“Plan B” Options for Beach Storm Protection and Response discussed at Workshop

PROTECTION OF Walton County dunes and beaches and a plan for response in the event of storm damage was the topic of a recent workshop hosted by the Walton County Tourist Development Council. (Photo by Dotty Nist)

“This is our job, to make sure the county is prepared,” Matt Trammel, coastal engineer consultant for Walton County, told attendees at a June 21 public workshop to discuss a beach management plan for the county.
Attended by a dozen people, including beachfront property owners, the workshop took place at the South Walton Annex.
Over a year ago the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) had voted to table the Walton County Hurricane & Storm Damage Reduction (WCH&SDR) Project, a large scale project that would have involved pumping sand from offshore deposits onto approximately 18 miles of Walton County coastline. The BCC decision came after only about 10 percent of beachfront property owners in the project area agreeing to easements required in order for project contractors to go onto the beachfront lots to construct the project.
Trammell clarified that the proposed WCH&DR Project “was a beach restoration project.”
Due to the property owners’ response regarding the easements, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), federal partner for the WCH&SDR Project, had withdrawn its application for a state permit for the project.
Trammell emphasized to attendees that the county decision to table the project still stood and that the property owners had been heard “loud and clear.”
“The support from the property owners clearly was not there,” he noted.
However, Trammell discussed the situation of an average of 75 feet of beach being lost through erosion along much of the county coastline over the past decade and the vulnerability of coastal structures as a result of that erosion. This was with the exception of the area between the western edge of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park to the Walton-Okaloosa County line, where Walton County’s first large-scale beach restoration project was completed in 2007. Trammell noted that quite a bit of beach accretion had taken place in the latter area.
His take on the biggest concerns with the WCH&SDR Project, particularly for beachfront property owners, were the easements for sand placement, which would have remained in effect for 50 years, along with the requirement for establishment of an erosion control line (ECL), the quality of sand in the offshore borrow site, and cost for the project.
Trammell explained that he, together with his colleagues at Taylor Engineering, were in the process of developing a storm response plan for the Walton County beaches. He reported that, in connection with that effort, the BCC had given direction for a permit to be obtained from the state for the beach restoration project and for the permit to then be “put on the shelf” to be available in the event that dune or beach restoration is needed as the result of a hurricane or storm. This would allow for a quicker response in the event of damage to the beaches, he said.
Trammell suggested holding additional public workshops as those efforts proceed, possibly in conjunction with meetings of the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) Beach Management Committee. He suggested that conducting surveys of the beach and dunes might be a good idea as well.
Trammel spoke of different options should storm damage occur to the beaches. These might include, he explained, locally-funded beach restoration projects paid for by the TDC or through a municipal service benefit unit (MSBU.) However, such projects, since they would extend into state waters, would still require the establishment of an ECL, he noted.
A sticking point for many property owners, the ECL, a state requirement for large-scale beach restoration projects, is a fixed line established essentially in the same area as the mean high water line (MHWL) that separates state sovereignty property along the coast from upland property deeded to the MHWL, property which in many cases is under private ownership.
While smaller “truck haul” projects would be a “Plan B” alternative, Trammell noted, those are extremely expensive. Other concerns, he said, would be whether the amount of sand needed would be available and whether it would be possible to ensure that the sand would be of the right quality for use on the beaches.
Other alternative, Trammell continued, would be passive dune management through the planting of sea oats and other native plants that help anchor the dunes. This alternative has the advantage of being relatively inexpensive, he commented.
Trammell said that some beachfront property owners had indicated that they would like to manage their property themselves, which was an option.
In response to a question, Trammell said that the consultants had looked at the possibility of a beach restoration project that would stop at the MHWL. However, he said the USACE had indicated that they did not want to participate in such a project and the state had also expressed concerns should the county participate. The indication had also been that establishment of an ECL would still be a requirement.
Bringing up seawalls, Trammel observed that property owners had constructed many of them after Hurricane Dennis impacted the area in 2005. While the walls do protect upland property, they “don’t provide a benefit to the dune system,” and may result in a scouring action to the beach in front of the seawall, he said. Within the past decade both the state and the county have put more stringent requirements in place for permitting of seawalls, and they may be difficult to get permitted in the future, Trammel said.
Beachfront property owner Lisa Boushy agreed that the ECL had been the biggest concern for property owners but also identified the sand to be used in WCH&SDR Project as a matter of serious concern. She observed that Walton County’s beach sand is unique in its softness and fine texture.
Boushy said she had heard of a lot of beachfront owners who were interested in funding their own project that would include dune restoration and sea oat planting and would not involve an ECL.
Trammell agreed that such a countywide dune restoration project might be a good alternative. “It’s certainly doable,” he said. However, he cautioned that permitting would likely be “a year-long permitting challenge,” and finding the sand that would be needed would be another challenge. He also pointed out that the thousands of trucks that would be transporting sand for the project would present an impact to the area.
Another attendee suggestion was getting “bottom land” along the beach put under lease to the county by the state in connection with beach restoration, after which property owners could negotiate with the county regarding uses of the leased property. There was also a suggestion for the use of geotextile tubes in conjunction with sand placement.
Trammell addressed discussion regarding sand quality for the WCH&SDR Project, saying that the borrow site sand is similar in quality to what exists on the beaches. “These are sand deposits from the last ice age,” he explained. While algae and other organics may be attached to the sand due to its having been underwater for so long, these materials are removed by natural abrasion forces, he said.
Later Trammell discussed that during recent beach nourishment in Panama City Beach a new technique had been used to reduce shell content of sand placed on the beach. Seashells were left whole and filtered out of the fill sand, resulting in a shell content of less than one percent, he indicated.
Shell content on the unrestored beaches in Walton County has been quantified as less than one-half percent, and shell content for deposits in the borrow site has been stated to be from 2 to 2 1/2 percent by consulting staff for the USACE.
The workshop was concluded with plans for additional discussion and input. Information on future workshops on this topic will be forthcoming. In the meantime, community members are invited to attend meetings of the TDC Beach Management Committee. Upcoming committee meeting dates are July 11, Sept. 12, and Nov. 7, with meetings beginning at 9 a.m. and taking place at the South Walton Annex.