Mayors: Shrinking South Florida beaches need help

Surfside Mayor Daniel Dietch, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, Sunny Isles Beach Mayor George “Bud” Scholl and Key Biscayne Mayor Mayra Pena Lindsay gathered on Miami Beach Thursday to call attention to the area’s disappearing beaches.
Surfside Mayor Daniel Dietch, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, Sunny Isles Beach Mayor George “Bud” Scholl and Key Biscayne Mayor Mayra Pena Lindsay gathered on Miami Beach Thursday to call attention to the area’s disappearing beaches. Miami Herald Staff

Calling themselves canaries in a coal mine, coastal mayors gathered on the skinniest strip of Miami Beach Thursday to demand that Miami-Dade County and state officials do more to keep their beaches from washing into the ocean.

“They’re more focused on building mega malls,” complained Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine.

Levine, joined by mayors from some of the county’s wealthiest communities, including Key Biscayne, Surfside and Sunny Isles Beach, said the county and state of Florida have failed to plan long-term for beaches hammered by storms and continually eroding. In making his case, Levine argued that beaches help power the county’s economy and protect $30 billion in oceanfront property from storms and seas expected to rise by at least three feet over the next century.

Levine, who said mayors from Bal Harbour and Golden Beach also back the newly formed alliance, wants a regular flow of money for beach restoration — a request he said is justified by the high taxes pumped into the county by affluent coastal communities.

“By not protecting the sand beaches, you’re ignoring your most important economic generator at your own peril,” he said, pointing to a budget proposed by Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez Tuesday that did not include money for beach restoration.

But Thursday, Gimenez’s office said the mayor has in fact asked to include $10 million from a 2004 bond for beach restoration and seemed baffled by the mayors’ press conference. If approved by the committee that oversees bond spending, the request would come before the full county commission in September.

“Beach renourishment is clearly a priority for Mayor Gimenez and his administration,” said spokesman Michael Hernández. “I don’t know where the press conference is coming from.”

But beach officials say the county, which is responsible for maintaining beaches, has been slow to respond to ongoing problems. While $10 million will help pay for two major restoration projects expected to pump 220,000 cubic yards of sand onto Miami Beach next year, it won’t cover smaller projects and emergencies that pop up during hurricane season, said assistant building director Elizabeth Wheaton. Miami Beach has five hot spots, she said. Three are critically eroded.

The county “is just reacting and that leaves us very vulnerable,” she said.

With climate change projections growing more severe, the mayors say beach restoration needs to be taken more seriously.

“We have to have a greater sense of urgency,” said Sunny Isles Beach Mayor George “Bud” Scholl. “This is happening daily.”

The cost of large projects, including the $16.7 million in work planned for 46th and 53rd streets next year, are shared, with the federal government covering 51 percent and the county and state splitting the remainder.

Since the county’s beaches were first restored in the 1970s from a thin wedge to the broad powdery stretches that now draw millions of tourists, finding money has been an ongoing struggle. The county has convened two task forces with beach communities to identify cash since the 1990s, said Brian Flynn, who oversees beach restoration for the county’s natural resources division. But both have failed.

In 2005, the county set aside $17.5 million in bond money, which is now nearly gone. Last year, Gimenez asked for $18.5 million in bond money, but commissioners rejected the plan.

Getting state support has also been a struggle. More than 407 miles of Florida beaches are considered critically eroded, but just over half are maintained, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. During the recession, the amount of restoration work fell dramatically to just above $10 million. Last year, the state spent just over $47 million.

Most restoration projects occur farther north. From 2005 to 2015, Palm Beach County completed 30 projects, the most in the state. Martin and St. Lucie counties followed, with a total of 27. Just eight projects were completed in Miami-Dade County. Broward County had 12.

In an analysis, environmental regulators said more weight was given to environmental over economic concerns, a calculation that counties say unfairly punishes areas without nesting sea turtles.

Sand has also become a critical issue, Flynn said, making it difficult to complete large projects.

Miami-Dade County’s last big project was two years ago at 63rd Street, when the county used up the last of its local sand supply, he said.

“We would have done a much larger project, but we simply didn’t have the sand,” Flynn said. “We used literally the last remaining sand source off Dade County.”

For the upcoming Miami Beach projects, sand mined in Central Florida will likely be used, although cheaper Bahamian sand is also being considered. By law, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cannot use sand from outside the U.S. unless the Corps’ chief determines no local sand is available. The Corps hopes to complete a study of other sources and make it available for public comment in August.

“It’s just so many levels of bureaucracy,” said Key Biscayne Mayor Mayra Pena Lindsay. “Solutions take too long and they’re not addressing the issues.”