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Sand Dollars

Our beaches are disappearing, but no more so than at Upham Beach in Pinellas County. The sea engulfs nearly the entire shoreline every couple of years. Condo owners and environmentalists are at odds over who should pay to stem the flow of sand.

By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 8, 1999


ST. PETE BEACH -- Laura DeBaylo has seen Upham Beach come and go.

She came here 15 years ago on dates with her husband, Gary. Now the St. Petersburg woman watches him ride the sharp breakers that are so popular with local surfers, while their 7-year-old daughter, Amy, splashes in the shallows. There is little dry sand left where Amy can play.

"This is about the worst I've ever seen it," DeBaylo says.

photo
WHEN THERE WAS SAND
This 1926 photo, thought to be the first aerial shot of what is today north St. Pete Beach, shows the huge sandy shoal that rested at the mouth of Blind Pass. (Treasure Island lies north of the pass.) Waves slanted counter-clockwise around the shoal, sweeping sand up on the wide top end of St. Pete Beach.
[Times files]

Three years ago, there was a football field of sand between the dunes and the water. In September, all that remained in some places was a 10-foot-wide, waist-high mound of shells, barely enough to throw down a towel.

Last week, even that was gone. At high tide, the waves nibbled at sea oats on the edge of the dunes and lapped at the base of a wooden walkway, which the city has closed.

Why does Upham Beach erode?

The disappearing beach

Upham Beach is the most serious case of erosion on the Florida Gulf Coast and one of the worst cases statewide, coastal geologists say. Every two to three years, the beach disappears.

The people who live in the condominiums that tower over this shoreline blame the waves for stealing the sand, but scientists flatly report that the erosion has been caused by the developments themselves.

Upham Beach is the classic Florida case study of man defying nature so he can develop paradise. The story begins in the middle of the 20th century, when people flocked to live on Florida's shifting barrier islands.


OBSTACLES TO THE FLOW OF SAND

photo
Coastal geologists and engineers have blamed the jetties at the mouth of Blind Pass for blocking the flow of sand south to Upham Beach, shown in this photo taken Dec 2.

[Times photo: Yalonda M. James ]

key1. Small jetty built in 1962, expanded to 360 feet in 1976, raised in 1978 and extended to 520 feet in 1983
2. Jetty built by William Upham in 1936 and expanded to 261 feet in 1975
3. Breakwater added in 1986 to further shelter the coast
4. Land’s End
5. Envoy Point East
6. Envoy Point West
7. Starlight Tower
8. Caprice
9. Public beach
10. Silver Sands Beach and Racquet Club
11. Blind Pass


Developers saw dollars in the sand. With government blessings, they erected billions of dollars in condos and hotels. Then they armored their investments with sea walls and rock barricades, trying to hold the volatile shoreline in place. At Upham, the fortifications protect 619 condo units -- about $116-million in property -- from the waves.

mapThe waterfront lifestyle, and the concrete necessary to protect it, produced costly consequences, from which there appears no escape. The very measures that safeguard life and property are hastening erosion.

In St. Pete Beach, a river of sand used to flow south along the shoreline at Upham Beach. But the sand that once flowed to the beach has been blocked by structures people have built. New sand no longer replenishes the shoreline, which wastes away.

"It's really a starvation problem, not an erosion problem," said Lynda Charles, a coastal engineer with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

So taxpayers feed the beach. Since 1975, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has restored Upham four times. At least 900,000 cubic yards of sand have been dumped here, records show, enough to fill about 45,000 dump trucks.

Maintaining the 3,000-foot shoreline has cost about $7.7-million in county, state and federal funds.

Early next year, the Army Corps will try again, depositing another 200,000 cubic yards of sand, dredged from the excess silt of Blind Pass. But as sure as a summer thunderstorm, this $2.1-million project will wash away, too.

"Any sand we put there boogies down the beach in a hurry," acknowledged Rick McMillen, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager.

Across the United States, beaches are in similarly dire straits, with as much as 70 percent of the nation's coasts eroding and still more people seeking waterfront views. Homeowners would like to maintain their property forever. But the coast is a dynamic, erratic place and nature can be a heavyweight opponent.

The father of St. Pete Beach

Before white settlers moved here and started griping about "erosion," the barrier islands evolved with the weather.

photo
THE FATHER OF THE BEACH
William W. Upham poses with a map of north St. Pete Beach, the city he laid out and made ready for other developers to build condominiums and new homes for residents seeking to live the Florida lifestyle.
[Times files]
Long Key, today the home of St. Pete Beach, looked radically different in the early 1800s. The island's north end was like the meaty part of a drumstick. There was sand, lots of it.

