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    Beach residents, agency square off

    Stricter building rules could affect as much as $2.8-billion in property near a line where the state agency says water would go in a 100-year storm.

    By AMY WIMMER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 10, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- About 80 property owners and government officials from the beaches turned out for a Department of Environmental Protection hearing last week, hoping to persuade the state agency not to impose a new layer of building rules on the waterfront.

    One by one, people questioned the DEP's science, rationale and motives for a new Coastal Construction Control Line, a boundary that would impose stricter rules on as much as $2.8-billion in Pinellas beachfront property seaward of the line.

    Pinellas County has had a state control line for 20 years, but the revised line cuts through beach hotels, condominiums and single-family homes, forcing those property owners to meet tougher, more expensive standards if they want to rebuild or substantially remodel their homes or businesses.

    "I could understand the first one. They have to have some way to deal with erosion," said Janet Hoppe, an Indian Shores homeowner for 35 years. "Now they're coming back, and they want to push it back behind my house. It's hard to understand the reasoning."

    In 1981 the Florida Legislature directed the DEP to revise control lines drawn before June 1980. Pinellas is the last of 24 coastal counties whose boundary has been revisited, and the new version is expected to prompt the biggest control line battle the state has seen. Already, a coalition of beach cities is talking about hiring lawyers and lobbyists.

    Gene Chalecki, program administrator for the DEP's Office of Beaches and Coastal Systems, said Tuesday that while the first line was set politically, the new line is based on science. The line represents the point where the DEP thinks a 3-foot wave would hit the Pinellas coast in the worst storm of a century.

    For the past two years, the DEP's proposed new line has been attacked on several fronts: the political, the technical and maybe soon, the legal. Its opponents are led by a Technical Advisory Committee formed by the Barrier Islands Governmental Council, or Big-C, a coalition of elected officials from all the beach municipalities in Pinellas, except Clearwater.

    The chairman of that committee, Bob Clayton, commandeered about an hour of Tuesday's 21/2-hour meeting, challenging the DEP with numerous questions he has raised about the agency's study.

    These were some of the concerns raised by Clayton, a retired engineer, and his committee, which was also the group that picked apart changes in the Federal Emergency Management Agency maps, which have still not been implemented:

    Committee members say the DEP does not adequately respond to the committee's questions and requests for information.

    The group has continually said that the DEP sends them technical information only days or even hours before a hearing. Last week it happened again, committee member Ed Westcott said at the hearing as he held up a Federal Express package.

    "The survey information we asked for again and again and again and again came this morning at 10 a.m. -- FedEx," Westcott announced.

    Chalecki of the DEP said the committee's questions take time to answer.

    "They were not things that transmitted into simple yes-no responses," he said.

    The committee also questions the accuracy of the DEP's study. It says a Light Imaging Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) survey completed by the county is more accurate than the surveying techniques the DEP employed.

    Committee members also questioned why none of the plans for revised control lines have been signed and sealed by an engineer, even though state law requires the control line to be based on engineering studies.

    Chalecki said agency lawyers are reviewing that question, first raised by committee members about two months ago.

    "The question of an engineer's seal is a new question for this program," Chalecki said.

    Clayton accused the DEP of allowing politics to play a role in how it established its revised line.

    He said the line manages to avoid such high-profile properties as the Clearwater Yacht Club and the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa, but manages to bisect hundreds of other waterfront properties.

    "You owe that same boon to all . . . coastal property owners in Pinellas County," Clayton said.

    The current control line generally runs along the west side of nearly every waterfront structure in Pinellas.

    The DEP had planned to put the new control line in place a year ago, but the committee's questions pushed the adoption date to Feb. 28 of this year. Last week, Al Devereaux, director of the DEP's Office of Beaches and Coastal Systems, said the agency might wait and formalize the line July 1, when the new Florida Building Code is scheduled to take effect.

    Meanwhile, beach residents such as Pauline Deal of Belleair Beach are pushing forward with plans to build new homes in order to beat the new control line. Deal asked Devereaux what the new deadline for instituting the line will be.

    "I can't give you an accurate date," Devereaux said.

    Tuesday's meeting was promoted as residents' final opportunity to speak out about the line, though the DEP will continue to accept written input. Also, the hearing officer, DEP Deputy Secretary Kirby Green, could choose to hold more public hearings.

    Chalecki defended the DEP's control line statewide, saying the state agency's line did a better job than the FEMA line in reflecting where damage occurred during Hurricane Opal in 1995.

    "I recognize that this can be a very emotional issue, and I understand," Chalecki said. "This affects their lives."

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