Traditional beach renourishment techniques do not work well with the rocky hard bottom partially visible in this 2017 image of South Palm Beach. The neighboring towns of Lantana and Manalapan to the south are concerned that groins would prevent sand from making its natural migration to their beaches. The Coastal Star/Google Map
By Dan Moffett
For nearly 13 years, Palm Beach County and South Palm Beach have worked together on a controversial plan to use a network of concrete groins to relieve the town’s chronic beach erosion problems.
They spent $1.7 million and devoted countless hours to the joint venture, consulting with scientists and engineers, lobbying politicians and state officials, and twisting the arms of skeptical residents and neighbors.
Now, months before construction of the groins was scheduled to begin, it appears the project is dead in the water.
On Feb. 5, the county sent a letter to the state Department of Environmental Protection officially withdrawing a request for the permits needed to move forward. County environmental managers say the project has grown too expensive to make sense anymore.
“We have determined that the project is cost prohibitive,” said Michael Stahl, deputy director of the county’s Environmental Resources Management department.
What was envisioned as a $10 million plan a decade ago has ballooned now to something closer to $25 million, Stahl said. Though the state has promised to cover half the cost, the new estimate is a deal breaker for the county, which would have to pay 30 percent, and for South Palm Beach, which would owe the remaining 20 percent.
Still, the county and Mayor Bonnie Fischer say they would continue to negotiate in an effort to persuade the DEP to take a more favorable view of the project.
Fischer said the town was “exploring other options” but no decisions are at hand. “We’re never going to quit. We’ll keep fighting for our beach.”
Stahl told the South Palm Beach Town Council on Feb. 12 that the DEP has made two new permit requirements that will be virtually impossible for the county and town to afford.
Because the groins might do environmental harm to the rocky hard bottom that runs along the South Palm Beach shoreline, the state is requiring the construction of an artificial reef covering close to 8 acres offshore to mitigate any damage. That alone would cost millions.
Perhaps more daunting and more expensive, however, is the long-term requirement to keep neighbors happy.
The town of Manalapan threatened to sue the county and South Palm Beach to stop the project and was joined in the mounting legal offensive by the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa. The opponents believe the groins would interrupt the natural north-to-south flow of sand and cause erosion of Manalapan’s beaches.
Because of Manalapan’s complaints and threats, the state wanted the county and South Palm Beach to commit to repairing potential beach damage south of the town. Stahl said the newly conceived state standard for claiming damage is relatively generous: Any public or private entity with a beach less than 45 feet can make a case for sand replenishment, and the county and South Palm would be on the hook for that.
“This is a condition that could result in perpetual placement of sand,” Stahl said. “It gives anyone the right to order a survey and demand corrective action.”
The potential legal liability for South Palm Beach could bankrupt the town, officials say.
Manalapan Mayor Keith Waters, who said for months he was committed to “taking any means necessary” to stop the project, said the town had to protect its beaches.
“We didn’t have a choice,” Waters said after the Feb. 26 Town Commission meeting. “We got specific reaction from the entire community, from the Eau and from people on the ocean. They felt that it was going to have just an immediate impact on their beach.”
Waters said his town tried to negotiate with South Palm Beach and the county but was unable to find a solution or dissuade the project’s supporters from moving forward.
Threatening to sue was the only option, he said.
Town, county left reeling
“I know it’s not easy for anybody to take this news,” said Deborah Drum, the county’s environmental resources director. “We don’t take it lightly. We’ve all invested a lot of time and resources and funds to get to this point. This isn’t where we wanted to end up.”
As for a Plan B for South Palm Beach? There isn’t one.
Because of the rocky bottom along the town’s five-eighths-mile shoreline, traditional sand renourishment techniques do not work. Stahl said the county made a half-dozen attempts between 2003 and 2009 to haul in sand and place it on the town’s beach, but with nothing to hold it in place, the wave action washed it away within months.
The county also wanted to protect Lantana Municipal Beach, the public access sandwiched between South Palm Beach and Manalapan. The town of Lantana was essentially a silent partner in the county’s plan, with no financial requirements because of its public beach access.
After Hurricane Wilma tore up the shoreline in 2005, officials turned to stabilization with groins as a last resort that might hold sand and protect not only the beach but condominium sea walls — and, in the face of sea rise, the condominiums themselves.
“Everybody has to understand that we’re dealing with a dynamic medium,” said Fischer. “You’re talking about looking at a beach project over 12 years.”
South Palm has a “continuously wet beach,” she said, and issues that are truly unique. Fischer said just as the storms and tides would come and wash sand in and out of the beachfront, the DEP seemed to shift positions constantly.
“There were a lot of stipulations and roadblocks, and meanwhile everything (on the beach) is changing every day,” Fischer said. “The county was constantly inundated with requests for additional information. ... This has been a highly regulated issue.”
To date, the county has spent a little over $1.3 million on studies and permit applications for the project, and South Palm has paid about $330,000. The number of staff hours invested in the effort is incalculable.