South Beach resident Robert Lansburgh was on a bike ride a few weeks ago when he saw something that alarmed him: a paved path carved into the side of the beach dunes that protect the city from storm surge and erosion.
While most of the beachwalk Miami Beach is building along the coast from South Pointe to the city’s northern border runs west of the dunes, a section under construction between Third and Fifth Streets cuts into the mounds of sand. The segment, which cost roughly $1.7 million to build and was constructed using paver blocks, runs parallel to the water on the landward side of the dunes.
Its placement has upset some South Beach residents, who worry that building on dunes could affect their ability to shield seaside buildings from storms and keep sand from washing away.
“A terrible precedent has been set,” said Lansburgh. “This is our tourism, this is our business. To me, I think we’ve overstepped our authority. This is sacred ground.”
Eric Schneider, another South Beach resident, said he didn’t think it made sense for Miami Beach to build on the dunes — which will protect the island from the future impacts of climate change, including stronger waves during storms — while the city spends millions raising roads and installing pumps to prepare for sea level rise.
“How does this fit in?” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
City officials concede that the ideal location for the beachwalk would have been west of the dunes, where a dirt path already runs between the beach and neighboring condo buildings. But that land belongs to the condo buildings, and after years of negotiations Miami Beach was unable to convince condo owners to allow the city to build there. At an impasse, the city asked state regulators for permission to build the path on the dunes and got approval last year from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
“We worked closely with the environmental regulators to locate the path where it minimizes impacts to the dune system, such as rerouting around mature vegetation, and are confident that the final design will provide an amazing transportation amenity to the city and has been designed to minimize storm surge risks,” said Elizabeth Wheaton, director of Miami Beach’s Environment and Sustainability Department, in an e-mail. She added that state regulators have approved other pathways on dunes.
At a visit to the beachwalk on Friday morning, Wheaton said that the section between Third and Fifth Streets was designed to wind around native plants, like the trees and sea grasses that help hold sand in place. She also noted that the dunes were man-made; they were built in the 1980s as part of a beach restoration project.
After reviewing Miami Beach’s permit request, state regulators determined that the pathway wouldn’t cause “significant adverse impacts” to the beach or the upland properties and wouldn’t harm sea turtles. The permit stipulated that the city had to remove invasive plants and restore any native plants affected by the construction. In an effort to minimize the impact on sea turtles, who can be disoriented by artificial lights, the pathway includes turtle-friendly lighting.
A spokeswoman for the state’s environmental protection department said that the department follows state laws in deciding whether to approve a permit. “These rules are designed to protect beach and dune systems, upland property and development, sea turtles and to maintain public beach access,” Dee Ann Miller, the department’s media relations manager, said in an e-mail.
Experts and environmental activists consulted by the Herald had mixed views on whether building a path on the dunes could have a negative environmental impact.
Stephen Leatherman, a coastal environmental scientist at Florida International University, said that cities typically build raised boardwalks above the dunes to allow plants to grow underneath.
“It’s not something I would recommend and I’m pretty surprised the Florida Department of Environmental Protection would permit this,” he said of Miami Beach’s pathway. “This is not the way we ought to treat our sand dunes, which are so vital and our barrier to hurricane storm surge.”
Wheaton said that Miami Beach decided not to build a raised boardwalk in this area because the state prefers paver block pathways, which break apart more easily during a storm and are less likely to create dangerous projectiles. She said that state regulators denied a previous request to build a raised boardwalk in another section of Miami Beach.
Patrick Krechowski, an environmental lawyer and partner at the law firm Jimerson & Cobb, agreed with Leatherman that other areas typically opt for raised boardwalks, but said that the department of environmental protection usually requires permit holders to take steps, like removing invasive species and planting more native plants, that end up benefiting the dune system over the long term.
“Over the life of the permit there shouldn’t be a negative impact,” he said, speaking about the permitting process in general. “One, people aren’t riding their bikes wherever they want in the dune and number two, we’ve eliminated some non-native species and replaced them with native species and over time the health of the dune will probably improve. That’s the concept anyway.”
Mike Gibaldi, the treasurer for the Surfrider Foundation’s Miami chapter, said the environmental group wasn’t concerned about the path cutting through the dunes because Miami Beach has been a good steward of the dune systems.
“I think the city is paying attention to the dune and putting resources into environment and sustainability and even planning out the dune and what they’re going to do in the future,” he said. “Given that I think we’re okay with this.”
Miami Beach residents posting on a popular island Facebook group had mixed views on the subject. Some said they were concerned that the pathway would affect the dunes’ ability to protect the island from storms, while others said they looked forward to being able to run or cycle all the way from South Pointe to 87th Terrace once the path is completed.
The section between Third and Fifth streets will likely be completed by the end of January, Wheaton said in an e-mail, and the entire beachwalk system could be completed by the fall of 2020.