By Dan Moffett
Manalapan may have found a new bargaining chip to persuade Palm Beach County officials to forget about installing groins on beaches north of the town.
It’s the sand transfer plant at the Boynton Beach Inlet.
Town Attorney Keith Davis told Manalapan commissioners on Nov. 28 that the long-running contract between the town and the county to operate the plant expired earlier this year.
“There are no agreements that bind the town at this point,” Davis said. “Any obligation Manalapan had has expired.”
Mayor Keith Waters, who has pledged “to fight tooth and nail” the county’s groin project with every available weapon, suggested that the expiration may present “an opportunity” that could be useful to the town.
Ruling requires cooperation
In 1987, Ocean Ridge filed suit against Manalapan and the county, claiming the transfer plant wasn’t pumping enough sand southward to keep Ocean Ridge beaches healthy. The suit claimed Manalapan was stealing sand meant for communities to the south. In 1990, a Palm Beach County circuit judge agreed and ordered the county to increase the amount of sand sent toward Ocean Ridge.
The decision required Manalapan, Ocean Ridge and the county to work together to ensure that the plant did what it was supposed to do and replenish South County beaches.
Today, the county continues to operate the plant, but if Manalapan balks at signing a new agreement for the sand transfer plant, a chain reaction of consequences that might follow is easy to imagine:
If Manalapan refuses to cooperate with the county and allow the transfer of sand, the plant could shut down.
Without the transfer plant running, the natural flow of sand south is interrupted by the manmade jetty at the Boynton Beach Inlet.
With sand stuck on the north side of the jetty in Manalapan, communities to the south — among them Ocean Ridge, Briny Breezes, Gulf Stream, Delray Beach, maybe even Highland Beach and Boca Raton — could see their beaches quickly erode.
Avoiding the political and environmental chaos from all this disruption would seem to be a powerful inducement to get the county to abandon its controversial project in South Palm Beach.
Would Manalapan really hold the transfer plant hostage? Well, stay tuned.
Waters and his commission have scheduled a special workshop for 9 a.m. Dec. 19 to consider the opportunities that the expired contract offers groin-hating Manalapan residents.
“We need to discuss the implications of that sand issue,” the mayor said.
One very interested party who plans to attend the Manalapan meeting is Geoff Pugh, the Ocean Ridge mayor whose community's beaches depend on the sand from the plant. Any interruption or decrease in outflow is unthinkable.
"They can't do that," he said. "That transfer plant is critical to Ocean Ridge. It's not their sand."
Immediately after the workshop, the commission has scheduled a 10 a.m. meeting with the county’s two department heads who are overseeing the groin project: Rob Robbins, the director of environmental resources, and Michael Stahl, environmental program supervisor.
Town Manager Linda Stumpf had tried for three months to schedule a question-and-answer session with commissioners, Robbins and Stahl, but the county officials had other commitments. Stumpf and Waters turned down offers to meet with lower-ranking staffers.
Stumpf said she is confident Robbins and Stahl will appear in Manalapan to field questions on Dec. 19. “We’re going to have a full house,” she said. “This is a big project and a big issue for everyone.”
Stumpf also intends to invite representatives from South Palm Beach, Ocean Ridge, Briny Breezes, Gulf Stream, Lantana, Hillsboro Beach and the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa.
Hillsboro Beach is suing Deerfield Beach, accusing its northern neighbor of using a 60-year-old groin project to steal sand meant for Hillsboro. The suit seeks millions in damages.
Groin project in works for more than a decade
Palm Beach County’s project calls for installing seven 100-foot-long concrete groins in South Palm Beach to stabilize the town’s eroding beachfront. The $5 million plan has been in the works for roughly 12 years. South Palm will pay 20 percent of the cost, the county 30 percent through tourism taxes, with the federal government and Florida Department of Environmental Protection covering the other 50 percent.
County officials are working on obtaining permits and hope to start construction by November 2018.
Waters believes the groins will do “irreparable damage” to Manalapan’s beaches. “I don’t know anyone in the town who supports that project,” he said.
The sand transfer plant was built at the inlet, technically known as the Lake Worth Inlet, in 1937, nine years after the navigable passageway from the Intracoastal Waterway to the ocean was cut. Today, the plant must move between 80,000 to 100,000 cubic yards of sand each year, according to the contract.
The county replaced the original plant in 1967 and then overhauled it again in 2011, spending about $8 million.