By Tim O’Meilia
The on-again, off-again breakwater project to protect South Palm Beach’s eroding shoreline is back on the drawing board six months after Palm Beach County officials had declared it so much scrap paper.
“Finally, I have some good news,” Leanne Welch, a supervisor in the county’s environmental resources management department, told the Town Council Sept. 20. “We have the go-ahead to restart the environmental impact study.”
The study was halted in March after county officials ended similar plans for a breakwater project on Singer Island; the Army Corps of Engineers opposed breakwaters that protruded from the ocean because of concerns that they would block the paths of turtle hatchlings. Submerged breakwaters are much less effective in preventing erosion.
“I don’t want to go down an avenue that is a no-go, that we already know is a locked door,” said Vice Mayor Joseph Flagello.
Welch said protecting the sea turtle population is less of a problem in South Palm Beach. “We don’t have one-tenth of the sea turtles here that we have at Singer Island,” she said, suggesting that there would be less concern about emergent breakwaters.
Welch and other county officials already have met with federal officials and determined that the study needn’t start from scratch with another scoping meeting, a public hearing and subsequent period for public comments. The meeting was held in March 2010.
As a result of complaints from environmentalists and surfers, engineers modified the plan to include nine groins instead of breakwaters in the area from the Mayfair House to the Ritz-Carlton resort, including in front of the Lantana public beach.
Along the remainder of the 1.3-mile project from Palm Beach to Manalapan, 16 visible breakwaters averaging 120 feet long would be placed 200 to 250 feet off shore.
The nine 115-foot groins in front of the five buildings just north of the Lantana beach would connect to the seawalls and be covered with 100,000 to 200,00 cubic yards of sand. The initial deposit of sand makes the structures more effective, Welch said.
“We don’t want something that looks like an eyesore on our beach,” Flagello said.
Two of the town’s 13 oceanfront condominiums have been evacuated during recent years because of storms, and several buildings have erected seawalls for protection.
Welch estimated the study would take 18 to 24 months. She said the county has set aside its share of the $400,000 cost of the study and later permitting.
South Palm Beach has $1.3 million in reserve for beach projects. Its share of the study is $40,000, 20 percent of the cost.
Neither the county nor the state has any construction money appropriated if the project is permitted. Federal protection for beach projects dropped from $56 million in 2009 to $9 million last year, Councilwoman Bonnie Fischer noted.
Several council members were concerned that the project may never be constructed for lack of money and were reluctant to spend more town money on preliminary studies.
“But then we’ll be shovel-ready,” Welch said. “The fact is there’s no sustainable beach now. We’re looking for the study to evaluate from an environmental, storm protection and recreational perspective what’s our best option.”
Of the ongoing erosion threat, Councilwoman Susan Lillybeck said: “I hope we can figure out a way not to make the situation worse.”