Pile of sand, but no gold mine

Published May 21, 2007

PORT RICHEY - When talk turns to the heap of sand on Oreto Drive, city officials see dollar signs.

They say the 170, 000 cubic yards of sugar sand, piled on 3 acres off Ridge Road, is a potential gold mine. They hope to sell it for about $7 per cubic yard and turn an estimated $1.2-million profit, using the windfall to reduce the city's $5.8-million debt or jump-start projects.

"I see a pile of sand that could be a pile of paid-off bills, " Mayor Richard Rober said. "I see that as the potential to accommodate every resident's needs in the city, which is to reduce tax burdens."

But selling sand to developers and contractors is trickier than just throwing a price tag on the heap and hauling it out.

Turns out, sand isn't just sand.

There is fill sand used to patch holes in yards. Sand for restoring dunes after storms. Sand for playgrounds and volleyball courts. Then there's sand like Port Richey's, a finely grained, naturally occurring type used to mix concrete or restore beaches.

It's the stuff of Florida's beaches, and part of every construction project.

It's one of the state's most valuable resources. But the fact is, it's everywhere.

"Sand is so common in Florida that there usually isn't a huge demand, " said Bob Brinkmann, geography professor at University of South Florida.

Unless Port Richey's officials can find someone willing to take the sand off their hands, their hopes for turning a profit seem bleak.

That's because sand grades differ throughout the state. Finer sand is usually found on the west coast, and coarser grades made of silica and shell fragments are most likely seen on beaches in the southern part of the state.

Even cities as desperate as Miami - which has been running out of suitable offshore sand for its eroding beaches and hopes to truck some in from the Bahamas - can't use Port Richey's sand. Port Richey officials recently sent a sample to Miami, but had no luck selling it.

"It's probably too fine for beach use in Miami because the grain size is really small, " said Bryan Flynn, special projects administrator for the Miami-Dade Department of Environment Resources. "On the west coast of Florida, you could get away with that because the wave climate is milder. But we've developed a specification for sand in Dade County, and (the Port Richey batch is) too fine."

Then there are transportation costs to consider. Trucking sand isn't cheap.

"Sand isn't that rare, but it's usually a problem of finding it close to a beach that needs it, " said Norman Beumel, coastal engineer for Coastal Planning and Engineering in Boca Raton. "It's about $20 to $30 a cubic yard to transport sand. If you go 40 to 50 miles away, it's costly."

That means it would cost about $4.25-million to truck the city's sand - worth just $1.2-million - about 40 miles to, say, St. Petersburg.

"It's not like it (sand) has no value, " said Mark Downing of Cornerstone Homes in Jacksonville, "but that's an interesting predicament."

So the city's best bet is to find a nearby location to unload the sand, which has been sitting on Oreto Drive so long that no one's quite sure where it came from.

City officials say they realize the demand for sand is limited, but they're hoping someone buys their supply.

"At this point, it's been doing nothing for years as it is, " Rober said. "It's a non-performing asset. If we can't sell it, it'll continue to be a non-performing asset."

Camille C. Spencer can be reached at (727) 869-6229 or cspencer@sptimes.com.