By Dan Moffett
Manalapan town commissioners and Palm Beach County environmental managers got to meet face-to-face and discuss the controversial beach groin project that threatens to provoke border wars with neighboring communities.
Manalapan Mayor Keith Waters told the environmental officials he wants assurances that the seven groins the county wants to install in South Palm Beach won’t end up stealing sand that belongs in Manalapan.
“What I’m looking for in the bigger picture in the negotiations as neighbors is something that protects the town of Manalapan 30, 40, 50 years from now,” Waters said. “Our job is to protect our town from things that could affect our town and the lives and enjoyment of our citizens. In the absence of that, this is something we’re going to fight vigorously.”
Rob Robbins, director of the county Department of Environmental Resources Management, told Waters the county intends to bring 90,000 cubic yards of sand onto the South Palm beach and on Lantana Municipal Beach to place between the groins every three years. Ultimately, he said, much of that sand will drift naturally to Manalapan.
“Manalapan should benefit from those 90,000 cubic yards drifting south,” Robbins said. “I don’t know if I can convince you, but we do have you in mind in that project.”
Mike Stahl, county environmental manager, told commissioners that the function of the groins is largely misunderstood. He said they won’t intercept sand that’s heading south to Manalapan.
“The project is designed to hold that sand that has been mechanically placed — not to capture sand that’s moving with the natural, littoral flow,” Stahl said.
Robbins and Stahl said the county has contingency plans in place in case Manalapan beaches begin to erode. Engineers can adjust the height of the groins, and they can haul in more sand to replenish trouble spots. Stahl said state regulators who are reviewing the project for permits and the November 2018 start date “are very, very focused on all the potential down-drift impacts,” and that includes what happens to Manalapan — including the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa, the town’s largest commercial enterprise and a vocal opponent of the plan.
Waters said he trusts the good intentions of county officials, but questions the ability of future officials and future county commissions to honor commitments made today. Will the county be willing to pay for more sand during lean budget years decades from now?
“If this is not going to be a permanent line item [on the county budget],” Waters said, “then this is going to be difficult to support.”
South Palm Beach Mayor Bonnie Fischer, who attended the Dec. 19 meeting, is a strong supporter of the $5 million groin plan yet expressed similar concerns. She said the cost of the project is supposed to be split among the state (50 percent), county (30 percent) and South Palm (20 percent).
“South Palm Beach can’t afford to fund this project,” she said, if the county or state can’t write the checks years from now.
Lantana Mayor Dave Stewart said he was more concerned about dealing with Manalapan than the county or state.
“It’s obvious they came with preconceived notions, instead of delving into the details of the project,” he said of the commissioners. Stewart said his town’s support for the plan is unwavering because of the belief it will help restore Lantana Municipal Beach.
“Lantana’s been onboard for 12 years,” he said. “This is for a public beach, for tourists and all the citizens of Palm Beach County.”
Robbins told the commission that, while the plan will also benefit the condo buildings in South Palm Beach, its main purpose is to protect Lantana’s beach.
“The driving intent for the project is to benefit that small public beach,” he said.
Waters said evidence of Manalapan’s effort to be a good neighbor is the agreement the town signed 21 years ago with the county, state and Ocean Ridge to settle a decade of legal disputes over the transfer plant that pumps sand south around the jetty at the Boynton Beach Inlet.
“We’re going to be good neighbors,” Waters said. “So much so that we entered into an agreement with you guys to move our sand around an inlet so that Ocean Ridge didn’t get hurt, because that was really important to us. But now this plan has been put in place without regard for how it’s going to affect us.”
Waters reminded the county officials that the sand transfer plant agreement expired in September.