Between the Sea & a Hard Place

By staff October 1, 2006

Americans aren’t supposed to run away. The very word “retreat” is anathema to them. So why is Sarasota County commissioner Jon Thaxton telling us we should no longer try to hold our ground against the Gulf of Mexico, that wherever practical we should back off, taking our buildings with us or even abandoning them?

The answer is that he is one of an increasing number of officials who understand how the sea and shore interact, and that the most modern of beach-retaining paraphernalia implemented by the most learned engineers can’t hold back the sea any better than did King Canute. Retreat is very expensive, but lots cheaper than refusing to retreat. “When I came onto the board six years ago I was very much opposed by developers; they thought I was going to be a tree hugger,” says Thaxton, who had made a reputation for himself as an Audubon activist and a champion of endangered species, in particular the Florida scrub jay.

It wasn’t long before he reinforced the image, appalling beachfront owners and his fellow commissioners by calling for a vote to abolish the ordinance permitting shoreline armoring with seawalls. As an environmentalist, Thaxton had long understood that seawalls do little to protect human dwellings (which shouldn't be built on the beachfront any more than they should be built on a river's floodplain), and that seawalls reflect waves so that sand is carried away. Instead of a beach, birds and sea turtles find gravel and bedrock that's inundated at high tide. Seawalls encourage development, which, in turn, brings more seawalls.

And seawalls give home buyers a false sense of security. Florida's beachfront dwellings, allegedly protected by seawalls, are forever being destroyed by storms. In many cases owners are able to collect taxpayer-provided state and federal insurance, then rebuild. Sarasota County provides a vignette of what's happening statewide. On Casey Key, where houses in the path of the advancing sea are being washed away, just six homeowners were allowed to build an 804-foot-long seawall in 2004. About a third of the county's 35-mile oceanfront has been armored with seawalls, and more are going up.

“The intent of the seawall ordinance,” Thaxton says, “was to allow people to protect their property only under severe and extraordinary circumstances. I don’t mean to criticize this current board, but what has happened through several boards is that the temptation to help the individual has resulted in a degradation of a public resource. When a person comes to you in tears, it’s hard to say no. I thought the best way to handle the situation was simply to not have the ordinance as an option. That would force another option, rarely used: the strategy of retreat. Recognize the building is in a precarious location and move or rebuild the structure landward. I was able to get a second, but not a majority vote.” And that’s especially frustrating, says Thaxton, because Sarasota is considered a national model for smart growth policies.

“And for us to have hardened such a significant portion of our Gulf beach shore—and to have an ordinance in place that could armor virtually all of it—goes against what we are preaching,” he emphasizes. “What makes Sarasota County so distinctive with regard to shoreline armoring is: One, we’ve done so much of it; and two, we have the highest density of sea-turtle nests anywhere on the west coast, and there’s no close second.”

Florida has by far the most prolific and diverse fish fauna of any state in the union. Florida is a birder’s paradise. Ninety percent of all sea turtles in U.S. waters nest in Florida. Because the state’s beaches, bays, estuaries and near-shore reefs provide nursery and breeding habitat for all these creatures, you’d think that Florida’s policies for beach management and coastal development would be especially enlightened. Instead, they’re the most backward in the nation.

“Florida uses a lot of seawalls," declares Professor Orrin Pilkey, director of Duke University's Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines. “It’s probably easier to build one there than anywhere else." In Florida you can even build seawalls for land speculation—that is, you may lawfully use them in an attempt to protect undeveloped land.

After the recent hurricanes, Thaxton’s prescribed alternative to seawalls—retreat—isn’t sounding quite so radical. In fact, there’s not an authority on beach erosion who doesn’t agree with it, and this includes ethical sea-wall developers themselves. “People hear ‘retreat,’ and what they envision is closing down the buildings and moving off the barrier island,” remarks Cliff Truitt of the highly respected Coastal Technology Corporation, a Sarasota-based company that designs and builds seawalls as well as “beach renourishment” projects—a euphemism for making fake beaches. “Well, that’s one method of retreat. But other methods are going on right now.”

In the 1980s, Truitt ran the state’s coastal construction control line program, which sets a line of jurisdiction along beaches in all 26 coastal counties beyond which strict building standards are imposed. For example, dwellings on the ocean side of the line have to be pile-supported and designed to withstand winds of 140 mph.

“That in itself is a retreat scenario,” says Truitt. “What we’ve done on Longboat Key is a form of retreat, too.” What happened there is FEMA finally got tired of paying for the rebuilding of two houses that were getting ripped apart with every major storm surge. So it bought them from the owners and turned the property over to the town for beach access. Similar deals are in the works elsewhere in the county.

“My philosophy,” says Truitt, “is that a good beach renourishment project should not be viewed as a way to avoid retreat but as an opportunity for economists, politicians, lawyers and other decision makers to improve, say over 10 years, their policies and laws so there can be a planned, orderly retreat.”

