Coastal armoring such as the construction of sea walls pose significant threats to sea turtles and nesting beaches. Consequently, Sea Turtle Conservancy has been monitoring coastal armoring laws and policies for many years. Since over half of Florida’s beaches are eroding and Florida’s beaches host over 90% of all sea turtle nesting in the continental U.S. STC’s sea wall policy work is concentrated in Florida. A number of states with sea turtle nesting such as North Carolina and South Carolina effectively prohibit the construction of sea walls on or adjacent to the beach. By contrast, Florida authorizes the permitting and construction of sea walls when properties are threatened by coastal erosion and storms. It is unusual for Florida regulators to deny a permit to construct a sea wall. Coastal armoring laws in Florida are complicated and intersect other policy areas such as individual property rights, public beach access and the federal Endangered Species Act. STC works to ensure that Florida’s coastal armoring laws are rigorously enforced and not weakened.
The most common form of coastal armoring in Florida is the vertical seawall constructed of wood, steel or concrete. Florida’s coastal sea wall laws were initially written in 1986. Over the ensuing years there have been limited changes addressing such situations as local government authority to authorize sea wall construction during a declared state of emergency, implementation of a new policy to allow for the restricted use of giant ¼ mile-long stacked sand bag sea walls known as geotubes, and a potentially harmful new policy allowing the armoring of vacant properties. STC worked closely with agency staff and legislators to ensure these new policies were as protective of sea turtle nesting habitat as possible.
Florida’s coastal armoring laws are contained in Section 161.085, Florida Statutes and in Chapter 62B-33, Florida Administrative Code. Briefly stated, sea walls adjacent to the beach are allowed if upland structures are “vulnerable” to coastal storms and erosion and “eligible”. Vulnerability is based on susceptibility to a 15-year return interval storm. Eligibility primarily means the structure was built “slab on grade” prior to the implementation of the state’s 1986 Coastal Construction Control Line Regulatory Program. This regulatory program now requires beachfront structures to be pile supported. But, as with most coastal laws there are variances and loopholes to the strict adherence to these requirements. For example, even new coastal construction which does not meet the eligibility requirement for a sea wall permit routinely gets variances to allow sea wall construction.
As the two case studies and resource links below indicate, STC has long been actively involved in many coastal armoring issues. Our goal has always been to ensure the protection of sea turtles by balancing the needs of property owners to protect their property with the need to protect Florida’s nesting beach habitat.
Case Study A: As reported in our Summer 1999 issue of the Velador, (link) the 1999 Florida Legislature passed legislation that opened the door to significantly more coastal armoring along the Florida coastline. In a little-noticed and last-minute amendment attached to a “must pass” piece of legislation, Florida law was amended to allow sea walls on undeveloped private coastal property. Previously sea walls were only allowed to protect major structures threatened by erosion. The 1999 law, referred to as the “gap closure law,” allows sea walls to be built on private property when that property is surrounded on both sides by existing sea walls and the gap to be armored is less than 250 feet. There is no requirement that a habitable structure needs to be protected or even that the vacant property is susceptible to erosion. Prior to the gap closure law, coastal armoring was only allowed to protect a major habitable structure threatened by erosion. This new law was a special interest law designed to accommodate a very small number of property owners. However, it could have much larger implications. Of particular concern is that on a heavily armored beach sea turtle nesting tends to concentrate in gaps or stretches of unarmored beach, often referred to as a “pocket nesting beach.” The gap closure law facilitates the armoring of these important pocket beaches. STC continues to monitor the application of the gap closure law and the associated impacts to “pocket beaches”.
Case Study B: Breakwaters are large rock or concrete structures constructed just off shore of the beach and are designed to block waves and dissipate wave energy before waves reach the beach. They are not governed by Florida’s coastal armoring laws since they are constructed in the marine environment and not on the beach. Nonetheless, STC considers breakwaters to be a form of coastal armoring. For several years beginning in 2006 Palm Beach County in southeast Florida sought federal and state permits to construct large experimental breakwaters off of Singer Island, a two mile-long barrier island, to slow the rate of beach erosion. The project consisted of placing 11 large piles of boulders about 250 feet offshore and parallel to Singer Island. Each pile of rock would be about the size of a football field and extend from the sea floor to about 3 feet above the ocean surface. Singer Island is home to one of the highest density nesting beaches in the United States. STC strongly opposed this project because it would alter the nesting beach, force nesting females and tens of thousands of hatchlings to navigate between the rock breakwaters, increase erosion on surrounding beaches and set a harmful precedent for the large scale re-engineering of the shoreline. STC testified at local county commission meetings, commented on numerous state and federal permits, and partnered with the Florida Surfrider Foundation to draft legal documents and raise public awareness about the harmful environmental impacts of the project (see resources below). In the face of growing opposition and mounting environmental concerns by regulatory agencies, in June 2011, the Palm Beach County Commission abandoned permitting for the Singer Island Breakwaters and other proposed breakwater projects.
Tampa Bay Times, 2013: “Feds warn Florida DEP about too many seawalls on turtle nesting beach”
Singer Island Breakwaters
Velador Article, 2006 : “Florida Sea turtle Nesting Beaches threatened by Runaway Seawall Construction”
ABA 2006 Journal article, 2006: “Up Against a Seawall”