RESTORING AND PROTECTING OUR BEACHES AND DUNE SYSTEM
Hurricane Ian clean-up and recovery has been the main order of business for all of us over the last four months – individually and certainly for Naples city government. This terrible storm event affected many, many of us living in Naples and throughout Florida. It also wreaked tremendous damage on many public assets that our residents and visitors use and enjoy…none more so than our beach and dune system.
Collier County has 20.6 miles of coastal beaches, with nearly half located in the City of Naples.
But the City of Naples beaches account for approximately 75% of the publicly accessible beaches within the entire county. These miles of white sand beaches and the blue-green waters of the Gulf define Naples more than any other element for most residents and visitors. Our beaches are our greatest natural asset and contributor to our quality of life, our economy, and our property values. We are all in this together.
Repair and restoration of our beaches must be a major community priority. In this newsletter, I describe the plans underway to accomplish this through a joint City/County/FEMA effort. I also will talk about the challenges that face us in this regard.
Here is the short story:
- Our beaches and particularly our dune system suffered substantial damage from Ian… damage unlike any past time from storm events.
- Repair and restoration will be expensive, take significant time, and occur in phases…over years, not months.
- This will be a noisy, invasive, and impactful process for our residents, requiring significant numbers of trucks hauling hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of sand on city streets. And it will occur at the busiest times of the year.
- Finally, it will again raise questions – such as those generated two years ago by the controversial Army Corps of Engineers study of Collier County storm risk – as to what actions can and should be taken to protect our community in the future.
It is imperative that we carry out this beach and dune restoration effort in a timely, efficient, but creative way given its environmental and economic importance to Naples. To learn more about the details of what is going to happen and when, click the link below.
The Plan for Short-Term Protection/Emergency Berm
First, it is important to understand that efforts to restore our beaches will begin with an emergency, short-term phase that is largely guided by FEMA rules and requirements in order for the city and county to qualify for cost reimbursement.
FEMA will work with Collier County and the City of Naples to construct an “emergency berm” (FEMA-speak for dune) along the length of Collier’s coastline from Barefoot Beach at the Lee County line to the middle of Keewaydin Island. This dune will be approximately 2-4 feet high and 30 feet wide and built to provide protection for upland structures in the event of a five-year storm (i.e. a storm that FEMA models suggest could occur once every five years).
Given that Hurricane Ian largely destroyed the well-established dune and vegetative system that had been with us for decades, we need a basic level of protection should another major storm hit us in the next several years, before more comprehensive and substantial beach and dune restoration can occur (more on that later).
How and When Will This Happen?
Collier County is responsible for beach renourishment and restoration locally. Funding for this purpose comes from the county Tourist Development Tax (the hotel bed tax that visitors pay).
In “normal” times, the Collier County Commissioners approve annually requests to renourish (add sand) sections of beach in the city and county, as well as dredge and improve key inlet channels like Doctors Pass and Gordon Pass. As a practical matter, much of this annual maintenance occurs within the City of Naples since a high percentage of publicly accessible beach miles is within our jurisdiction.
The real work to determine which beach areas should be renourished each year and how much funding should be committed occurs through the Collier County Coastal Advisory Committee (CAC), where I serve as City Council’s representative.
Hurricane Ian has exponentially ramped up the work and dollars required to repair our beaches. The CAC in December recommended $250,000 for design of the emergency berm/dune system (subsequently approved by the County Commissioners at a $200,000 level). And in January, the CAC recommended $24 million be budgeted to construct the emergency berm (also approved by the commissioners). This first phase work, whatever the final cost, will be reimbursed at a 75% level by FEMA.
Design is near completion. It is anticipated that the emergency berm work will begin in February and continue for up to 12 weeks. There are FEMA time deadlines that must be met to qualify for reimbursement. In addition, the advent of turtle nesting season in May drives the need to complete the emergency berm work as quickly as possible. Some important questions, such as the amount and type of vegetative planting that will be included in the new dune system, are not yet answered and are the subject of continuing conversation between county and city staff and FEMA representatives. Everyone feels the sense of urgency.
One cannot emphasize enough that this will be an unusual and invasive process for our community. We will be seeing approximately 500,000 cubic yards of sand coming in trucks to our beaches over a period of several months. And all occurring at the peak of our tourist season when our streets are already busy and congested. Beach access points for the trucks are currently projected to be Horizon Way, Lowdermilk Park, and 10th Avenue South, and 17th Avenue South.
