Friday, January 30, 2009

Judge still has not issued ruling on Reach 8 beach petition

Daily News Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2009

Nearly four months after an environmental impact hearing on the proposed Reach 8 beach fill, there's still no word from an administrative law judge on whether the project should go forward. On Oct. 2, Judge R.E. Meale concluded a Florida Department of Environmental Protection hearing to consider a petition filed by environmentalists seeking to block reconstruction of the eroded South End beach.
Meale said at the time that he would recommend by Dec. 3 whether a DEP environmental permit should be awarded. But Meale's secretary said Thursday he is still working on his recommended order. Meale did not return a message seeking comment for this story.
"It's not uncommon for a judge to take longer than what he or she says," said Reginald Bouthillier, a lawyer with Greenberg Traurig, the firm representing the town against the petitioners. "We don't know what his docket is, we don't know all the other pressures and priorities he's faced with."

If the judge recommends the issuance of the permit, DEP Secretary Michael W. Sole would then have 45 days to issue a final order, DEP Press Secretary Doug Tobin said. If the judge recommends denial, the DEP has 90 days to issue a final order, he said.
Jane West, a lawyer representing the petitioners, declined to comment.

The Snook Foundation, Surfrider Foundation and three individuals filed their petition in March after the DEP sent out a notice of intent to award an environmental permit for the beach fill project. The town says the beach and dunes are vital to protection of oceanfront property from storm damage. The petitioners say the beach is stable, and that the dredge and fill will harm nearshore rock reef.

The town proposes to dredge 724,000 cubic yards of sand to restore dunes and reconstruct shoreline at Reach 8, which is between the Ambassador II condominium, 2780 S. Ocean Blvd., and the southern town limit, excluding the Lake Worth Municipal Beach.

The town is required to obtain environmental permits from the DEP and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before it can rebuild the beach, which it says has not recovered from erosion caused by the hurricanes of 2004 and '05. The Army Corps has notified the town that it will grant the town the federal permit for Reach 8 if the DEP does the same, Town Manager Peter Elwell said. Leah Oberlin, Reach 8 project administrator for the U.S. Army Corps, could not be reached to comment for this story.

But time is running out on any chance the town has to rebuild Reach 8 this season, Public Works Director Paul Brazil told the Shore Protection Board earlier this week. Beach reconstruction projects aren't permitted to take place during sea turtle nesting season, which is March 1 through Oct. 31.

To move forward in time to mobilize the dredge and other equipment, and complete the work before turtle nesting season begins, the town would need permit approval from the DEP within two weeks, Brazil told the shore board Tuesday. Even if that were to happen, any further legal challenge from the petitioners also would derail any hopes of the project getting done this season, he said. West told the town last year that the petitioners would exhaust every legal avenue to block the project on both the state and federal levels.

The town also faces the question of how to finance the estimated $18 million project, which includes $8 million for beach reconstruction and $8 million to build an artificial reef required by the DEP to compensate for marine habitat that would be covered by sand. Options include a bank loan and a bond issue, Brazil said.