Walton revisiting massive beach nourishment proposal. Will the sand be an exact match?

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SANTA ROSA BEACH — Eight years after it was authorized, and two years before federal funding authorization is set to expire,

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners, the county Tourism Department‘s interim director, Brian Kellenberger, got authorization to schedule public workshops on the proposal. Additionally, commissioners agreed to write a letter to the U.S. Congress asking that federal funding continue to be available for the program beyond its currently scheduled 2024 expiration.

No dates had been set for the workshops as of Friday, but Kellenberger said they will be held sometime in early July.

 Commissioners were a bit reluctant Tuesday to commit any county funding to the project just yet, voting to make a $2.2 million outlay for preconstruction, engineering and design of the nourishment project contingent on getting sufficient buy-in from the private property owners who hold the vast majority of the county’s beachfront.

In a Thursday interview, Kellenberger explained that the aim of the beach nourishment program would be to protect upland structures from hurricane damage.

Those structures, which include short-term vacation rental housing, restaurants and other beachfront businesses, are critical to the county in that they generate a massive percentage of the revenue the county government receives from property taxes, sales taxes, the 5% “bed tax” charged to visitors staying in accommodations in the southern end of the county and other levies, Kellenberger said.

The county claims just a couple of miles of beachfront for public use, and the state parks along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico account for another five or so miles of the county’s 26 miles of beaches.

Hurricane Storm Damage Reduction effort

As such, the private beachfront property owners, who would have to grant construction easements to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — which would oversee the beach sand replenishment — hold the key as to whether pursuing beach nourishment would be worthwhile. The construction easements would not be permanent, according to Kellenberger.

Nonetheless, the county’s record on that score is not encouraging. The local Hurricane Storm Damage Reduction effort began in the early 2000s, and was authorized by the federal government in 2014. The county committed some funds to the project at that time, but “unfortunately … did not get very good participation” in terms of acquiring easements needed for the project, Kellenberger said.

Eventually, Kellenberger said, the county tabled any further pursuit of the program until the recent move to revive it.

Overlaying the beach nourishment proposal is the county’s ongoing legal action with beachfront property owners over the issue of “customary use.” Customary use, which the county favors, is the view that beaches have been available to the public as a matter of practice in the state over a long period of time, and should be so today.

According to Kellenberger, the issue was very much in the forefront of the county’s previous effort to get a beach nourishment program started. That earlier effort had progressed to the point that the Corps of Engineers was ready to get preliminary work underway, the county had identified a “borrow site” for the needed sand, and plans had been drawn up. The effort stalled, though, amid beachfront property owners’ concerns that “it was a land grab” on the county’s part, Kellenberger said.

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Kellenberger said he is expecting that same dynamic to emerge in connection with the renewed effort to shore up the county’s beachfront.

“I expect them to immediately ramp up their campaign” against the proposed project, he said.

Additionally, Kellenberger said, he expects a second issue that hobbled the prior effort to put a beach nourishment operation in place — the compatibility of sand from borrow pits in the Gulf of Mexico with the sugar-white sands of the county’s coastline — to resurface.

Sand ‘is white, white, white’

There was a hint of that at Tuesday’s commission meeting, when Lisa Boushy, a Santa Rosa Beach resident and former member of the Walton County Tourist Development Council, told commissioners the sand for which the county’s beaches are prized “is pure quartz, it is without shells for the most part … and it is white, white, white, and you can’t duplicate that in a borrow pit out in the Gulf.”

Kellenberger conceded Thursday that the sand in the county’s previously identified borrow pit isn’t an exact match for the existing beach sand, but the differences are negligible. While the grains of sand on the beaches measure .008-inch, he said, the grains from the borrow pit measure .009-inch. Also according to Kellenberger, the sand from the borrow pit, located 3.5 miles out in the gulf, matches the tolerances of the Munsell Color Chart, a widely used method of quantifying soil colors.

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