(Note: While Lowdermilk Park was devastated by Ian, and full restoration will take many months, city staff have worked on an accelerated schedule to reopen the parking area both for those seeking beach access and to accommodate the emergency berm construction.)
Notwithstanding the aggravations caused by this immediate work on our beaches, residents and visitors will have to appreciate the necessity of getting this job done now and in the right way. Our beaches and dunes have been ravaged by Ian. The process needs to start now to bring them back.
What About the Longer-Term Fix?
The emergency berm project is a necessary but temporary solution to provide some level of immediate protection. There will still be the need to carry out a more substantial sand replacement and dune reconstruction program.
Candidly, there has been little thought or discussion as yet given to what this longer-term plan should look like. This is understandable given that Ian occurred so recently and that attention has been focused on the short-term emergency berm project.
But in the months ahead, county and city staff and their consultants will need to begin to think through the larger challenge (and opportunity) of what is needed to fully build back our beaches and dune systems. I believe our collective goal should be to achieve a higher quality beach and dune system than we even enjoyed pre-Ian, with higher and wider beaches and more substantial natural infrastructure, both for aesthetic reasons as well as to provide better protection from storms.
A few things are clear. Funding for this long-term effort will come primarily from our local tourist tax, hopefully supplemented by state grants. The cost will be significant and the work will likely occur over a period of years (my guess is as much as 3-5 years). This is due to the scale of the project and the time needed to properly design and engineer the plan. Fortunately, the County has substantial reserves in its Beach Renourishment fund that can be used to meet this need. But even that will likely not be enough.
The timeline for this work will also be affected by when the beaches can be accessed, given the need to avoid sea turtle nesting season (May through October) and the seasonal constraints created by annual visits by tourists and seasonal residents. That is why normal annual renourishment projects always occur in November and not any other time of the year.
Some Final Thoughts
Ian was a watershed event for our community and for Florida overall. One cannot overstate the magnitude of the storm and its impact. Many experts in the insurance industry believe it will ultimately have a $100 billion impact, the largest storm event in history, exceeding even Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.
Many Naples residents are still digging out from this tragedy, determining whether and how they can repair their properties under complex FEMA rules, or instead be forced to sell. This is understandably priority #1 for many people.
But from a broader community standpoint, there is no bigger priority than restoring our beaches and ancillary facilities damaged by the storm (Naples Pier, Lowdermilk Park, the many beach access points, and others).
City staff has done a tremendous job to this point in expeditiously repairing beach crossovers and reopening beach access points (17 and counting). And our beaches are again full of visitors and residents enjoying the sun and water and, of course, our famous Naples sunsets.
But therein lies a problem. Visitation and use of our beaches has not slackened post-Ian. In fact, it has increased, by 25% or more since September. This will make our restoration job even harder as we try to rebuild and replant dune systems while thousands walk over them daily on their way to the beach. It is a bit like trying to repave a major highway without ever closing any lanes!
In order to get this job done….and done right…residents will need to have patience but also urge the City and County to think creatively and ambitiously. This horrific event can become an opportunity to make our beach and dune system even better….and better able to withstand future storm events, which we know will come.
One thing is for certain. The impact and costs associated with Ian will have far-reaching effects in our community – and statewide – with respect to property insurance, condo sustainability, and decisions by residents as to whether and when to sell their properties. Forces that may have affected Naples over a period of decades now will be felt in just a few years.
Of Particular Note
Ian will also accelerate discussions about how to properly protect our coastline and the residences and other structures along it in the future. Notably, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has indicated that it is seeking support from the County Commissioners to “reinitiate” its 2021 Collier County Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study.
This study was controversial when completed in draft form almost two years ago due to the perception that it unduly emphasized physical structure measures (floodwalls with gates, surge barrier systems, etc) relative to natural infrastructure enhancements. The planning study also excluded certain coastal areas within the county and city (such as Old Naples and Pelican Bay), confusing residents as to why these areas were not considered.
These and other questions will need to be answered if this study is reinitiated and again moves forward. In addition, the Corps of Engineers public outreach process – engaging residents as well as with local elected officials – will need to be much more robust and inclusionary if the study is to achieve consensus on an acceptable plan of action.
I hope you found this newsletter informative. If you have questions or comments on the beach issue, or any other matter affecting Naples, please contact me at my City Council email, http://firstname.lastname@example.org. And continue to visit my website where you can access all past newsletters and blogs.
Thanks as always for your concern and caring for our great community.