By Tim O’Meilia
Until now, beach protection was an exercise in putting a jigsaw puzzle together. Everyone had a piece but maybe that piece didn’t fit with their neighbor’s.
South Palm Beach condo owners fretted over how to get groins and breakwaters to save their rapidly eroding beach. Lantana wanted to protect its newly built seawall. Northern Ocean Ridge residents worried over getting enough sand around the Boynton Inlet to protect its shoreline. Manalapan feared losing too much sand to Ocean Ridge.
Environmental groups championed the turtles and the marine habitats, often butting heads with towns and oceanside residents.
Beach restoration was all about jockeying for a higher position on the funding list.
Now state officials are pushing a new approach to restoring and managing the beaches: regional instead of fragmented. Holistic instead of haphazard.
“After all, sand knows no political boundaries,” said Danielle Fondren, chief of the state’s Bureau of Beaches and Coastal Systems. “Regional management is a better way to manage the beaches.”
The 15.7-mile slice of barrier island from the Lake Worth Inlet to the Boynton Inlet, officially titled the South Lake Worth Inlet, is the state’s guinea pig for a regional beach management plan.
“This is a 180-degree turn from what we had three or four years ago,” said state Rep. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, who helped champion the new approach. “This is a complete paradigm shift. If it works here, it could work in other parts of the state.”
Instead of sitting in judgment on beach projects that cross its desks, Department of Environmental Protection officials are a key part of writing the plan. About 60 local, state and federal officials, engineers, biologists and environmental advocates have met twice — at Jonathan Dickinson State Park in May and in Palm Beach in June — to begin hashing out the regional plan.
South Palm Beach, Manalapan and Lantana each sent representatives, joining Palm Beach, Palm Beach County, state officials, the Army Corps of Engineers and several environmental groups. Lake Worth has not attended.
A rough draft is expected by September and a final document in December.
If the Palm Beach island regional plan is a success, the Boynton Inlet to Boca Raton Inlet could be the next area to have a regional plan, said county deputy environmental resources director Dan Bates, but no firm plans have been made yet.
While the plan was being hashed out, DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard toured the inlet-to-inlet stretch with local representatives, including Palm Beach Mayor Gail Coniglio and South Palm Beach Councilman Robert Gottlieb.
The inlet-to-inlet plan tentatively includes nine projects already in the planning stages, including the stalled breakwater project in South Palm Beach and Lantana and the inlet pumping station in Manalapan and Ocean Ridge. The bulk of the projects are in the town of Palm Beach. Municipal leaders insisted that dune restoration be included in the regional plan.
“I feel good about the fact that the state and the Corps are trying to work together with local folks and stakeholders,” said South Palm Beach Town Manager Rex Taylor. “It’s good to bring everyone together because we’re all interested in a beach that’s to everyone’s benefit.” Plans for breakwaters and groins along a 1.3-mile stretch of shoreline of South Palm Beach and Lantana were stalled earlier this year after county commissioners killed a similar project on Singer Island.
As part of the regional plan, a joint environmental impact study would be included to cover the South Palm Beach project and Palm Beach’s restoration plans for what is known as Reach 8, adjoining South Palm Beach’s project.
Separate studies for both projects previously had been halted.
Steven Abrams, Karen Marcus and other Palm Beach County commissioners indicated June 19 they would consider reviving the environmental study. Marcus said she remained opposed to breakwaters and groins and hoped other alternatives would come out of the study.
Although several environmental groups participated in the meetings — including the Surfrider Foundation and Palm Beach County Reef Rescue — neither committed to signing the final agreement.
Emily Helmick, vice chair of the county chapter of Surfrider, said the regional approach was good, but “we don’t want a situation where the local environmental concerns are bypassed.”
The next meeting is scheduled for July 13 in Palm Beach.