jordan really spearheaded this.”

Why the late notice?
Discussions for Bonefish Cove — which is being constructed in the town of Palm Beach north of Lantana’s Hypoluxo Island — began in 2016, so why did it take so long for Lantana residents to find out about it?

County officials said they met with local entities including the mayor, town manager and town engineer in December 2016 and January 2017, and all were very supportive.

Problem was, the town officials they talked to were not from Lantana. Stewart, who was mayor at the time, and Deborah Manzo, who was the town manager, said neither met with anyone about Bonefish Cove. Lantana didn’t and doesn’t have a town engineer. So, clearly the entities were from another town, likely Palm Beach.

In February 2017, the Army Corps released the draft environmental assessment for agency and public review. The document was posted to the Corps website and provided at two county public libraries, the Lantana Road Branch in Lake Worth Beach and the main county library in West Palm Beach. In fact, Lantana has its own public library and it’s likely few, if any, Lantana residents viewed the draft.

The current Town Council first heard of the project after residents contacted Raducci. At the town’s March 11 meeting, council members directed the town manager to send letters declaring their support of residents to the county commissioners and U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel.

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