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Group disputes coast building line

With $2.8-billion in affected property, a local group questions where the state is drawing a new line to limit building.

By AMY WIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000


INDIAN SHORES -- A team of local laymen went head-to-head with six state experts Thursday, challenging the science behind a plan to place tighter building restrictions on thousands of Pinellas coastal property owners.

By the end of the daylong meeting, the local committee assembled by communities from Belleair Shores to Tierra Verde felt it had won two victories:

A local public hearing, and a promise from state officials to review potential mistakes in the data they used to draw a new line for restrictions that will affect $2.8-billion worth of homes, condominiums and businesses.

It remains unclear whether the state Department of Environmental Protection will take seriously the criticisms and questions the local committee raised about the state's work.

"Are there errors in the work that we performed? We really couldn't say," said Gene Chalecki, who heads the DEP's Office of Beaches and Coastal Systems. "We just received this information today."

New construction seaward of the proposed Coastal Construction Control Line, which stretches east of Gulf Boulevard at some points, will require special state permits that could be expensive and time-consuming. Pinellas has an existing control line, but almost all beachfront development falls outside the tougher rules. The county is the last of 24 statewide to have its line revised.

The DEP makes no secret about why Pinellas was saved for last. In addition to the fact that the county has little undeveloped beachfront left to be saved, Robert Dean, a civil and coastal engineering professor at the University of Florida who conducted much of DEP's research, said DEP knew the approval process in Pinellas would be tough.

The new state control line would affect an estimated 13,500 properties along the coast, including such landmarks as Treasure Island's Thunderbird Beach Resort and the Tradewinds Resort in St. Pete Beach.

The local committee, which includes an engineer, a retired teacher, an architect and some local mayors, made a slew of accusations against the DEP, ranging from faulty data to sloppy analysis. They backed up their claims with $1,500 worth of state documents that they began requesting in April, after the DEP held two public workshops in Pinellas.

Among their chief concerns, committee members questioned how DEP established a control line between John's Pass and the Belleair Beach Causeway without using all the necessary data for that area.

"I'm not making this thing up," said Bob Clayton, chairman of the committee. "This came off your disk. This came off your books. We've been asking you about this since April, and it looks like we've still got the same problem that we had in April -- that you're not willing to look at what you did."

The committee also pointed out that the proposed control line takes a striking turn to avoid Don CeSar Beach Resort & Spa, only to jut inland again and slice through nearly every home and business along the Pass-a-Grille waterfront.

Early drafts of the control line, committee members said, showed the Don CeSar would be affected by the line, leading committee members to question whether politics played a role in setting the line.

A date has not yet been set for a public hearing on the control line, though DEP officials did agree Thursday to hold the meeting in Pinellas, rather than in Tallahassee as originally planned.

Some beach officials are lobbying legislators and legislative candidates, urging them to consider giving special consideration to already-developed Pinellas County. The rule was originally intended to protect beaches and dunes statewide.

Thursday's seven-hour meeting was peppered with terms like "statistical confidence level," "Kriebel erosion model" and "wave/erosion analysis profiles." At one point, one of the state scientists corrected how the local committee pronounced LIDAR -- an acronym for Light Imaging Detection and Ranging, a survey technique.

According to state rules, anyone who questions DEP's placement of the control line may use only technical arguments. That forces beach homeowners and elected officials who want to fight the line to pick apart DEP's science.

Inevitably, however, emotional arguments seep through.

"It's a helmet law for coastal construction," Clayton, the local chairman, told the DEP representatives Thursday. "It just looks like you're telling us how we're supposed to act in our own houses."

What is it?

The Coastal Construction Control Line, established by the Legislature and enforced by the state Department of Environmental Protection, is designed to regulate beach development. Construction seaward of the line is not prohibited, but must meet special state standards and earn DEP approval. The line should represent the point at which 3-foot waves would hit the coast in the biggest storm to hit an area in a 100-year span.

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