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Tractor will till rocky beaches

High costs force the Corps of Engineers to scale back its grand plan for heavy machines to dredge rocks from the sand.

By LISA GREENE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2001


When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers renourished 9 miles of Pinellas Beaches in 1998, the job was less than perfect.

Instead of powder-soft sand, rocks littered beaches from North Redington Beach to Sand Key. So in January, the corps came up with a grand solution: Heavy machines would dredge 3 feet deep to sift out the stones.

Then the corps found out what the project would cost: as much as $2.8-million.

Now the beaches will get a tractor.

The corps will spend only $500,000 instead of the $2-million it originally planned.

"It doesn't satisfy me and some of the constituents in the area, but it does remove some of the bigger stones out there," said Rick McMillen, the corps' manager for the project.

When the corps renourished with sand pumped from off Egmont Key, agency studies didn't show a layer of calcified shell in the sand and pumped that up, too.

After residents and beach town officials complained about banged toes and moonscape beaches, the corps decided to clean up the rocks. The corps planned to hire a contractor to screen rocks 1 inch wide or larger.

That changed when the agency got cost estimates, McMillen said. Instead of $2-million, the work would cost $2.3-million to $2.8-million, depending how the work was done.

The agency decided the price was too high and the work too complicated. Now a tractor will till 3 feet below the sand. It will then use a rake to remove rocks up to 2 inches in size and down to 1 foot deep.

"If it doesn't work right, we'll look at coming back next year," McMillen said.

The rocks might be used to create artificial oyster beds, McMillen said.

Indian Rocks Beach Mayor Bob DiNicola said he was worried when he first heard the change.

"They've scaled it down considerably," he said. "I didn't think it would suffice if another storm comes up," because storms tend to expose more rock.

But because the corps has promised to monitor the beach, DiNicola said, "I feel pretty comfortable with it."

The changes have meant delay. The corps had planned to start a month ago, but now hopes to begin in the next few days.

But the work will still be finished by April 1, McMillen said, so that sea turtles coming ashore to nest won't be disturbed.

"We'll also have someone monitoring the shoreline, and mark or relocate any turtle nests that do occur," said Jim Terry, coastal coordinator for Pinellas County.

Terry said he's not worried about the delay.

"It's a very complex project," he said. "We would much rather do it right the first time."

But Dick Ruben, a board member of the Sand Key Civic Association, said he's anxious about the delay. Tentative plans call for starting at North Redington Beach and moving north, making Sand Key last. The corps would skip over Belleair Shores, which didn't receive renourishment.

Ruben said he's hoping that the smaller project will still solve the rock problem.

"We're cautiously optimistic," he said. "It can't be any worse than what we have now."

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