By TAMARA LUSH, Associated Press
PORT ST. JOE, Fla. (AP) — The St. Joseph Peninsula is picture-perfect Florida: 17 miles of sugar sand beach interrupted by a few clusters of homes, each with a million-dollar view of the Gulf of Mexico.
But according to state officials, the peninsula on Florida's Panhandle cradles the state's most rapidly eroding beach — and replenishing the sand is costing state and local taxpayers millions of dollars. There is also a movement to change a 30-year-old environmental designation that would make sand replenishment projects at St. Joseph eligible for federal money, shifting some of the burden to Washington.
Hundreds of other beaches around the country share that designation under a law called the Coastal Barrier Resources Act, which is meant to discourage development and protect fragile ecology. Some have tried to shed the designation, but few have been successful.
Beach replenishment is common in Florida. Fifty-nine percent of the state's beaches are experiencing erosion, partly because of tides and storms and partly because of development. But there is debate over whether replenishment is cost-effective and environmentally sound.
Proponents say the process is critical to Florida's success as a tourism mecca, maintaining the wide beaches that visitors expect and that protect coastal property from storms, tides and waves. But others, including environmentalists, say erosion is a problem only because structures were built too close to the water. Taxpayers shouldn't bail out failed beaches just to preserve wealthy owners' investments, they say.
Jill Davis, the owner of Scallop Cove, a gas station, bait shop and convenience store on the St. Joseph Peninsula, said that without beach replenishment, tourists would stay away and the area's economy would suffer.
"That's our livelihood out here," she said. "Beaches are what draw people out here. Everything here is based on tourism and the beach, fishing, scalloping. We need that property."
During a typical beach replenishment project, dredgers collect underwater sand offshore and pipe it onto the beach. Bulldozers move the sand around until the beach looks natural. A few years later when beach is again eroded, the process is repeated. Local, state and federal entities now manage over 200 miles of restored Florida beaches, spending about $100 million annually on replenishment projects in the state.
But environmentalists say the process is an artificial solution to a manmade problem.
"These beaches have been here for thousands of years and nobody renourished them. They just naturally kept themselves wide and beautiful," said Christian Wagley, an environmentalist who lives on the Florida Panhandle. "The problem comes when we come and draw that line in the sand and put that building there that won't move, next to a beach that has to move in order to survive and be healthy."
While battles over beach replenishment are common around Florida, the situation on St. Joseph Peninsula is unusual because it gets hit frequently by storms and because of the currents around its location at the crook of Florida's elbow. About 40 feet of shoreline erodes every year, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. The 127-year-old Cape San Blas lighthouse, which is on land owned by Eglin Air Force Base, has been moved twice because the land beneath it was eroding.
The pristine St. Joseph's Peninsula is not a popular, Spring Break-style beach. There are only a few dozen homes — many of them rentals — and even at its summer tourist peak, it's never as crowded as other beaches around the state.
The first replenishment there was approved in 2007 and finished in 2009 — and there hasn't been any maintenance since. Gulf County residents voted in 2008 to raise their own taxes to help pay for the $22 million project, collecting about $10 million. State officials say a quarter of the sand has been lost since renourishment, particularly at the peninsula's southern end.
The county is trying to persuade Congress and the Obama administration to give $15 million for the replenishment, but that's blocked the Coastal Barrier Resources Act.