But an 1848 hurricane, followed by a century of people building here, sent the coast into tremendous flux. (See graphic on this page.) In the 1960s, the island's northern tip was more exposed to waves and currents, which were gobbling the drumstick.

Even so, William W. Upham, the first mayor and a founding developer of St. Petersburg Beach, as it was formerly known, wasn't a man intimidated by waves.

His family's real estate company -- staffed also by his father, Nathaniel, and brother, Neil -- owned and developed half the island, expanding their holdings by dredging and filling Boca Ciega Bay.

Starting in the 1920s, the Uphams had neighborhoods to create, streets to map and money to make. (They also laid out Shore Acres in St. Petersburg.)

When William Upham sold his two biggest chunks of vacant land near the city beach in 1957, he made about $401,800 on the deal, worth about $2.4-million today. But before such profits could be realized, Upham first had to tame the rebellious shoreline.

Blind Pass, an inlet to the north, had been cutting a new channel for itself, a natural process which had shifted the pass a mile south since 1873. Upham wanted to stop the pass' currents from sweeping away any more of his real estate.

In 1936, Upham hauled in rocks and laid them in a low wall, or jetty, extending from the southern edge of Blind Pass into the Gulf of Mexico. The jetty was supposed to reinforce the coastline and hold the pass in place. But it didn't work.

Blind Pass' southerly currents continued snacking on the shore, taking portions of four city streets through the 1950s. St. Pete Beach and Treasure Island officials ordered the construction of more sea walls. They buttressed the sides of the inlet with concrete.

Thanks to the start of the coastal building boom, St. Pete Beach's population quickly tripled to about 6,100. Upham and his supporters, dubbed "Uphamites," welcomed newcomers at midcentury and tried to win their political support.

"The International Realty Company," Upham wrote to beach residents in a 1953 letter in the St. Petersburg Times, "is still the biggest single factor affecting the future of your community. . . . What benefits us will benefit you."

The next year, Upham and his father, Nathaniel, donated land for a public beach named after them. But nature could not be tamed.

In 1975, local governments threw more rocks at the waves. Upham, in his 70s but still an influential lobbying force, even sued St. Pete Beach Mayor George Manthos to force one project.

Manthos relented, and St. Pete Beach added 260 feet to Upham's old 1936 jetty. On the other side of Blind Pass, Treasure Island's rock barricade soon stretched 520 feet into the Gulf of Mexico.

Manthos, who had grown up working at the beach snack stand, worried that lengthening the jetties would encourage erosion. He argued that the rock walls jutting into the gulf could block the natural flow of sand onto Upham Beach.

But scientific understanding of the coast was still young.

Upham, an engineer with a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, assured a reporter at the time that the longer jetties would be the big fix for the coast's problems. They would keep sand out of Blind Pass, which had been clogging up, and also hold sand on nearby beaches.

He was wrong.

The jetties worsened erosion, even as hundreds of new residents were ready to call this shoreline home.

'An enlightened way to live on the beach'

photo
‘A SOUND INVESTMENT’
Detail from a late 1950s brochure touting the Starlight Tower on Upham Beach.

Local newspapers heralded the era of "big buildings" on St. Pete Beach in 1958. Developers such as Baltimore's John K. Ruff, who finished Starlight Tower on Upham Beach, were selling residents the Florida way of life. High-rises sprouted on the raw land that Upham had prepared for construction.

Ruff promised buyers of stock in his 10-story cooperative apartment that the ivory tower would be "their home in the heavens." The lobby was inlaid with Baltimore stones. The apartments had gulf views. The water was so close, in fact, that one retiree likened living there to being on "a continuous ocean voyage." The units were affordable, starting at $12,450.

Most of all, the brochures bragged, the condo would have "250 feet of a safe, white-sand private beach where the public may be prohibited from trespassing."

Envoy Point's developers used a similar sales pitch 20 years later, emphasizing the quality of the beach beside their condos, which ranged from $58,500 to $156,000. The ads neglected to say the beach regularly vanished with the tides.

Bullard and Walling Inc. (as in Fred Bullard Jr., a developer of the BayWalk complex in downtown St. Petersburg) constructed the first 70-unit Envoy Point East in 1975. Another high-rise architect, Norman Ziegelman, added the 140-unit Envoy Point West in 1978.

