By Vicki Jackson
Beach business owners were caught by surprise when the City of Clearwater recently put out a call to the masses seeking volunteers to help plant 10,000 sea oats. The sea oats were obtained at no cost from Pinellas County, for the purpose of preventing erosion, while providing beach nourishment and a level of stormwater protection. Nine new dunes, located at four strategic beach access points, would have been created on the beach beginning south of Pier 60 and on down to the site of the old Adam's Mark parking lot.
Apparently no prior notice of the proposed planting was submitted to council members, or as a courtesy, to the general public. Some of the businesspeople and the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce protested and immediately sought postponement of the project. When I phoned the volunteer hotline, a recording advised me to leave a number, as there was a chance the planting still might happen. For now, that's anything but certain.
Chamber spokesperson, David Little, suggested there is a common misconception as to the perceived benefits of sea oats and sand dunes. While they definitely do help stabilize the beach, it's because they function as a reservoir of sand that is ultimately pulled back by and into the water. He believes that Clearwater Beach is fully created, with its hardened beach and the jetties, and that the dunes create a ramp effect for the blowing sand, with the openings between them allowing a velocity effect. With more sea oats and more sand dunes, the sand will continue to pile up because it has nowhere else to go, and that this will negatively impact beach available for recreational use. While he likes sea oats, he feels we already have an abundance of sand, unlike some other beaches. He said, "Clearwater Beach is known world-wide for its wide-open beach," and that he's looking for answers toward balancing the needs of the public with those of the environment.
Councilman, Paul Gibson, who called for a halt of the project, echoed that concern. He reminded us that BeachWalk, at a cost of $30 Million, was designed to provide for a driver and pedestrian friendly vista, and he feels that the proposed five foot tall dunes with several feet of grass atop, would impede that objective. When asked about the possibility of constructing the dunes with passageways between them, which many people find desirable and attractive, he replied, "People come here to look at the Gulf and the beach", and he's "not in favor of a peek-a-boo view". He acknowledged a problem with blowing sand, but stated, "We need to deal with it as policy instead of an operational" issue.
At the Council Work Session on Tuesday morning of July 13th, Brian Murphee, Landscaping Manager for the City Parks and Recreation Department, spoke about the Sand Management Program. He explained how the 30" concrete wave wall constructed to protect BeachWalk is just not enough. He displayed several convincing photographs of sand blown over the wall, as well as other areas, such as Pier 60, of excess sand accumulation. With the construction of BeachWalk, maintenance of the blown sand has become even more labor intensive, as they must "tip-toe" through and around the structure. In proposing the planting of sea oats and the consequential formation of staggered dunes, the City had hoped to employ a "green resource" to offer some protection for the vulnerable beach access points that would still allow for efficient maintenance access for grading out the flat areas between.
Previously, the City of Clearwater had indicated it would implement measures to inhibit the development of tall dune formations, such as those already present. Both council members and the Mayor expressed serious concerns about the potential height of the new dunes, and pressed at length for answers. While Mr. Murphee repeatedly emphasized that the footprint of each of the proposed dunes would be groomed to prevent any lateral expansion, no such assurance was given in regard to curtailing the height of the dunes. That seemed to be the "deal breaker", as Mayor Hibbard proclaimed that he "was not going to support this, the plantings, on Thursday." Vice Mayor John Doran asked that scientific answers regarding the dune height probabilities, as well as a full view of the entire 1 ½ miles of the impacted area, displaying both existing and potential dunes, be obtained for presentation to the public at the Clearwater City Council meeting, at 6:00 p.m. on July 15th.
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