BY JACK SHORT - A group of concerned Boca Grande property owners is trying to drum up awareness of their ongoing efforts to refurbish the crumbling seawall on Belcher Road. They are joined by former Congressman Andy Ireland, members of the Barrier Island Parks Society and the Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association, and they hope to convince representatives in Tallahassee to secure enough funds to cover the cost of repairs to the wall, an estimated $500,000, as soon as possible.
Built by Lee County in the 1940s, the seawall structure originally comprised a concrete wall and a series of “tiebacks” by which the wall is anchored into the ground from the landward side. According to documents provided by the property owners’ group, it was rebuilt once in the 1960s before the state of Florida assumed responsibility for it in the late 1980s. Due to inadequate maintenance by the state, the property owners’ group says, the wall had dilapidated so much by 2004 that “citizens were concerned it might fail.”
The Boca Bay Pass Club membership then funded a $315,000 refurbishment that included a revetment, or a rock facing to shore it up from the seaward side, the replenishment of sand on the landward side so that it was level with the concrete cap at the top of the wall, and the repair of the parts of that cap that had broken away, said John Kissinger, a homeowner and member of the board at Boca Bay. “Fortunately, that was done the year before (hurricane) Charlie came,” said Tom Midyette, another Boca Bay board member and homeowner.
Kissinger said that in the late 1990s an extensive plan was developed to keep the land in place. It included a beach renourishment, two offshore breakwaters and two T-groins. That is key, he said, because the engineers who designed the temporary fix that was put in place in 2004 did so with the idea that those groins and breakwaters would follow, but funds for those never materialized.
“The anticipation was that there was going to be greater support out in the water, so that the pressure on the seawall wouldn’t be as great as it became,” Kissinger said. “It was never intended to stand on its own.”
A survey of the structure by engineering firm Humiston and Moore, commissioned by the state of Florida and the GICIA, details the extent of the damage to the seawall: the sand has been sculpted out from the landward side; the concrete cap is damaged or missing in places; parts of the revetment have settled away from the wall, or in some places been thrown up on the landward side; and the tiebacks are in poor condition – some have rusted away completely.
Chad Lach, manager of Gasparilla Island State Parks, said that the state has covered the cost of design and permitting, approximately $29,000, and the county plans to refurbish the surrounding beaches by the fall. But there is no concrete time line for repairs to the wall.
The renourishment will buy them some time, according to Jim Ardrey, vice president of the Boca Bay board, but major repairs are still needed as soon as possible.
“The state has been trying to help us,” Kissinger said. “But there’s a real question mark as to if and when serious monies would be available for the construction that has to take place.”
“It’s kind of a unique situation because it is state property but apparently it is controlled by state parks, which is a division of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and so we’re kind of caught up in what I call a bureaucratic morass,” Midyette said.
They expect to have the money to fix the seawall, according to Kissinger, but they’re not sure when, and hurricane season is approaching.
The construction will cost approximately $500,000, according to the report by Humiston and Moore. Lach corroborated: “That’s a good estimate to go by.”That includes two phases – a $150,000 short-term measure and a $350,000 long-term measure. The former would raise the concrete cap, reset present stones and fill in sand behind the wall. The latter would place massive “armor stones,” brought in by barges and placed on top of existing stones on the seaward side.
There is some question about when the repairs could be done, however, because of sea turtle nesting season. According to Marc Damon of Humiston and Moore, it may be that some or all of the six- to 10-month project can be done during nesting season if the DEP determines it won’t interfere sufficiently with any sea turtles’ nesting, but they haven’t yet filed an application for those permits with the DEP, so there is no way to know at present.
The property owners’ group said that even with the repairs, both short- and long-term, as well as the Lee County’s beach renourishment slated to begin by June, the wall will have to be periodically maintained unless structures like offshore breakwaters or T-groins are employed.
Lee County officials considered implementing T-groins and breakwaters in 2005 prior to the start of the $12 million renourishment completed in April 2007, said Steve Boutelle of Natural Resources. But he said the cost benefit analysis of their construction was not based on the property values at all.
“... we looked at the cost of those (structures) compared to what their effect was expected to be on the sand that was being held in place,” he said. “They would have cost as much as an 80 percent reconstruction of the total project, and with the limited influence in terms of the area of shoreline they were going to benefit, we just felt we would be better off staying with the sand-fill approach.”
The property owners’ group felt the assessment should have taken into account property at risk of damage or destruction, should the wall fail.
“Technically,” Midyette said, “the Boca Bay Pass Club would not be considered because it is separated from the Gulf by this strip of state owned land.”
To that end, they have contacted Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto and Rep. Ray Rodriguez among others, and hope to identify the “right places in state government and even federal government if necessary to focus in with us” on those breakwaters and groins, Kissinger said.
They will continue to beat the drums.View More images >>
“We see this as a major issue for Boca Grande,” Kissinger said.
He added that it would be in the state’s interest as well. “I would think there would be some potential liability if the wall collapses and property is damaged.” He estimates the value of the property subject to loss if the wall fails at $20 million, and added that the $2 million annual revenue they estimate Gasparilla Island gets “though the state park and because of the way the island presently looks” might be affected as well.
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