Erosion on Cape San Blas creates precarious situation for homeowners

It costs each homeowner at Sunrise Sunset between $200 and $1,000 each time the group of 10 townhomes has to replenish their sand, but without it, the property would be at risk of crumbling.

The houses are the closest to the water in their Cape San Blas neighborhood north of the rocks, and although they have a seawall slowing the damaging effects of the Gulf of Mexico, the property’s manager Michelle Massingill said they have to add sand after every sizable storm.

“We do it probably every storm, and it runs us anywhere between $2,000 and $10,000 to put back just the sand that a storm washes away,” she said.

“It’s not even the hurricanes that are affecting us so badly. It’s these winter storms that come in with gale force winds, when the waves pick up, and we end up with 10-foot seas in there and they just dig out the dunes.“

Massingill said that the sunrise sunset owners are at great risk of losing their homes if the pace of beach erosion does not change soon, but she does not think that they are the most endangered.

Their sea wall, which they are permitted by the Department of Environmental Protection to expand by an additional 35 feet on each side, offers them a degree of protection. 

But for the complex’s immediate neighbors, Massingill said, the erosion has become an emergency.

“At the blue house next door to us, it’s really washing out,” she continued. “I suspect if we get any type of a tropical depression, that house will go in.”

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Addressing the erosion is complex, slow

At their June 28 meeting, the Gulf County Board of County Commissioners unanimously voted to apply for state funding to put sand on the most precarious beaches in the county.  

Cape San Blas homes make up about 45 percent of the county’s $2.5 billion tax roll, according to a preliminary report from the Gulf County Property Apprasier.

The county’s move comes after months of complaints pointing out the precarious situation developing in Cape San Blas. 

About a week earlier, at the Sought Gulf County Coastal Communities Association meeting, State Representative Jason Shoaf agreed to help Gulf County search for state funding options to help provide emergency assistance to those most affected.

Cape San Blas’s beaches are the fastest eroding in the state, according to Dr. Patricia Hardman, a managing partner at Gulf 2 Bay Construction and the president of the CCA. 

The swift pace of erosion has a lot to do with the direction of the tides, which sweep the sand from the cape’s beaches into the St. Joseph Bay, where it tends to collect.

But according to Hardman, Massingill and other Cape residents, the pace of the beach erosion, which has always been a fact of Cape San Blas life, has picked up significantly in recent years.

There is no confirmed reason why, though many suspect that an increased number of severe storms, especially winter storms, has contributed.

“There’s always been erosion, but I’ve never seen the erosion like this before,” Massingill said. “I’ve never seen this amount of sand getting pulled out, but I’ve also never seen this number of winter storms coming in.”

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Hardman said at one point federal agencies used to help with beach renourishment in the area following large storms, laying down small amounts of sand from time to time to keep the problem from getting out of hand.

But those efforts were halted when a judge ruled that the Cape, which falls under the Coastal Barrier Resource Act, is ineligible for federal funding to help.

“And in the middle of the early 2000s, a hurricane came in, they did the same thing, and one person in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife said ‘no, you can’t use federal money on the Cape because it’s CBRA.’ She blocked FEMA from using federal money on the cape, and from that point onwards it’s gotten to the point where it has to be totally and completely eroded before you can get the powers that be to really get antsy about doing anything.”

“There’s no one interested in a maintenance program out there. We’re losing houses. We’re losing properties. Since FEMA quit putting sand out there, it’s always been that emergency type of situation.”

The CBRA is designed to “promote the conservation of storm-prone and dynamic coastal barriers.” It would take an act of both houses of congress to undo the distinction on the cape’s beaches, which Gulf County officials do not believe is likely anytime soon.

Coastal barrier structures still a year away

Over the years, engineers like Hardman have workshopped several alternative solutions, but for one reason or another, they were ruled out.

But Hardman said a more recent approach – a breakwater project shepherded by State Rep. Shoaf – has the potential to slow erosion enough to allow the county to catch up.

“It’s supposed to slow (the erosion) down by at least 50 percent. That’s what they’re projecting,” she said. “It’s a good investment if it in fact does that for us.”

“It doesn’t make sense to just keep dumping sand. You’ve got to have something to break water. You’ve got to have something to divert.”

The project, which consists of the construction of several barrier reefs, aims to redirect some of the currents that contribute to the erosion of the cape’s beaches, slowing the overall process.

The county received almost all of the required funding for the project when Gov. Ron DeSantis awarded them $15.5 million in March.

“We have received the grant agreement from DEP…This is for $15.5 million for the beach restoration, the coastal structures project. And they are funding that at 100 percent,” said County Engineer Clayton Smallwood shortly after the money was awarded. “We originally thought we would only get about 38 percent, but the state is funding that at 100 percent.”

The county still has to secure about 30 percent of the project’s overall funding, but that is not their largest concern in getting the project completed.

The permitting process for the project is taking longer than expected, and at the pace things are currently going, Smallwood said it is unlikely construction on the breakwaters will begin before next fall.

But for cape residents, getting the structures built as soon as possible is of vital importance.

“Getting the barrier reef out there is the only thing I know of that’s going to slow down the erosion,” Hardman said.

“It’s a war against nature, and we are losing…Sooner or later, no matter what we do, it’s the fastest eroding beach in Florida, and there’s some suggestion it might be the fastest in the United States.”


Meet the Editor

David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

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