To some extent, the damage done by a seawall can be mitigated by design and siting, Truitt explains. But he stresses that there’s no way to build one without major negative impacts. One of those negative impacts, of course, is that you lose most of what’s between the sea and the hard place—i.e., sand. Floridians have a legal right to “laterally traverse the sandy beaches of the state.” But by removing beaches, seawalls usurp that right. When state and county bureaucrats allow a community to build a seawall, they are sacrificing a public beach for the express benefit of private property owners and developers.

The National Wildlife Federation's David Conrad suggests this: "Communities could levy a small recreation sales tax, develop a trust fund, and pass a rule that for 20 years Front Street can have buildings, but that when the ocean reaches a certain level, they'd buy out Front Street, demolish the buildings, and let the beach rebuild its dunes. Then Second Street would be Front Street. That sounds radical. But there are places right now where Fifth Street has become Front Street. It's just that no one will acknowledge it; instead they fight and fight and spend taxpayer money."

Last July David Godfrey, Gary Appelson, and Renée Zenaida, all of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, the world's oldest sea turtle research and protection outfit, showed me the results of the latest shoreline armoring technology on the habitat of sea turtles and human beings. In the east-coast town of Wabasso, Fla., which is adjacent to the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge (the world’s second most important sea-turtle nesting beach), 17 oceanfront cottages had supposedly been protected from the Atlantic by an 1,800-foot seawall of metal and cement.  In 2004, hurricanes Frances and Jeanne crumpled it like a sand castle. Eight of the 17 cottages were lost, the others rendered uninhabitable. The seawall had destroyed most of the beach in front of the cottages and severely damaged 200 yards of beach to the south.

“Over there was Wabasso Park,” said Godfrey, pointing to a gravel-lined gully on our right. “That's where the public bathrooms used to be. Gone. And the people who buy these lots are going to come back and build something bigger and feel like they're safe because of the [repaired] wall.” Godfrey related a confrontation he'd had with one of the homeowners when the wall was going up: “The guy came out on the beach and started grilling me: ‘Who are you? What do you want?' I told him we were concerned about sea-turtle nesting and had differing opinions about how to deal with beach erosion. ‘Well, this is my house, and I'm gonna do what I need to protect it, and blah, blah, blah.' Well, that's how he ‘protected' his house.” Godfrey pointed to a gray floor—all that was left.

The new buildings that will go up will be subsidized by state and federal flood insurance. And now that the seawall has removed most of the sand, residents will demand perpetual beach renourishment.

“Rather than allowing this monstrosity on the beach, the state should have bought these dinky little bungalows,” said Godfrey. “Granted, I wouldn't want my home destroyed if it were on the beach, but the sea is here, and rather than protecting every one of these buildings, we ought to identify places where we can move back. If there's not a high-rise, we should be buying these people out.”

Beach renourishment, frequently demanded by the people who destroyed the natural beach with armoring, is usually done by using huge dredges to strip-mine sand from the ocean floor (along with entire benthic communities, including crustaceans, mollusks, worms, sponges, corals, sea grasses, and sometimes juvenile sea turtles). The resulting turbidity can last for months, clogging the delicate gills of filter feeders and starving sight feeders such as pelicans, terns, gulls, gannets, loons, cormorants, sea ducks and all manner of predatory fish. A billion dollars in federal, state, and municipal funds has been spent in Florida for fake beaches, and 90 percent of these fake beaches have washed away within five years.

In the process of sucking up offshore sand, the contractors sometimes smother coral reefs, which are critical habitat for juvenile fish and sea turtles. Then, when adult turtles make landfall, the alien sand may be too coarse for them to dig through or so fine that it falls back into their egg chambers as fast as they dig. The habitat of shorebirds is damaged or destroyed. Invertebrates are smothered. Maybe the beach ecosystem recovers; maybe it doesn't. It's as if you dumped five feet of dry, gritty dirt on your front yard. Something will grow there eventually, but not your lawn.

"These beach renourishment projects have been a constant source of concern for us," says George Geiger, vice chair of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. "We have commented ad nauseum to the Army Corps of Engineers as required through the permitting process. But I don't believe the council's comments have any bearing on potential permits. Under the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, each council has to identify essential fish habitat out to 200 miles. Certainly the near-shore reef complex is essential habitat for all manner of fish—groupers, snappers, grunts, numerous crustaceans. It's a very delicate and complicated system. It's also a waypoint for these fish on their way offshore. And it's being buried knowingly."

