News

Ryan Mills | Naples Daily News

An overhaul of how Florida manages its beaches would change the state's system for distributing money to coastal communities, encourage long-term planning and increase the minimum commitment to rebuild shores to $50 million each year.

The plan, proposed by state Sen. Jack Latvala, will be released with more details Friday. Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, has scheduled a visit to Naples on Friday to announce the proposal.

Latvala’s proposed legislation comes after the Naples Daily News published a four-day “Shrinking Shores” series outlining failures in Florida's beach management program.

The series showed that even though beaches bring in billions annually for the state in tourism-related sales taxes, Florida’s lawmakers and governors typically return less than 1 percent to the shoreline every year. Some years they failed to deliver the $30 million promised in a 1998 state law, and they eventually changed the law to greatly reduce the beach obligation.

Latvala is proposing legislation that would:

» Dedicate a minimum of $50 million annually for statewide beach nourishment and inlet management projects, up $20 million from previous legislation in 1998.

» Revisit the criteria the Florida Department of Environmental Protection uses to rank beach and inlet projects proposed by local governments. In particular, the bill would better reflect the economic benefits beaches have on tourism and storm damage reduction.

» Refocus the state’s attention on the management of sand around Florida’s inlets, which are primary drivers of erosion, particularly on the east coast.

» Provide the framework to make a three-year work plan for beach and inlet projects part of DEP’s comprehensive planning responsibilities.

Latvala is scheduled to appear at 4 p.m. at Lowdermilk Park, where he will be joined by several state and local leaders, including state Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, who is expected to sponsor companion legislation in the House.

Latvala, in a September speech to the Florida Shore & Beach Preservation Association’s annual conference, said the state's beaches were one of his top two priorities for the 2017 legislative session, which will start Tuesday.

“I think it’s time to look at the way our beach renourishment program is implemented, from everything from the funding side to the permitting side,” Latvala said then.

“There is not a doubt in my mind the impact of beaches on our Florida economy,” he said. “They kind of define Florida. I mean, who goes to Texas to go to the beach?”

Debbie Flack, president of the shore and beach advocacy group, said her organization “is delighted the senator has followed through on his commitment he made.

“Obviously, he made an unprecedented step in the right direction,” Flack said of Latvala.

The $50 million Latvala is proposing as a minimum funding level for beaches is the same amount Gov. Rick Scott requested for beaches in January as part of his annual state budget proposal. It would fund more than two-thirds of the $73 million that local governments have requested from the state to renourish their beaches and manage inlets in fiscal 2017-18.

That $50 million is double the $25 million Scott proposed for beaches in each of the previous four years.

Gary McAlpin, Collier County’s coastal zone manager, said $50 million for beaches every year would help make the state a more reliable funding partner and “would do nothing but help Collier County and the rest of the beach communities across the state.”

“In the past, you never knew how much money was going to be appropriated or how your project was going to be ranked,” McAlpin said. “A more dedicated source of funding we can count on will certainly help us in the planning process.”

During his September speech in Naples, Latvala said Florida should model its beach funding plan on its road funding planning process. Florida for decades has used a five-year plan for road projects, which start with local metropolitan planning organizations and work their way to a regional Department of Transportation district.

Beaches, on the other hand, are funded on year-by-year basis.

Latvala proposes to establish a framework for a three-year work plan.

Referring to the state’s road plan, Latvala said in September: “You get things on the five-year plan, they move and they get done; and everybody understands they’re going to get done.”

Hurricane Matthew showed the importance of maintaining the state’s beaches; renourished beaches held up in the storm and protected upland structures, while unrenourished beaches proved vulnerable, Flack said.

Latvala and Peters’ legislation is “an incredible opportunity for Florida’s beaches,” Flack said.

“I know this is a very difficult challenge with this legislation and all the other needs of the state right now,” Flack said. “We have lost ground since 1998. I thought 1998 was a milestone, but I think this might be more important because we’re losing our beaches.”