Neighbors protest alleged removal of sea oats on Eldorado Avenue

— For the second year in a row, local police and state officials have been called to the north Clearwater Beach area following a report that a homeowner was removing coastal vegetation.

Last year it was in the 700 block of Eldorado Avenue; last week it was in the 800 block.

Last week’s incident has reignited the outrage of nearby residents and the Clearwater Beach Neighborhood Association.

Martin Greenberg, a neighbor who resides on Mandalay Avenue, said he witnessed workers working in an area with sea oats and immediately called Clearwater police.

“Friday morning early, Aug. 22, we reported to the Clearwater police that the dunes at 832 Eldorado were being cleared.” He said. “As we watched, they didn’t just remove the dead sea oats, they removed all vegetation.”

Police Lt. William Valveri, District Commander for Clearwater Beach, told Greenberg and other beach residents, who had gathered Friday, that the Florida Wildlife Commission and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection are responsible for enforcing the laws against removing sea oats and destroying sand dunes.

The state environmental protection agency is also responsible for issuing permits to residents that request to make even minor changes to dunes on their property.

“Both state agencies have launched an investigation,” Lt. Valveri said.

No charges have been filed at this time.

“The sea oats and dunes are the only natural barriers between us and high tides and storm surges due to heavy winds and hurricanes,” Greenberg said. “What protection will we have on the barrier islands if this owner gets away with this and others follow suit?”

Wendy Hutkin, president of the Clearwater Beach Association, said, “The CBA would be so pleased if the city would take action to remedy this situation by passing an ordinance or some type of scenic protection act to protect and preserve our beach for the use of everyone. This is clearly more than ‘a neighborhood squabble’ as a former city council member referred to it,” she said.

Sarah Josuns, environmental specialist with the city’s Engineering Department, said, “Based on what Florida Fish and Wildlife said yesterday (Monday), they are still investigating whether a permit is needed for the maintenance of sea oats.”

Josuns also confirmed that the property owners intend to seek permits from both the city and the FDEP to reduce the dunes on the property.

In 2013, a property owner at 780 Eldorado Avenue was fined $1,000 by the environmental protection agency and ordered to replant sea oats behind her home.

The Safety Harbor contractor, who conducted the work, was also fined for failing to obtain a permit to modify a dune, a misdemeanor charge.

According to court records, the contractor pleaded no contest and paid $450 in fines and court costs.

The citations for both could have resulted in fines of up to $10,000 and the contract’s license could have been suspended.

Restoring sand dunes

The city has submitted an application to the state requesting $300,000 in funding help to restore sand dunes that have been disturbed by development and maintenance activities and relocate sand dunes that have become safety issues along Clearwater Beach.

The application was submitted as part of the 2012 RESTORE Act program, which provides a vehicle for civil and administrative penalties from the Deepwater Horizon disaster which occurred on April 20, 2010.

In addition to counties and businesses directly impacted by the oil spill, a category was established for funding requests fro projects, such as the of the city’s dune restoration and relocation project, because of its significance to the Gulf’s coastline.

If the request is approved, the funds will be allocated by the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council.

Sand dune protections

According to The Coastal Construction Manual of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program, earth-affecting activities such as moving a sand dune, then replacing it after construction and removing or cutting vegetation render the dunes more susceptible to erosion and therefore, should not be allowed.

Coastal development affects the natural environment and because the coast has become more developed, the coastline’s vulnerability has increased and development is at risk Therefore, coastal sand dunes can be effective at protecting development, which is often vulnerable to storms and other natural disasters.

Environmental officials also state that sand dunes provide a foundation for ecosystems made up of a wide variety of coastal life. Sea turtles nest in these dunes, rodents carve out extensive burrows, and vegetation and insects of all kinds have adapted to live in a dune’s sandy environment.

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