Dredging details draw dissent

Published May 21, 2007

HERNANDO BEACH - Richard Doyle thinks he has good reason to object to a plan to dump sand dredged from the Hernando Beach channel on land next to his house.

The material will fill in four-tenths of an acre of wetlands that the county and the property's owners had vowed not to disturb. The sand will be pumped onto the property as a briny slurry, killing most of the oaks on the 3-acre parcel. Dump trucks carting it away will roll up and down a narrow, residential street: Eagle Nest Drive.

Even so, Doyle said as he stood looking over a fence along the property, "We're the bad guys."

This is an environmental battle with a twist. Doyle and other opponents are up against not only the county and a powerful landowner - Brooksville's Manuel family - but also against most other residents of Hernando Beach.

"It's 99.9 percent of the community against 14," said Cecelia Lindsey of the Hernando Beach Property Owners Association, referring to the number of residents who have complained about the plan to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Most Hernando Beach residents, she said, are desperate for the county to start digging a wider and deeper channel and adamantly oppose anything that could further delay the dredge, which has been planned since 1993.

Work on the $9-million project will begin this summer if the Army Corps of Engineers and the DEP issue permits to pump the sand onto the Manuel property, said Gregg Sutton, assistant county engineer and the dredge's project manager.

Parts of the channel are now less than 3 feet deep at low tide, Sutton said, meaning recreational boaters and shrimping vessels often must wait for high tide before they can enter or return from the gulf. The dredge will ensure that the channel is at least 6 feet deep and 60 feet wide, allowing boats enough room to pass safely.

"I think lives are more important than a little inconvenience to these people on Eagle Nest," Lindsey said.

Opponents of the plan to pump sand to the Manuel property all say they favor the dredge, but they cite the history of a different project.

They were part of a larger group of Hernando Beach residents who in 2005 objected to the Manuels' plans to build two small subdivisions on land along Eagle Nest.

Both of the properties, Insteada and Eagle Point, jut into the Minnow Creek estuary on the north edge of Hernando Beach. The residents' main concern was that the developments would destroy wetlands. Gene Manuel, the founder of Coastal Engineering Associates, and his son, Cliff, the firm's current president, repeatedly assured them they would not.

"We don't want to develop the wetlands," Cliff Manuel said in 2005.

Sutton, who had already identified the Manuels' Eagle Point property as a possible disposal site for the dredged sand, also said the county would not fill in wetlands. The county Planning and Zoning Commission included that as a condition for Eagle Point at its meeting Dec. 12, 2005, when it approved a plan to divide the 3 acres into 11 residential lots.

"No vertical seawalls, individual boat ramps or fill will be allowed within the Class 1 wetlands," according to the plan.

Class 1 wetlands are defined by the county as larger than a half-acre or bordering a significant body of water. The wetland that will be filled is isolated from the estuary by uplands. Also, Sutton said, the state requires the county to compensate for the destruction of this marsh by creating new wetlands nearby.

Even if the marsh on the Manuel property were classified as a Class 1 wetland, Sutton said, the county would be justified in changing the plans because of the advantages of using the property. The sand will be stored until it dries, Sutton said; trucks will then haul it away, probably to sell as fill material.

The state rejected a previous plan to dump the sand on mounds left by the digging of the original channel.

"DEP was so afraid we were going to cover up a little sea grass," Lindsey said.

Another possible site, near Shoal Line Boulevard, is 5.6-acres - nearly twice as large as the Manuel site, said Ron Basso, one of the opponents. Dumping the spoil there would not harm wetlands, he said, and the trucks would be confined to a major road in a commercial area.

"I am adamantly opposed to heavy dump trucks running up and down Eagle Nest Drive - this is simply unacceptable for a residential community. This is a lengthy and large project that will probably take a year to finish," Basso wrote in a letter to the county.

But the site Basso favors would require the county to lay pumping pipe in Hernando Beach's main boating canal, disrupting traffic, Sutton said. And because it is about a half-mile farther from the dredge project than Eagle Point, laying the pipe would be more expensive, he said.

But opponents said the county has never studied the expense of other sites. Nor has it adequately considered why Eagle Point is unsuitable. Basso and a handful of his neighbors gathered on Doyle's driveway last week and pointed to the pools of standing water on the property left by the tide, which had crested three hours earlier.

In return for the right to use the property, the county will pay the Manuels a nominal fee of $10 and leave about 3 feet of fill on the land, according to a lease the county signed for the property.

Judging from the standing water, Doyle said, building a road to gain access to the property would be nearly impossible without the fill.

"Not bad for 10 bucks," he said.

Manuel said the fill is not necessary to develop the land. And he was not breaking his vow not to fill wetlands on the property, he said, because the fill is not part of his development, but part of the dredge project.

"We signed a lease for the property," Manuel said. "It's the county's decision how it's used."

Dan DeWitt can be reached at dewitt@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6116.