Fla. county courts new ally in beach erosion battle: The White House
Published in News & Features
TAMPA, Fla. — Cookie Kennedy was out for a walk with a friend one day this winter when she felt a familiar dread creep up on her. As the pair strolled the north shore of Indian Rocks Beach, the small Pinellas County city where Kennedy is mayor, they were forced to weave their way through a thickening crowd of beachgoers. The land where they stood had shrunk.
Pinellas County’s beaches are washing away. For decades, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers replenished them, pumping tons of sand every few years onto an 8½-mile stretch of Sand Key, the barrier island home to the county’s beach communities.
Then a new Corps policy created a standoff with the county. A renourishment originally scheduled for 2024 won’t happen — not next year, anyway.
Kennedy knew all this, but standing on the beach, she was so disturbed she felt local leaders had to try something new. Months later, they’re on a path that may bring them the closest they’ve gotten yet to resolving the impasse. It goes through a building a Pinellas contingent visited earlier this month: the White House.
“I think we were at a standstill for quite a while now and had lost hope,” Kennedy said in an interview. “I just remember, once I saw the beach, I knew who to call.”
That was Pinellas County Commission Chairperson Janet Long. Long, too, has been stymied by what she and other officials characterized as a lack of communication with and accountability for the Corps. This time, they decided, they had to aim higher.
The conflict began with a new policy from the Corps: It says to do the work, it needs permanent easements from the property owners along the beach. Those easements would include some beach and dunes, but also some private backyards. Many owners don’t want to sign their land away.
It created a bind for Pinellas County, which has plenty of reasons to want to replenish its beaches: They’re a recreational asset for residents and the heart of the county’s tourism industry. They provide crucial habitats for endangered sea turtles and birds. And in the event of a major storm, the beach provides “the first line of defense,” said Kelli Levy, the county’s public works director.
Long, who has spent decades in state and local government, started reaching out to friends and acquaintances with White House connections. Last month, she met for a few minutes with President Joe Biden during his visit for Tampa and told him that Pinellas needed help saving its beaches. Soon, her connections yielded an offer for a video chat with a White House official.
“I said, ‘We’re coming up there to see you, and I don’t want to just have a Zoom call,’” Long remembered. “I said, ‘We have to have eyeball-to-eyeball conversation.’”
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