Ever since the hurricanes of 2004 Godfrey hasn't been getting laughed out of the room when he uses the word "retreat" in front of state and federal beach bureaucrats. "We need to retreat in ways that are fair," he says. "The political will to do that isn't there yet, but those ways exist—buying conservation easements, for example, cutting taxes, buying out buildings when erosion reaches their foundations. That obviously can't happen on Miami Beach. Or if it is going to happen, it will be the last place because of all the high-rises. At the moment, these massive dredge-and-fill beach renourishment projects are the only option there. But we need to say: 'Do it in ways that aren't so harmful to near-shore habitat—not these giant, squared-off, massive beaches that extend a quarter mile offshore where you're burying everything in sight every five to seven years.' That's the standard template." 

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection reports that at least 22 miles of Sarasota County's 31 miles of beaches are critically eroded, not that this news should shock or distress (except where that erosion has been caused by seawalls). Beaches are always eroding; that’s their nature. It is also their nature to accrete. The sand from eroding beaches doesn’t just vanish; it winds up on other beaches. The sea giveth and it taketh away; it just doesn’t always do it in ways that we approve.

Currently the Sarasota County Commission is trying to deal with severe beach erosion on South Siesta and Manasota Keys. In 1992, a private project, using 1.7 million cubic yards of fill, created a 10-mile fake beach on Longboat Key, north of Big Pass. Nothing much happened to it for about eight years. But then, mostly because the wrong size sand was used in places, parts of it started to erode. About a mile’s worth of hotspots was renourished in 1996. When the repaired beach got ripped apart by storms, FEMA funded a second renourishment. Now the beach is undergoing another 1.7-million-cubic-yard remake, and already a valuable reef on the north end has been smothered.

Professionals like Truitt refer to “good beach renourishment projects.” But that’s a bit like referring to “a good drug habit.” There’s no such thing, especially if you’re a fish, shorebird, sea turtle, or taxpayer. Still, some projects—the kind Coastal Technology designs and builds, for example—are better than others. And sometimes, when seawalls have destroyed a beach and retreat isn’t going to happen, a well-designed fake beach is the only way out. 

Nowhere in Florida is a beach project more contentious or more dangerous to fish and wildlife than the proposed “reopening” of Midnight Pass, which has been opening and closing naturally since the last glaciation. In 1983, homeowners tried to arrest its natural migration and thereby protect their property. As a result of that manipulation, the beach on the north end of Casey Key and south end of Siesta Key straightened, and South Siesta Key Beach (also called “Turtle Beach” because of its importance to sea turtles) began to erode. The proposed “reopening,” now in the permitting process, is nothing of the sort. It is the creation of a permanent 500-foot-long, 400-foot-wide, and 12- to 14-foot-deep channel (in a place where Midnight Pass wasn’t) that bisects Palmer Point Park and takes out sea-grass beds, mangroves, dunes, feeding and nesting habitat of imperiled birds, and some of the most heavily used sea-turtle nesting habitat on the Gulf Coast.

By their nature beaches move; and when that movement is stopped by humans the creatures that evolved on beaches perish. Plug a blowout in a dune, for instance, and you may destroy a piping plover nest site. “Stabilize” a beach by planting beach grass, and you may cool the sand enough that few female turtles hatch (because the sex of reptiles is determined by temperature in the egg stage). The old, natural Midnight Pass had been opening and closing and moving since the last ice age. The new one, if permitted, will stay put, creating an ecological disaster.  

In addition to beach “restoration,” the project’s alleged benefits include faster, easier boat access to the Gulf from the Intracoastal Waterway and an “improvement” in the water quality of Little Sarasota Bay. But sometimes clear water only looks like an improvement. For shorebirds, wading birds, diving birds or young tarpon, snook, trout, redfish, or sea turtles, the “improvement” will turn out to be destruction of a rich estuarine feeding and nursery area. That’s why the “reopening” of Midnight Pass has been opposed by the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Marine Fisheries Services, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and the environmental community.

Although four of five Sarasota County Commissioners voted for the project two years ago, the commission has clearly been making progress. In September 2005, when 17 residents sought permission to construct a 2,400-foot seawall to protect homes that had been built too close to the beach, the commission voted four to one to deny, citing possible harm to "coastal processes, shoreline stability, neighboring properties, lateral public pedestrian access, sea turtle nesting beach and coastal hammock habitat." And, in keeping with this new resolve, the commissioners even voted down their own proposed seawall on South Siesta Key, designed by Truitt to protect an upland water line and sewer line—even though the project had gone through the permitting process.

“What I hope is that we’re at a turning point,” says Thaxton, whose calm demeanor, analytical approach to complex problems and proven commitment to the public good have helped him shed most of his tree-hugger image. “Now the board is coming to grips with a lot of issues about growth and development, and those issues are pretty sobering. We’re recognizing the ills wrought by previous bad decisions, and we’re not going to burden the next group of decision makers with the same messes we got stuck with.”

Ted Williams has written about seawalls and beach renourishment for Fly Rod & Reel and Audubon magazines, where he serves as conservation editor and editor-at-large respectively.

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