By Tim O’Meilia
Hope for a proposed 1.3-mile breakwater project designed to protect the shrinking South Palm Beach and Lantana shoreline is eroding faster than the beach.
When Palm Beach County commissioners voted 5-2 on March 22 to scuttle a $50 million breakwater project for Singer Island, county officials said they wouldn’t pursue any other breakwaters elsewhere.
“The project for emergent breakwaters is dead in the water,” said South Palm Beach Councilwoman Susan Lillybeck, who attended the County Commission meeting.
“It’s potentially disastrous for South Palm Beach,” said outgoing Councilman Brian Merbler, the town’s point man for the project until he lost his bid for re-election.
Although no money had been earmarked by the county, the state or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the estimated $15 million to $25 million plan was already in the process of an environmental impact study with hope of beginning work on the rock walls in 2013.
County commissioners, except Steven Abrams and Karen Marcus, sided with environmental groups and federal officials who said the breakwaters would interfere with attempts by protected sea turtles to reach the beach to lay their eggs and by hatchlings to swim out to sea.
Coastal residents and officials have argued that the breakwaters would help protect oceanfront property. Several condominiums in South Palm Beach, including the Imperial House last year, were damaged during annual nor’easters.
“As Commissioner Marcus said, it’s the do-nothing alternative,” said Lantana Town Manager Michael Bornstein. The town erected a sea wall in 2009 to protect its public beach after the dune was washed away.
He said coastal condominiums will have little choice but to erect protective sea walls. South Palm Beach Town Manager Rex Taylor agreed. “If the public do-nothing policy option continues, property owners will say we can’t live with that and will build sea walls. Sea walls just make the problem worse.”
Lillybeck and Taylor said there may be hope yet. “It’s a significant setback but it may not be fatal,” Taylor told South Palm Beach council members at the March 22 Town Council meeting.
Lillybeck said the break-waters, which would jut up from the ocean, are a sticking point with federal regulators. “But the submerged ones don’t do the job. It’s not worth spending the money,” she said.
Emergent rock walls, while not aesthetically pleasing, are estimated to inhibit 50 percent of the wave action. Submerged breakwaters halt only 10 percent of the waves, according to computer modeling of the area.
U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Plantation, walked the beach behind the Horizons East condominium I South Palm Beach with Lillybeck and other town officials March 23. “He was very interested in our situation and said he would do whatever he could,’’ she said.
The project would have stretched from southern Palm Beach to the Ritz Carlton resort in Manalapan. Sixteen visible breakwaters averaging 120 feet long would be placed 200-250 feet off shore. Nine 115-foot submerged groins, instead of breakwaters, would have been placed in front of the Lantana public beach
Taylor said it would be wise to “let the dust settle” then renew talks with county officials, as well as Lantana and Palm Beach representatives.
“As a practical matter, the beaches aren’t going to correct themselves,” Taylor said.
Bornstein said few options remain.
“I find it over-simplistic thinking that after 15 years of work and studies that there’s some magic bullet out there that has not been discussed or considered,” he said of the commission’s decision. “I’d rather have them just say ‘We just don’t want to spend the money.’ ”
In other South Palm Beach business: The owners of the Palm Beach Oceanfront Inn notified the town of its intent to sue over the council’s refusal to allow a 10-story hotel-condominium to replace the two-story motel. Inn owners have claimed that some council and planning board members are biased against the project.