From his Michigan office, Ziegelman remembers the project well. At the time, one of his sales people jokingly compared him to a fictional developer in the hot new John MacDonald thriller, Condominium. In the novel, a hurricane topples a beach condo, taking revenge on developers who built it on an unstable, silty inlet.

Ziegelman took the teasing in stride. He still insists Upham Beach was perfectly suitable to build on. Although the area did erode, he said, "back in that time, they always seemed to replenish it with sand."

"We did not spare any expense to preserve and to enhance the property."

Some city officials felt otherwise, protesting the height of the 13-story west building and its demands on the city's sewer system. Some residents objected that the Envoys' gated community had cut off public beach access. Arguments became lawsuits. But the developers won, and the building continued.

The next condominium rose on a property previously dogged by erosion. The vacation rental condo was named Caprice (which means whimsy), and it replaced the defunct Island Club, where waves had once overwhelmed the community country club's sea wall, deck and Olympic-size pool.

By the 1980s, the state had adopted new restrictions to curb coastal development in vulnerable places. Florida officials had drawn an invisible demarcation across the property -- the "coastal construction control line" -- and declared that building on the water side of the boundary would be restricted.

That didn't stop Caprice. State and city officials gave special permissions to allow architect John Bodziak Jr.'s project, which was finally completed in 1988 by another builder. Dave Healey, then a paid consultant, argued for the condo's approval.

Healey, who today is executive director of the Pinellas Planning Council, acknowledges that Pinellas' islands have been too densely developed. "But the property was there, and it was entitled to be used based on the rules at the time," he said of Caprice.

During big storms, television camera crews head to Caprice, because they are guaranteed footage of waves crashing against the condo's sea walls, ripping out safety railings and landscaping.

The last condos to rise were the Silver Sands Beach and Racquet Club's three peach towers, completed in 1992. The ads for the new units, the most luxurious yet, touted: "An enlightened way to live on the beach."

Nature on fast-forward

As a result of decades of such construction, nature is now on fast-forward at Upham Beach. Geological shifts are typically measured in hundreds, if not thousands of years. At Upham, you can witness the upheaval in a day. In December 1997, one storm took away four feet of beach in a night.

"It's one of the few places where you can watch the coast change before your eyes," said Guy Gelfenbaum, an oceanographer with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Gelfenbaum mounted a camera on a Starlight Tower to photograph the beach continuously after the most recent sand nourishment in 1996. Three-fourths of about 230,000 cubic yards of sand vanished within two years, the photos showed, especially during harsh El Nino-influenced winter storms.

Because of its volatile personality, the beach has been a magnet for coastal researchers. University of South Florida graduate student Nicole Elko earned her master's degree in coastal geology for a two-year analysis of Upham that was commissioned by Pinellas County.

Like others before her, Elko concluded that people helped make the shoreline prone to erosion by adding the jetties and sea walls near Upham Beach. Severe storms carry the sand away, but nothing replaces it.

In 1997 and 1998, Elko found, the loss of sand was three times greater than the beach's historical rate.

'The government needs to protect us'

The changing coastline map
The unscientific fallout of the erosion is that the people who love to visit this beach have less sand upon which they can relax and enjoy the shore. But casual beachgoers rarely write letters to protest to City Hall.

The people who complain loudest live in the surrounding high-rises. Some didn't know Upham's history when they moved here. Bill Pyle, an Eckerd College professor who settled in Silver Sands in 1986, remembers the sales brochures showing an expanse of sand. But a few years later, the beach had disappeared.

"The erosion wasn't something I was aware of, and it really concerned me," said Pyle, who serves as his master association's president.

Although the developers are long gone, many residents like Pyle have made it their mission to "solve" the erosion problem. They have pored through city files, signed petitions and written letters to the governor.

Preservation is important to them, because the beach is the buffer between the gulf's mood swings and their investments. Condo values now range from $82,000 at Starlight Tower to more than $370,000 at the manicured Silver Sands beach club, where Yankees magnate George Steinbrenner has a place.

A severe storm such as Hurricane Elena, which merely brushed Tampa Bay in 1985, can rip out sea walls, destroy swimming pools and, in the case of Starlight Tower's ground-floor units, flood homes. The potential for damage grows without a wide beach.

"The barrier islands should have never been built on. It was a mistake, and I'll be the first person to admit it," said Raymond Thompson, the president of Starlight Tower.

"But they did it, and we're there now, and paying taxes to live on it. The government needs to protect us. I don't think it's any different than the guy who builds his house in the woods, then the government pays to send firefighters when the woods catch fire."

