Saving beachfront homes in Vilano and South Ponte Vedra beaches will require building a great wall.
That was the consensus of federal, state and local stakeholders, who met Thursday to discuss the future of St. Johns County’s critically eroded beaches.
Hurricane Matthew left miles of destruction along beaches north of St. Augustine: broken slabs, unstable foundations and septic drain fields hanging out of clifflike dunes.
Building a continuous seawall would offer protection, but is a complicated and expensive undertaking. It also presents significant legal hurdles. Among them:
Federal law prohibits destroying the nesting habitat of sea turtles, an endangered species.
State statute prohibits building walls to protect undeveloped lots, of which there are several.
State environmental guidelines prohibit building sea walls in front of homes built after the 1980s. Many of the affected homes are much newer than that.
The state rules were designed to discourage people from building in areas vulnerable to erosion and storm surge. So-called “conforming” structures – those permitted after 1988, in St. Johns County – are specifically barred from erecting sea walls or in any way “armoring” the beach. That's because building walls can make erosion worse, particularly on adjacent properties. It can also impact visual aesthetics of the beach.
But the hurricane appears to have appears to have created a new resolve to protect homes, which are literally falling into the ocean.
“Someone said it has to get worse before it gets better,” Chief Building Official Howard White told a meeting of beach homeowners. “I think we’ve arrived at that point. I think this storm opened the eyes of everybody -- including the state agencies.”
County building officials, state regulators, even federal wildlife habitat managers, all appeared to agree that a wall along the almost 6-mile stretch of beach, was the answer.
“We all know the damage out there was so severe, the erosion was so severe [temporary solutions] won’t survive in the long term,” said James Schock, county floodplain manager. “Continuous armoring is preferable to a lot of individual lot armorings.”
In order to make a wall sturdy enough to withstand current conditions – much less a significant storm – it would need to be aligned uniformly, rather than zigzagging along divergent property lines. Federal regulators made clear they would want to build the wall “as far landward as possible” to preserve the remaining beach. That could mean some homeowners would need to sacrifice part of their remaining property. It could also limit their ability to rebuild septic drain fields – problematic for homes outside utility service areas.
“We need to sit down and work through those issues before a permanent wall line can be sited,” said Bob Brantley, with the Department of Environmental Protection’s beaches division in Tallahassee.
Even with a wall, everyone agreed, sand would eventually need to be placed to restore the beach. With limited public access to the north county beaches, state and federal agencies have traditionally been cool to paying for beach renourishment. But that is a fight for a different day.
“We have a long term fix, and that’s sand on the beach, but that doesn’t address the real critical need that we have right now,” said coastal engineer Danielle Irwin at a meeting of homeowners. “They need a solution that is here today right now and available to them. And unfortunately, from a state perspective, that's armoring. And unfortunately, from a turtle perspective that's armoring. But from a homeowner perspective, that is the option of last resort they are at right now."