Dune decisions: An opinion

Fernandina Beach City Commissioner Chip Ross

Submitted by Chip Ross
Fernandina Beach City Commissioner
August 31, 2020

Recently grants for dune walkovers have come before the City Commission.  With no dune plan in place, the Commission struggles with which walkovers to fund.  Since adequate sand dunes can prevent substantial property damage from storm surge flooding, it is critical to grow dunes at our beaches. An affordable plan to protect the dunes needs to be developed. Additionally, a community supported plan enhances the probability of obtaining grants. 

Currently the City of Fernandina Beach maintains forty-eight beach accesses on approximately four miles of beach. To assess them, recently the City hired an independent professional engineer. The engineer found five of the walkovers needed to be removed immediately due to safety concerns and twenty-seven of them are in need of replacement in the near future. With a limited budget, no money has been budgeted to replace any walkovers.  Estimates for walkover replacements are approximately over $7.2 million and $2.5 million for walkovers where no walkover exists. 

Overwhelming support exists for keeping all 48 beach access points. Ideally the City would build or replace a walkover at every beach access. Walkovers with ramps provide stable footing allowing easy access for small children, beach wagons, and the elderly without impeding necessary dune growth.  

Dune walkovers are expensive and constructing them gets complicated.  As someone suggested on Facebook, it’s not just someone going out there with a hammer and nails putting up some lumber. Engineering drawings must accompany an application for a permit from the Florida Department of the Environment to begin the job. Once the walkover is approved for construction, a licensed contractor must be hired, and construction can only take place outside of turtle season.  With our limited budget and the need to protect our dunes, some type of alternative needs to be considered.  

Some coastal communities who already have healthy dunes are embracing the “goat path” alternative with roped-off paths that guide the foot traffic in directions that least damage the dunes.  Others have bought mats with roped-off or snow-fenced paths.  Some have simply attempted to protect the critical “foredune”, or frontal dune with a partial walkover. Signage of where and where not to walk is critical.  The best option maybe a combination of these and other approaches, which may change over time. 

Having little to no funding for dune walkovers, and beachgoers wanting to keep all access points open and accessible, as a Commissioner, I would like to have input from the community in the formulation of the City’s Dune Plan.  Do we want to borrow money for more traditional walkovers?  Can we accept alternatives?  How do we determine which walkovers, if any, get replaced and when? To meet a need for community input, could the Planning Board form a subcommittee to have public hearings and workshops to engage the community in coming to a community consensus as to what the City can afford and accomplish with maintaining beach accesses and growing our protective dune system?  

I look forward to the community’s thoughts, suggestions, and comments. I can be reached at [email protected] or 410-394-0220. 

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