Condo owners argue that spending millions to renourish the beach is affordable compared to the $116-million in property values the sand helps to protect. They contend that the local economy benefits from such projects, since wide, sandy beaches attract tourists.

Other coastal policy gurus see it differently.

Beach renourishment is "a welfare program for the relatively wealthy shorefront property owners," said D.W. Bennett, executive director of the American Littoral Society. The non-profit, New Jersey-based group has protested the mounting cost of federal beach renourishment programs across the nation.

"They say, "We want to live here for the rest of our lives, but we don't want to pay for it.' So let's have everybody else, especially the federal government, pay for most of the cost," Bennett said. "There's all kinds of other subsidies, including national flood insurance for them, too.

"The thing that bothers me, is I'm paying for that, and I don't care if there's a beach in front of these condominiums."

Even some condo owners see constant sand restorations as government waste.

"None of us can understand why the millions of dollars are put into the renourishment of the beach, and still they do nothing to find a long-term solution," said Alfred Peterson, an Illinois resident who heads the Caprice condominium association. "We feel extensively disgusted."

The search for a 'permanent solution'

Despite hopes for a fix, coastal experts at county, state and federal agencies say there are no easy solutions. As long as people want to live this close to the water, the beach will have to be fed mechanically with dredged sand -- forever.

"It's like a maintenance fee," said Elko, the USF doctoral student who studied the beach for the county. "If you want to live there, it's like cutting the grass."

Condo owners and St. Pete Beach city leaders have been pushing a different strategy, despite some expert opinions that other beaches downshore could be harmed.

The best "long-term solution," they argue, would be to build "groins" -- long, low walls made of heavy bags of sand that would extend into the gulf. The structures would trap sand washing southward and keep it at Upham Beach. The idea has floated around since 1959.

"They need to take these steps to hold some sand on the beach," said Bob Seyler, another board member at Silver Sands who has spent so much time researching the issue he has been dubbed the sandman. "It just seems there should be a way to keep sand here for a longer period of time."

Sand still would wash away around the groins, says Tom Martin, a U.S. Army Corps coastal engineer. The erosion just would occur at a slower pace around the barriers. The Army Corps would return less frequently to dump sand on the beach.

But state coastal experts have fought the idea for more than a decade. They think that building groins could just make problems worse, blocking sand that would normally wash south and causing erosion farther downshore -- next to the city's premier beachfront hotels, including the Don CeSar.

The use of groins has caused such a chain reaction elsewhere in the United States, including New York's Long Island.

Here's what happens: The first groin is installed to hold sand in front of a property. Then beaches down the shore begin to erode, because sediment no longer can flow to them around the groin. So then more people install their own groins to try to maintain their beaches. But that only blocks sand flowing to other beaches farther down the shore, where groins are again posed as a solution.

To construct several groins in St. Pete Beach, Pinellas County needs a state permit. So far, the state has refused to grant one. DEP coastal engineer Lynda Charles torpedoed the county's permit application again this year.

Charles says that people should be pleased when they see sand nourishment projects washing away: Sand lost from Upham is feeding the rest of the island's beaches, keeping them healthy.

Dumping sand on Upham Beach every five years -- and allowing it simply to wash away -- is the cheapest way to manage the erosion here, according to a U.S. Army Corps report from July.

But St. Pete Beach officials say that every five years isn't frequent enough to receive sand. If groins won't be permitted, city politicians want the Army Corps, state DEP and county government to cooperate and dump sand here every two years.

Studies are ongoing to locate new sources of sand for more frequent projects, says Jim Terry, Pinellas County's coastal coordinator. "We're committed to attempting to do it."

Beach residents will believe it when they see it.

"Once you get all the permits lined up, get the funding in place, the best intentions usually just don't work out," said City Commissioner Jim Myers, who lives at Silver Sands.

After years of frustrating delays and arguments among the state and federal bureaucracies over sand replenishment projects, Myers became a proponent of installing groins to try to slow down the erosion at Upham.

The next project to dump sand on the beach is already more than a year behind schedule, Myers complained.

Future feedings for Upham Beach

Perhaps in February, dredging crews will start pumping an estimated 200,000 cubic yards of sand onto whatever is left of Upham Beach after winter storms. Treasure Island beaches also will receive about 75,000 cubic yards.

Who should pay for such projects has spurred a national debate.

The Army Corps has a contract with Pinellas County to dump sand at Upham until 2030, as long as federal funding holds up.

But the Clinton administration repeatedly has tried to slash money for beach renourishment, approving changes this year that will make state and local governments shoulder more of the costs. By 2003, local governments will have to pay 50 percent, rather than just 35 percent, for new projects that fight the tides.

photo
THE DISAPPEARING BEACH
The U.S. Geological Survey’s St. Petersburg office organized a photographic study of the beach’s performance after the most recent renourishment in 1996. The sand dumped here could be seen shifting south, augmenting the curving shoreline as it left Upham Beach. As the sand washes away, the concrete embankment that is home to three condominium complexes, foreground, is revealed.

See a series of photos from 1996 to 1998 that shows the sand shifting south.
[
Photos courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey]


Florida already had committed more dollars, by establishing a $30-million yearly beach preservation budget that is funded by real estate stamp taxes. Upham Beach has been placed on a new master list to receive sand dollars regularly.

Pinellas County devotes money from a hotel room tax for sand nourishments, at a rate of about $1.5-million per year. Terry, Pinellas' beaches manager, said he thinks there will be funds to keep feeding Upham for the future.

The bill will be large: another $10-million to cover dumping another 1.5-million cubic yards of sand here by 2030, using Army Corps estimates. That breaks down to about $15,700 per condo unit at the beach.

It's worth it, according to one economist's report for last year's Florida Beach Renourishment and Preservation Conference. Statewide, beaches create almost $16-billion in property values, generate about $1-billion in taxes and spur $8.8-billion in spending that supports about 250,000 jobs, estimates William B. Stronge, a Florida Atlantic University professor.

SHORE UP YOUR VOCABULARY

LITTORAL: Pertaining to a shore or the sea.

BREAKWATER: A structure that shelters a shore from hard-breaking waves, often built parallel to a beach.

GROIN: A protective structure built perpendicular to the beach, which traps sand and prevents it from washing away.

JETTY: A structure placed at the edge of an inlet to help define and deepen its channel, and block sediment from filling up the channel.

BEACH NOURISHMENT: The process of replenishing a beach with sand, either from the natural flow of sand carried by shoreline currents or by people depositing sand on the beach.

But some coastal geologists argue that places like Upham Beach are lousy investments.

"An area with that kind of severe erosion problem is only going to continue eroding," says Stephen Leatherman, a Florida International University professor who is nicknamed Dr. Beach. Leatherman publishes rankings of the nation's top beaches every year and serves as director of FIU's Laboratory for Coastal Research.

Leatherman says that people who have chosen to live by the shore, but refuse to see the impact of doing things like building groins and jetties, often can be a powerful "constituency of ignorance."

"The money ought to go to other projects that have a much better chance of success," he said. "Or the people who have all this property (next to the hot spots) should be paying for it themselves. I'm not at all against beach renourishment. I question who profits, who pays and the performance of projects."

A retreat from the shore eventually could be necessary, said Richard Davis, a USF professor who has studied Upham for years. Over the next century, sea levels are predicted to rise 1 to 4 feet -- bad news if you live on a low barrier island.

In the short term, Davis hypothesized, the problems at Upham Beach could be solved by removing the jetties at the mouth of Blind Pass, the ones that Upham lobbied for 25 years ago. The condo buildings on the edge of Blind Pass, perched behind their concrete sea walls, also would have to go. They stick out too far into the gulf.

Only then would sand flow naturally again to the beach, Davis said. The coastline probably would erode a bit and then reorient itself eastward of the current shoreline. Blind Pass might fill up with sand. But at that point, the new beach would be more stable.

Such a scenario is absurd to condo dwellers, who have dug in to fight the tides into the next century. Many put no stock in the theories of rise in sea level, either.

At Starlight Tower, they spent thousands of dollars this year to clean up damage from Hurricane Georges and another storm in 1998, says Thompson, the cooperative's president. Because of turbulent weather over the years, they have had to repair walls in flooded ground-floor units and damage to their swimming pool.

This year, they laid down new grass near the pool. Crashing waves have since sprayed salt water over the sea wall, turning the tender new grass brown.

Thompson threw up his hands: "Our next sacrifice for Mother Nature."

photo
LIVING ON THE EDGE
Upham Beach has the worst erosion of any beach on the Gulf Coast of Florida, according to one study. But Daniel Flood, who has lived in St. Pete Beach for two years, finds it hard to believe how quickly the sand has vanished. Here he watches his 18-month-old son, Daniel Jr. In the background, three condominium complexes that jut into the gulf have not had a buffer from the sea during this fall’s bad weather, since there is little beach left.
[Times photo: Yalonda M. James ]

-- Information from Times files was used in this report.

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